#AWP17 Conference Report — Sophia Kouidou-Giles on “Juggling from Within: The Art of Voice”

awp#AWP17 Panel R290: Juggling from Within: The Art of Voice

Description: Nonfiction characterization is complex as we decide which version of our shifting selves to call up from memory. Our child narrator is years away, cognitively and physically, from our teenage narrators, who, if we connect with our memories realistically, change with each breath and often not for the better. How do we disconnect from our present narrative selves who like to interfere with experience and reflection? Join us for a discussion on how to use voice to artfully narrate personal stories

Panelists: Helen PeppeSue William SilvermanAlice CohenSuzanne Strempek SheaMelanie Brooks

Conference Report

A panel of teachers and published authors shared and illustrated their perspectives about the concept of voice reading, using excerpts mostly selected from their own memoirs. Helen Peppe (author of Pigs Can’t Swim: A Memoir) moderated the panel. She spoke about multiple age- and time-defined narrator voices, representing different stages of awareness and the present voice of the author, who knows the end of a story. She suggests that each voice is much like a character that needs to be established and tended. Use of the present tense livens up experiences with immediacy while past tense serves to present perceptions of more innocent times or to distance from moments of trauma. Use of quotes from diaries and letters helps fix age and time, without being impacted by memory distortions. Another way to indicate age is by describing behaviors or feelings prevalent during specific ages (e.g., emphasis on a child’s center-of-the-universe interpretation of adult behaviors or comments).

Sue Silverman (author of Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You; Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction; and The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew) identified voice in terms of chronological age of the narrator in the story, as it varied in her three books: child, teen, and young adult. She elaborated that the voice of experience explains, reflects, and tracks complex shifts in maturity and spirituality. The voice of innocence stays on the surface, tells events, and describes confused, raw emotion.

Alice Cohen (author of What I Thought I Knew and The Year My Mother Came Back), through use of dialogue and wit, emphasized the use of present and past tense in flashbacks to tell stories of troubling times and set the tone for a whole memoir. In her first book she aimed to place the reader in a situation filled with emergency and confusion, using present tense. In her second book she used both present and past tenses, leaping from the present to the past in imaginary interactions with her deceased mother.

Melanie Brooks (author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma) spoke about the psychological journey of memoir authors as it was revealed to her through her interviews with 18 authors for her recently released book. She subsequently authored a memoir that is near publication and commented that her early drafts maintained an initial “pretend shine” tone, a detached voice that told a pretty story. Her final story deepened as she accumulated the experience of her interviewees and used it to assist her to experience the pain and travel the psychological journey of her story.

Finally, Suzanne Strempek Shea (author of Songs from a Lead-Lined Room; Shelf Life; Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road in Search of Christian Faith; and This Is Paradise) pointed out that not all stories are about trauma and made the case that each book calls for a unique voice, based on the author DNA and the aspect of self the author chooses to present in his or her story. She recommended starting out mimicking favorite authors, as this practice assists aspiring writers to find their own unique voice. In an overview of her books in the order listed above, she characterized her narrator voices as ranging from intimate (a diary she kept each day following cancer treatments) to progressively more journalistic in style (tracking working at a bookstore, a year of exploring various churches, a story of how a hospital came to be in Malawi.)

The voices of the narrator are important for the reader to get to know in order to decipher points of empathy and understand the intention of the story. A generous panel, personable and witty, offered us illustrations to stimulate a more conscious choice of voice in memoir writing, along with a selection of well-written memoirs to peruse.


Sophia Kouidou-Giles, born in Thessaloniki, Greece, resides in the USA. She has published her work in “Persimmon Tree,” “Voices,” “Assay,” and in an anthology entitled The Time Collection. “Transitions and Passages” is her poetry collection published in a chapbook. She is currently working on a memoir.

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