In most cases, yes — memoir does tend to be written from the first person point of view. This is the POV of “I”. “I climbed onto the motorcycle. I put my arms around Joe’s waist. I gulped as the bike lurched forward.” First person is all about the person telling the story – the narrator.
Here’s an example of a memoir written in first person. This is the opening of The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White by Shrilee Taylor Haizlip:
Sometimes I look at people and wonder if they are related to me. I do this in public places and private spaces. There I am, in airport terminals, and train stations, on ballroom floors and sandy beaches, studying people who might be my relatives.
Not only does first person make sense for memoir, but it makes for the most intimate possible experience for the reader. When you write in first person, you have the best chance of making your reader feel like they’re in the room with you – or sitting next to you in the cockpit, or huddled against you in the storm cellar.
Compare that to a story told from the third person point of view: “April climbed onto the motorcycle. She put her arms around Joe’s waist. She gulped as the bike lurched forward.”
With the third person point of view, you’re describing to the reader what’s happening in a scene. You and the reader are watching events together, from the outside. This point of view feels a degree or two removed from the action, and as a result, it can come across as less “personal” than first person.
It might seem like the third person point of view has no place in a memoir, but actually, some memoirists have used it creatively and with success. I’ll give you an example. In one scene in The Men in My Country by Marilyn Abildskov, she uses the third person point of view to recall a memory of herself as though she is watching a stranger in action. Here’s a passage:
One night he is supposed to call at 6 P.M., which he does, but she doesn’t get the message until an hour later when she is immersed in a class at the ABC School, filling in for a teacher who failed to show.
When she calls him at seven, there’s no answer at his place. So she calls again at eight, then at nine, and again at ten. Finally, before midnight, he answers his phone, sounding angry and maybe a little drunk.
So you don’t want to get together? the woman asks, disappointed that he’s not as eager to see her as he is to see him. All she wanted that night was to hear his voice. Now that she has his voice, his voice in her ear, it isn’t enough. Whatever she has, she will always want more. The stakes go up. This is her way of life. Her way of love. She wants to see him, even if it’s only for a few minutes, just to say goodnight. And if she sees him? She will want to touch him. And then?
It’s important to note that most of Abildskov’s memoir is written in the first person, which is typical. However, in this particular scene, she uses the third person. Why? It’s an act of artistry. In my opinion, she’s doing it to help us sense how she now feels about that woman she’s remembering – as if she’s a different person. Haven’t you ever looked back on something you did or said as a younger person and thought, Who was that girl/guy? An earlier, less wise version of yourself can feel like a stranger. If you’ve changed significantly in your life, recalling something you did in the past can almost feel like watching a play or a movie. I believe Abildskov was using the third person as a device to help us understand how distanced she feels from that once desperate woman.
Then, there’s the god-like omniscient point of view. I say “god-like” because it’s the only point of view that knows all and sees all, as only a god could.
If you’re writing in the omniscient point of view, you can describe what April was thinking as she sped away on the motorcycle. You can also tell us what Joe was thinking when April put her arms around him. You know how the weather’s going to change a mile down the road, and you can hint at it to the reader using foreshadowing – even if the characters have no idea they’re headed for rain.
Writing in the omniscient point of view can feel empowering. It can feel magical. There are no limits.
On the downside, however, a reader of the omniscient point of view can sometimes struggle to make an emotional connection with any one character. It’s a lonely business, being a god. And when you share with your reader all that god-like knowledge, you risk imparting a sense of loneliness – a separateness from your characters.
Finally, there’s something called the second person point of view. I’ve saved it for last because it’s the least commonly used POV – probably because it’s so difficult to pull off. Second person is what I call the point of view of “you”. Let me show you the second person in action first before I explain it:
You start the first day of school with such high expectations. You think this’ll be the year when you finally break out, make your mark, achieve popularity. You never set out to have the most miserable year of your life.
I just made up that passage. It could’ve been an excerpt from a memoir, written by a real person about their real life; or, it could’ve been the voice of a make-believe character in a novel. Either way, you’d still call it the second person POV.
Notice the use of “you”? With second person, the narrator is talking about his or herself, but using the word “you”. I know, sounds complicated. Think of it this way: have you ever heard someone use second person in conversation? At some point, you may have done it yourself.
Imagine you just came from the Department of Motor Vehicles. You’re meeting your friend Lois for lunch. You approach Lois who’s sitting waiting for you at a coffee shop table, and you say:
“Y’know, you can call ahead to the DMV and you can ask all the right questions. You can find out exactly what you need to bring and who to see. You can even get there early and wait in line at the front door. But somehow, you always end up getting the run-around.”
You just spoke using the second person point of view.
Sure, you said “you” to Lois – but you were actually talking about your own experience, not hers.
Back to memoir. Does anyone ever use the second person “you” point of view in memoir? It’s rare, but it’s been done. You might be hard-pressed to find an entire memoir written in second person (I can’t think of any), but you will occasionally spot it within a first person memoir.
Let’s open Marilyn Abildskov’s The Men in My Country again. We’ve already seen how she used the third person point of view to help create a sense of distance between herself as the more experienced narrator, and herself at an earlier time. Now, here’s an example from the same book in which Abildskov slips in a little second person POV:
At school they write messages on the bottom of composition books, little lost boats you have the urge to keep and save. KEEP OO JAMMIN in all caps. Or questions that sail in on paper scraps, tiny letters in bottles that sail across the sea. Do Marilyn-sensei like Guns and Roses? A little, you lie. You believe in kindness over honesty.
Did you spot it? The second person point of view? The point of view of “you”? It’s in the very last line of the passage:
A little, you lie. You believe in kindness over honesty.
You lie. You believe in kindness over honesty.
The person who actually did the little-white-lying in this scene is the author. But she says it conversationally, as if to suggest that this is what anyone would do – what you might do in the same situation.
So while chances are excellent that your memoir will be written in the first person point of view, there are certainly ways that other points of view can be useful. I recommend starting out in the first person, and see if you lapse into another POV somewhere down the line. Instead of automatically correcting it, you might step back and ask yourself if a small portion might actually be served by using another point of view in an artistic way.
Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011).