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Creative Nonfiction

Christin Geall: Using the Retrospective Narrator in Nonfiction

During the month of January we will be running creative nonfiction writing tips from members of the Creative Nonfiction Collective to give you inspiration for our current creative nonfiction competition

Using only one voice in a personal essay or memoir is like kneading dough with one hand — it makes the job tougher than it needs to be. Consider developing two voices on the page: one voice for now, and one for then.

Think of it this way: you’ve got a protagonist and a narrator—both you. But there’s a difference between them, if you consider that the protagonist is engaged in the action of your story—making choices and mistakes, bumbling through life—while the narrator stands aside, watches and comments. Such a narrator might sound savvy, sophisticated or snarky. Or the voice may be more essayistic—self-questioning, skeptical, smart. In either case, using a retrospective narrator can help you to be honest with yourself.

We all know what it’s like to listen to a friend who hasn’t learned from experience—boring at best, frustrating at worst. The same applies to nonfiction: readers want to see you make sense of your life, and witness your struggle towards truth. 

Try it. First think of a scene you’ve been struggling to write, one that lacks luster. Is there a moment when you can step out of the action and your thoughts? Flag it. Then begin a paragraph with the phrase “Looking back now…” What do you see? Push yourself further by asking: Why do you remember this scene? And what does your remembering say about you?

Christin Geall worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine editor, food writer and essayist, before she began teaching creative nonfiction at the University of Victoria. She's currently working on a memoir called 'The Motherlode', with Elizabeth Kaplan. 

Christin Geall s a member of the Creative Nonfiction Collective (CNFC). To learn more or become a member, click here.

Find out more about our creative nonfiction competition.

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