Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

All in Favor, Say "I"

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

All in Favor, Say "I"

Article excerpt

How Memoirists Use Style to Shape Substance

OFTEN WHEN WE PROFESS TO LIKING OR DISLIKing a piece of writing, we're reacting to style. Of course, we all have preferences for certain subjects-the travel narrative, the domestic drama, the plot-driven mystery, etc.- but even here we distinguish good from bad based on our evaluations of an author's diction, syntax, punctuation, use of tropes, and figurative language. And while there's no wrong or right style-some prefer Ernest Hemingway, and some William Faulkner-there are times when Hemingway is at his best, Faulkner at his. And these are times when style complements the piece's larger aims. Stylistic choices are correct when they identify and magnify the piece's central concerns.

As a beginning writer I had a typically naive conception of style as something added to a finished piece, as if the content is water and style the vase you pour it in-a vase that shapes and decorates but doesn't alter the chemistry of the water. But this understanding flattens style into its least dynamic, least magical aspect. It's the equivalent of choosing a font before hitting the print key. My understanding of style has evolved as I've read more and written more and thought harder about why I love the books I love. Now I see style as integral to the composition, arriving not as an afterthought but active all along in the crucible, changing the chemistry of the water. And as a reader I've grown to see how an analysis of style can serve as a diagnostic tool to pinpoint the author's intentions and lead to a greater understanding of the work.

In a memoir, the author's intentions are to revisit an event that begs to be better understood and, through the pressure brought to bear by this revisiting, yield enough insight that the event can be incorporated into self-narrative. In order to do this, the memoirist must create two "characters"-the "I" of the now-the writer looking back, shaping, consideringand the "I" of the then, who lived through the past events. The "I" of the now returns to these events armed with a question, often one as simple as, "How did this episode shape the person I've become?" This therefore becomes "the central question" according to novelist and essayist Eileen Pollack. The central question and the desire to satisfy it lie at the heart of memoir; this stance may be its most characteristic aspect, in fact. One can't imagine other kinds of nonfiction writers-the self-help author, the journalist, the academic-focusing so much on the writer's initial ignorance and vulnerability. Those other nonfiction writers can follow the injunction to "Write what you know," instead of Eudora Welty's countering advice, "Write about what you don't know about what you know." The memoirist's effort to fill in the gaps often forms a kind of ghost narrative that haunts the more apprehensible essay topic, the "I" of the now and the "I" of the then in a tense tango of conjecture and correction.

To illustrate how the memoirist is a pilgrim in search of understanding, Pollack traces the central question of the George Orwell essay "Shooting an Elephant." Orwell details an episode that occurred when he was stationed as an officer in colonial India. An elephant, undergoing an episode of musth (a hormonal surge characterized by aggressive behavior), breaks loose and tears through several villages, even killing a man he comes across on the road. As the officer in charge, Orwell is expected to stop the rampage by shooting the elephant. Fair enough, perhaps, but by the time he finds the elephant, the musth is wearing off and the elephant is no longer dangerous. Orwell would rather wait, do nothing, yet he bows to the pressure of the crowd, locals who crave the spectacle of a kill followed by the treat of elephant meat. Pollack notes that Orwell's central question progresses and deepens as he lingers with his younger self. While at first "Orwell feels compelled to figure out why he shot an elephant that didn't need to be shot," by the end "he also partially answers," says Pollack, "the more universal question in which his own conundrum nests: Why do imperialists act in ways that are not in their own best interests or the best interests of the people they hope to rule? …

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