Voice in Memoir Writing by Kate Farrell

Kate Farrell, author of Story Power, has written a new blog post on the importance of voice while writing a memoir.

As a storyteller from the oral tradition, I understand the importance of voice—not only to engage the reader, but to establish the role of the narrator. The narrator or “storyteller” is an implicit character in either a spoken or written story, invisible yet ever-present.

The role of the narrator is omniscient, knows it all, interprets the characters, emotions, meaning, and frames the story. The traditional storyteller is like the black robed musician in the symphony orchestra, invisible, the instrument that allows the music to fill the concert hall with its drama, emotion, power. So, the storyteller becomes invisible and allows the story to take over, so that listeners can become lost in the story, engage, and find their own meaning.

The following passage is an excerpt from my draft memoir, a work-in-progress.

Can you identify the narrator? Who is she? And what is the quality of her voice? Define the emotional tone, and any other characteristics of the voice of the teller.

“Rio Grande Valley, Summer 1947”

I just knew there was a man staring at me through the diamond-shaped window in the front door. I scrunched down in the rough upholstery of the living room sofa and dared to look, but not to sleep. We were trading places, my older brother and I, sleeping off and on between the bedroom’s twin bed and the sofa.

We’d been told we were too old to sleep in the same bed the way we’d been doing, sharing the cot in the motel cabin and before. After all, I was almost six by now and he was eight, but I’d never slept alone before. That diamond window in the white front door was just a high peephole, but I figured anyone could walk up the two cement steps to the outside landing and look in.

Too afraid to sleep, I tiptoed into my parents’ bedroom where they slumbered in a double bed. I hesitated to wake them, aware of the scolding I’d get. I hovered, watching them, and stared out the two front windows that faced the street on a dim, moonlit night. No one was out there, but as I watched I saw the most amazing sight.

A parade of wild animals came prowling down the street covered in a silver light. I could see right through them and stood frozen to the spot, wondering, Is this what happens in the middle of the night? Should I wake my parents so they can see? I decided it was better not to, and kept a silent witness to a march of filmy elephants lumbering past our house, horses, zebras, lions, and tigers. Encouraged by my secret, magical world, I returned to the scratchy living room sofa and slept.

We were living in our very first house, rented in the Southern border town of Weslaco, Texas. It was what we called down South a “cracker box house,” because it was square like a box and flimsy like cardboard. There were just four rooms: a living room and bedroom in the front, and another bedroom and kitchen in the back, with the bathroom right off the kitchen. Two cement steps led to a concrete slab at the front door, no porches front or back.

That house came right up from the ground like someone just set in there in a bermudagrass yard. But we had to share the house with the landlord when he came to town from his citrus farm; that’s why we kids were allowed to sleep in just one twin bed—the other bed was his. Outside, there was a mysterious dirt alley along the kitchen side of the house that I imagined went all the way to the Rio Grande.

One day I ran away when no one was looking, sneaking out the back screen door. My parents were shouting at one another, my baby brother wailing in his playpen. They wouldn’t miss me. Barefoot, I kicked up the caliche dirt in the alley, dry, white dirt. I hot-stepped on the two, worn ruts made by cars—their garages spaced out here and there along the weedy, clay track. I’d often run away when my parents began to yell. Confused and fearful, I’d slink out, until they wore themselves out. I was not aware that their conflicts would never be resolved, that secrets and hidden shame would keep us all on the run for years. But I think I guessed it, deep down.

That hot, summer afternoon, I wandered a long ways down the alley, crossing other streets, peering in the overgrown brush, walking through the scrubby huisache and mesquite trees. I poked around an abandoned outhouse. Curious to see inside, I climbed up on the high bench, its weathered, cracked wood once painted blue, and peered down the hole. I could see weeds and gravel, wondered if there were rattlesnakes down in the cool shade. I hopped off, staining my shorts with grime. Further along, I saw a white cottage set away from the alley and scrambled through the brush to pay a visit.


Story Power by Kate Farrell

Story power

Secrets to Creating, Crafting, and Telling Memorable Stories

Stories are everywhere. The art of storytelling has been around as long as humans have. And in today’s noisy, techy, automated world, storytelling is not only prevalent—it’s vital. Whether you’re interested in enlivening conversation, building your business brand, sharing family wisdom, or performing on stage, Story Power will show you how to make use of a good story.