Writing Memoir: How I Write Life
When you write fiction you do not start with a house, or even the ground that house is built on. You have the freedom to decide on not only its structure, its décor, but also on the quantity of rainfall outside, on bread supplies, on whether a despot is in power, or a redundant Queen. You are God.
Writing a life, on the other hand, you are reduced to the dissolute hoarder, the fridge crammed with newspapers, the unemptied tumble drier full of cat. This house is dirty, minging. No-one has washed up for months, and from beneath the toilet door there drifts an unimaginable smell. One wonders whether it’s a corpse. Every room is noisy; there are people on every stick of furniture, some undressed, some asleep, some raging. This is our disorganised, chaotic life.
Now comes the difficult bit
The task is to drag what you need out onto the street. Table, chairs, kettle and, if you can stretch the extension lead, the fridge. Treat yourself – the laptop, a duvet, some crisps. Now comes the difficult bit. Which of those people are you going to haul out with you? Seeing as they’re not going anywhere, be as reckless and decisive as you like. Although I would recommend, if you can bear it, that stinking corpse in the downstairs lavatory and the gentleman hollering through the bedroom window upstairs. Dead characters and furious ones are going to be so much easier to write than that peaceable woman playing solitaire on the stairs.
Now think carefully about your choices. Are there any litigious family members best left inside? Although when I confessed to Cathy Rentzenbrink who wrote The Last Act of Love how terrified I was that some of my characters might sue, she said that, in her experience, and against all expectation, the people who were monumentally pissed off where those not included in the book. Which is proof that more important than anyone is the reader. In any case relatives are unpredictable and as Milosz famously said: When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished. They would probably nail you to the page too, if they could.
Choose only the best characters for your story. The difference between writing life, and living it, is discrimination. Don’t feel you have to include everything. Or everyone. On this journey take only what you absolutely need. The reader will never know what’s missing.
Yet treasure what you have left behind (when defamation, and word count go against you) because you can use these moments to spill over onto a website, so that there’s always free copy for your reader, and more layers to explore.
Then treat your cast and the debris now filling the front garden like fiction. A play. This is your haphazard stage, and the setting must be built. Character, plot, point of view, good dialogue are all essential to pull this drama off. Follow the brilliant advice of all those other writers – Helen Godfrey, Claire Squires, Samuel Tongue et.al and get the sentences down.
What memoirists have more of than a fiction writer is detail. Detail only available to you.
What memoirists have more of than a fiction writer is detail. Detail only available to you. Unique moments sit inside you already – the smells, the sounds, the tastes: the particular stench of that camel hair jacket you insisted on wearing, aged fourteen, the violence of a Shetland pony as it tries to shake your brother off, or how good a Milky Way tastes after eleven weeks, two days and nine hours without.
This is a desperate genre. Don’t tiptoe round the edges, hoping to keep those best shoes of yours clean. Get as dirty as you have to. In fact I recommend going the whole way. Get down to your underpants.
It will be worth it, because there will always be readers, whether or not that publishing deal rolls in. Those who know you will be grateful to have your story, delighted to have their experience corroborated, and they will be captivated by how you painted the past with a fresh tint.
People are being lost from us every day, fascinating people who did not conquer a mountain, run the country, or get nominated for a Nobel. Without your words we will be left with only a fragmented history – fictions – pieced together from social media, where everyone is perpetually on holiday and out having the best time. What we want most, though, is the truth. Simply go on and tell it.
For more advice on tapping into your own experiences, check out our other posts on writing memoirs.
Portrait credit, Mark Turner