I have been asked to speak later in the year at the Dalkey Creates Writing Festival (October 2016) and will be running an all day workshop on writing memoir.
Memoirs have become increasingly popular in recent years. Since Julius Ceasar published accounts of his battle years around 50BC, memoirs have been a constant presence in published literature. But in the last few decades there have been a upsurge of writers exploring aspects or periods of their lives. From Jung Chang’s Wild Swans to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, from Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes to Elie Wiesel’s harrowing Holocaust memoir Night ,the genre has flourished. Like Joan Didion’s best selling, pulitzer prize nominated Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir is a story of an intensely personal yet universal experience (in her case, grief).
I wrote an accidental memoir, but it has opened up a whole new world (and career) for me.
I spent four years writing a novel. And it got me published. To be clear, the novel didn’t get published. Just me. I wrote a novel and ended up publishing a memoir.
I had never contemplated writing creative non-fiction because I naturally assumed my life was too ordinary. But sometimes it is the ordinary in life that is extraordinary. And sometimes it is the ordinary in life that readers find comforting and can relate to. I have been a blogger for many years, so in hindsight now, it is probably no surprise that memoir was a natural avenue. It just took a publisher to point it out to me.
But of course, as a blogger (and in private, a diarist) I have always written my memoir – I just write it in the present, not the past. A blog is an analysis of the current, while a memoir is an interpretation of the past. And memoirs have become a very popular genre with many flooding the bookshops every year. In part, because they take one person’s experience and present it in a way that other people can relate to, take comfort from, learn from.
So I was asked to write about an angle of my life that I had ‘memoired’ in my blog. Memoir is not a life story. A memoir is a story within a life, an experience pulled out from an array of experiences that can be brought into the spotlight for a solo performance. And by shining a light on your experience, it can perhaps help illuminate the darkness for others going through the same experience. Story connects people, and sharing our stories is the one true thing that makes us human.
My story was quite stark. A few days after the birth of my third baby, my mum suffered a catastrophic stroke which rendered her paralysed, incontinent and brain damaged. My sandwich years began by ambulance and for the next 6 years I cared for my mum, my baby and my other children. What I learned from the experience, was that amid child-care and parent-care, you must prioritise self-care. So here are some of my lessons learned from writing a memoir, as I embark on another.
Take a Selfie
Unless you are a celebrity, it is unlikely that your entire life story is relevant. That’s an autobiography. But taking a slice of your life – a selfie of a particular time — be it a theme (daredevil activities), an experience (winning the lottery), or an evolution (surviving a tough time and coming out the other side), means you can go deep and direct and keep the attention of the reader in focus. It also means you don’t have to expose all aspects of your life – just the ones that are relevant. It also makes writing a memoir a lot easier!
Lou Willet Stanek describes the difference between writing a memoir and an autobiography in her book, Writing Your Life: ‘If you were to write an autobiography, you would have to spend a lot of time at the courthouse, looking up the date your great-grandfather was born, what year your father bought the house on Elm Street. The research for a memoir can be done in an easy chair. Close your eyes and try to recapture the moment you bought your first car, learned you were pregnant, met the President or wobble down the street on a two-wheeler.’
Relate and relate
Relate and connect your story to a wider issue and although the narrative is about you, the context is about something much bigger.
But also relate and empathise to your reader. You want – you need – them to relate to you, so although it is your narrative and your experience, make sure it can also be about them
It’s about looking at the outside world and what has happened, but then looking at your inside world and what has happened to you as result. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from that experience? That’s why memoirs are so powerful. They have the power to influence other people’s lives. When my memoir was published I had strangers write to me and tell me their story and how much it had given them strength.
What’s your point?
There has to be a point. The point is the lesson you learned, or a how-to analysis, or a guide. The reader will have to be able to answer the question Why are you telling me this? A memoir is a chance reflect and to look inside yourself and explore how you have changed because of an experience. It answers, often, ‘Why am I the person I am today?’
You don’t just capture the facts, you have to write about how you felt about the facts and how you changed as a result of them. A memoir is a reflection of a past experience, but also your reflection on how you have transformed as a result of that experience, otherwise there is nothing to offer the reader.
Bite the bullet of truth
A memoir, by definition is a non-fiction piece of writing. It has to ring true or people won’t relate. This does not mean exposing every tiny detail, but it does mean making a commitment to get to the core of the issue. If people want gloss, they’ll buy a glossy magazine. In my memoir I got to the bit where I had to write about the really difficult aspects of my mum’s personal care. I couldn’t write it because it felt so disloyal to her, yet I knew that for anyone else going through the experience of caring for a parent, doing intimate tasks for them is a real and often shocking aspect. There was no point in me writing about this experience if I didn’t write about ALL of the experience, especially one of the hardest parts. So I spoke to my dad, and I spoke to my publisher and I eventually sat down and wrote it. And it took courage and I wrote with respect, and it makes the book stronger for it, and actually it enabled me to give my mum a voice as I wrote about it from her perspective.
Accept the Truth isn’t always out there…
I said be truthful, but remember that memory is a complicated and tricky character. Is a memoir ever accurate? I doubt it. My interpretation is just that; my interpretation. Everything is true, but it is only my truth. And to refine it even more it is just one angle of my truth. I didn’t write about my life. I didn’t write about my past. I wrote about an aspect of my life, an aspect of my memory and my experience. There was plenty in my life I didn’t write about (cue other books??). As my brother and I sat by my mum’s bedside in the weeks before she died, we talked about our shared experiences, and what was striking was that we each often had different memories and different interpretations from the same experiences. We are all unreliable witnesses.
Take your time over time
A memoir is not a list of chronological events. It is an analyses of a theme or experience within a timeframe. The subject is the leader, and the timing is a soldier, tapping out the march when needed. You might start in the middle, go back to the past and end in the future. Whatever works best to tell the story in a way that people will best connect to. You are telling a story, and the best stories carry the reader along with them. You want to share and invite, you want the reader to be sitting in the doctor’s surgery with their arms around you, or standing on the summit of the mountain feeling the wind in their hair. You are not writing a calendar, you are writing an experience that has to be shared.
Write your non-fiction as a fiction writer
You are telling a story. Ok, it’s not made up, and you already know the ending before you start writing, but that doesn’t mean the writing needs to be clinical or like a long winded monologue. Using narrative, create drama, reveal slowly, shock, and describe things with beauty. Use all the techniques of fiction writing without the heartache of story planning!
I included dialogue in mine, knowing the words weren’t exactly accurate. That’s ok… if it moves the story long and gives characters depth it is important.
I wrote an accidental memoir, but intend to write another. I don’t believe we all have just one story, we are made up of many. If that story can impact the life of another, I’d say get writing.
Also published on www.writing.ie