Memoir is typically a first-person singular affair—the intimate story of a particular childhood or adolescence or other slice of life. But first-person plural, which I’ll call the community we after Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s suggestion in Tell It Slant, can create what they call “community” or “communal” memoir and can convey the experience of a group united by identity, experience, or struggle.

Jaquira Díaz’s memoir Ordinary Girls, which tells the story of her girlhood in Puerto Rico and Miami Beach, uses the community we at several points throughout the book to capture the voices and shared experiences of the girls Díaz grew up with. The book’s brief first chapter, “Girl Hood” opens in the collective voice of those girls:

We were the girls who strolled onto the blacktop on long summer days, dribbling past the boys on the court. We were the girls on the merry-go-round, laughing and laughing and letting the world spin while holding on for our lives. The girls on the swings, holding our heads back, the wind in our hair. We were the loudmouths, the troublemakers, the practical jokers. We were the party girls, hitting the clubs in booty shorts and high-top Jordans, smoking blunts on the beach. We were the wild girls who loved music and dancing. Girls who were black and brown and poor and queer. Girls who loved each other.

Here, the community we allows us to see all of the girls at once, to understand them as a collective wild force in their Miami Beach neighborhood, and to see the ways they resist conventional expectations that girls be sweet and submissive. After that opening paragraph, the memoir moves into first person with Díaz’s assertion that “I have been those girls” and a sequence of quick scenes from her own life. But the community we grounds the memoir in the fierce friendships that sustained Díaz through her adolescence. There’s also an ethical dimension in this point of view: The community we insists we hear the voices of these girls and women who have been so often overlooked, particularly by white America.

Suzanne Rivecca’s essay “People Are Starving” shows an alternate approach to the community we. Here, the speakers are a complex, multi-faceted group, women bound together not by friendship or geography but by difficulties with disordered eating, body dysmorphia, and bad men. Because this we is so heterogenous, it highlights how women from vastly different backgrounds can share similar struggles. Unlike the opening of Díaz’s book, which shows us the girls together in one mass, Rivecca’s essay opens by emphasizing the differences among the women who make up her community we:

We were born in Michigan. We were born in California. We were born in Italy. We were born in Florida, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Canada. We grew up with money. We grew up on food stamps. We grew up with enough money to buy food but not enough to forget what every mouthful was costing our parents. We ate whatever they put in front of us. We had to be bribed and cajoled. We had to have a special spoon, a special bowl. We opened our toothless mouths trustingly. We screamed and kicked. We gave trouble. We gave no trouble at all.

Rivecca’s community creates a coming-of-age story that transcends an individual life and shows, through specific details from very different lives, an experience that many women share.

A caution: This careful use of the community we stands in stark contrast with a less skillful use of first-personal plural that I’ll call the royal we, which is typically a first-person speaker making claims about a perspective that “we” are assumed to all share. Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations, for example, opens with some pretty big claims about how “we” all experience the body: “The body is an afterthought. We don’t stop to think of how the heart beats its steady rhythm; or watch our metatarsals fan out with every step. Unless it’s involved in pleasure or pain, we pay this moving mass of vessel, blood and bone no mind.” Though Gleeson’s assertion might just be accurate for most people, it’s certainly not true for everyone, and her use of first-person plural as the point of view here might alienate or even offend some readers. A royal we makes claims about universal experiences from within one individual’s perspective. “I” should more accurately be swapped for the royal we, unless one truly is the Queen of England and can speak for the people she rules.

Here are a few ideas for writing from an effective community we:

  • Begin by considering people from your hometown, as Díaz does, but think more specifically or consider smaller subgroups, such as people who have a shared experience, as Rivecca describes, or people with an unusual or secret hobby, or people who share a particular identity or affinity. I’ve had students write excellent essays from the shared point of view of graduates of their high school, lifeguards at the beach, and members of the LGBT community.
  • Take a look at your nouns. What place names, songs, slang or in-jokes, items of clothing or other objects will help your reader visualize your community more fully? Díaz frequently names specific streets and songs and kinds of cars, often mixing in unitalicized Spanish to show the precise, textured language her “we” uses; Rivecca names an odd mishmash of foods from packed lunches: “A rectangular brownie, a perennially uneaten orange, a Ziploc bag of humid saltines, a Fruit Roll-Up, a slippery hard-boiled egg, browning slices of apple, a bent granola bar.” What weird, particular nouns can you add?
  • Following Díaz’s example, what do people from your community know that other people don’t? In “Beach City,” an excerpt from Ordinary Girls published in Brevity, Díaz writes, “We were the ones who knew what it meant to belong here” and she fleshes out that belonging with specific actions:

…to be made whole during full moon drum circles, dancing, drinking, smoking it up with our homeboys. We knew what it meant to bloody our knuckles here, to break teeth here, to live and breathe these streets day in, day out, the glow of the neon hotel signs on the waterfront, the salt and sweat of this beach city.

Write several sentences beginning with “We were the ones” or “We knew.”

  • The “we” often conjures or responds to a “they” who is different, as in Rivecca’s description of the ways “they” respond to a girl or woman crying:

When we cried, they gave us a long speech about self-reliance. When we cried, they backed off. When we cried, they said, It doesn’t matter if people don’t like you. All that matters is that you’re a good person. When we cried, they said, You’re beautiful, and don’t forget it. When we cried, they said, My parents beat the shit out of me, and I’m grateful for it!

What “they” can you contrast with your “we”? Use dialogue, as Rivecca does, to show what “they” say. 

Nancy Reddy is the author of Pocket Universe, forthcoming from LSU Press in spring 2022; Double Jinx, which won the 2014 National Poetry Series and was published by Milkweed Editions in 2015; and Acadiana, published by Black Lawrence in 2018; and co-editor of The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood, forthcoming from UGA Press in November 2021. Her poems have most recently appeared in PleiadesGettysburg Review, and Tupelo Quarterly, and her most recent essays have been in Electric Literature. She is assistant professor of writing and first-year studies at Stockton University in southern New Jersey, where she teaches composition and creative nonfiction.