You Can Only Know Your Own Mind

Updated: Jul 5, 2020

When writing a novel, we can choose to be an omniscient narrator, flitting from inside one character’s head to another, with a butterfly’s ease.

When writing memoir, as in “real life”, it’s tempting to do the same. We’re human. We accuse, sometimes unjustly. We make snap judgements, sometimes incorrectly.

We like to think we’re savvy or intuitive enough to know someone else’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations.

But while that’s possible with perhaps one or two people over the course of our lives, it’s most often a lie we tell ourselves. Pretending that we do have that knowledge in a memoir will only lead our readers to distrust us as narrators.

Imagine if I were to write the following in a memoir:

“Kat and I backed away from the table, to opposite sides of the tiny kitchen, horrified by what we had done.”

Wait, what? If I felt horrified, fine, but how can I speak for Kat? If I suspected that she, too, felt horrified, I need to let readers know what I’m basing that interpretation on, what clued me in.

Readers of life writing know that you, the author, are writing from your own experience, and that’s the only experience you can write about with any authority. You can record your observations of other people’s words, sounds, gestures, facial expressions, smells, textures, and behavior, but don’t presume to tell the reader what’s going on in someone else’s mind.

You can’t know.

Now imagine the scene above again, but with observations instead of assumptions.

“Kat and I backed away from the table, to opposite sides of the tiny kitchen. I was horrified by what we had done. I felt dizzy, cold. The stink rising from the bloody mess on the table was nearly unbearable. I couldn’t speak. I glanced at Kat. Her face was white, her jaw clenched. She was staring at the table, unblinking, a twitch under her right eye the only sign of movement.”

Readers will draw their own conclusions from the sensory input you provide, just as they would if they were there in the that tiny kitchen with you and saw and heard the same things you did. They will interpret events through their own filters, just as you did, and do, through yours. Your filters are not theirs. Your job is to report, not interpret. If you do offer an interpretation, make sure that you own it. Let readers know that that’s what you’re doing, and that you know you’re doing it.

Interpretation can be validly offered in a variety of ways. Here are three examples.

  • Simple acknowledgement of having assumed without really knowing: “I imagined that she was as horrified as I was, but I’ll never know for sure. We cleaned up in silence, left in silence, and never spoke of what had transpired in that dank ruin of a house.”

  • Open wondering and toying with options: “Her expression was so blank that I couldn’t read it. Was she horrified? In shock? Or was she simply deep in disbelief that she had actually done what had only been a fantasy for so long, whispered and fed in the dark when we were alone?”

  • Reflection on the past from your current perspective: “I assumed at the time that Kat was as sick with horror and revulsion as I was. Her face pale and drawn. Her unblinking stare. In retrospect, though, it seems to me that there was something intense and discernin