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  • From Innocence to Experience: Multiple Voices in Memoir
  • Sue William Silverman (bio)

At Vermont College, where I first began to study creative writing with an emphasis in fiction, one of my MFA advisors told me "voice is everything." [End Page 122] As true as this is in fiction, it's equally true in nonfiction. What I came to learn is that even though, in memoir, I'm telling my own personal story, the voice I use isn't my everyday speaking voice. In fact, each of my memoirs contains two distinct and complementary voices.

I've defined these voices by reimagining phrases originated by William Blake. There is a Song of Innocence and a Song of Experience.

In Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, the Song of Innocence reveals the little girl "me" who is being sexually molested by my father. Because this voice is young, confused, and scared, I/she only know(s) enough to relate the facts of what happened, but isn't able to offer insight or reflection. I am writing, in effect: "This is my story. Let me tell you what happened to me." This voice reveals the surface story—specific actions and episodes—that encompass the experience. This relatively "innocent," unaware persona embodies who I am when the events actually occur. It's the persona caught in the immediacy of the struggle.

This Song of Innocence is then twined with a more aware voice, the Song of Experience, which is able to reflect back on this story, this past, to interpret the facts, and to guide the reader through the emotional maze of my incestuous family. This voice would say, "Because my father misloved me, I had no sense of my true self growing up, no language to explain what happened to me." The Song of Experience adds a more complex layer that deepens the Song of Innocence, providing metaphor, spirituality, irony, and reflection. It's the progression of thought in the memoir that reveals what the basic facts of the story mean. What is the memoir thinking? Specifically, in Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, this reflective voice develops the idea of identity and language, providing a thematic organization to the story.

In Love Sick: One Woman's Journey through Sexual Addiction, I also utilize two voices: an addict voice and a sober voice. In a scene early in the book I describe my feelings toward a scarf given to me by my married lover: "I press the scarf against my nose and mouth. I take a deep breath. The scent is of him—leaves smoldering in autumn dusk—and I believe it is a scent I have always craved, one I will always want. I don't understand why the scent of the scarf . . . seems more knowable, more tangible than the rest of him" (p. 87, W. W. Norton).

Here, I begin in my addict voice where I romanticize the man and the maroon-scarf scent before utilizing a sober, reflective persona that realizes the scarf embodies alienation, loneliness, and loss. It's this "sober voice" that guides the reader through the quagmire of the addiction. Without it, the [End Page 123] reader wouldn't understand why I have self-destructive affairs or what this behavior means.

In Love Sick, then, the Song of Innocence, or addict voice, would say: "I had this affair. Then I had another affair, etc." While these facts would ultimately reveal my basic story, something is missing. I must add the Song of Experience, my sober voice, which encompasses thought and metaphor: "I had these affairs; therefore, I learned that I was a sex addict because my father had sexually molested me. This led me to understand that I 'spoke' a language of addiction, but I didn't know a language of sobriety." The Voice of Experience then develops and reflects upon these themes throughout the memoir.

The reflective Song of Experience guides the reader, so she can see, understand, make sense of the events, actions, and behaviors related by the Song of Innocence. These voices interact throughout a memoir to create a unified whole, which contains the insights you want your story to...


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pp. 121-123
Launched on MUSE
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