First Person vs Third Person in a Memoir
I’ve spent seven days hip-to-hip with my client here in Memphis along the slow-moving Mississippi and throughout this great city. This morning, as I prepare to accompany her to her beloved Nazarene church in North Memphis, I realize that I now have my client’s voice “in” me. Walking by the river as a pair of canoeists flushed out a great blue heron with its impossibly wide wingspan, I heard Dr. Ballard’s voice talking in my head.
Many people ask me how I go about writing a memoir and if I write a memoir in first person or third person and how I know which to use. Without doubt, third person allows greater flexibility and more expansiveness in the writing. As the narrator, I can describe the goings-on with omniscient eyes: I see everything, including how others see the scene. For that reason, I write biographies in third person.
However, I always include at least one entire chapter that is in that person’s own voice and in first person. But the way I arrive at the first-person chapter is to clean up the person’s speech while remaining true to his or her voice, just as a good speechwriter aims to use a person’s authentic style of speech while punching it up and stringing together his most powerful and most eloquent expressions and phraseology.
The great advantage of using first person in a memoir or any type of writing is the sense of immediacy, the access to a person’s inner passions. In first person we see the fire; we feel the inner motivations and sometimes can reveal more of the person’s sense of humor.