Light the corners of my mind.
Misty water-colored memories,
Of the way we were...
And as Barbra Streisand's song continues, our memories can feel like a collection of scattered pictures, as though we've upended a shoe-box full of old photos, some labelled, some not. Was this one from that holiday in Pembrokeshire when you were six, the time you got stung by a wasp and the car broke down? And this one, was it Nana and Grandad's ruby wedding? The time your brother got a nose bleed that wouldn't stop and everyone had a cure to try?
'Drop a cold key down his back.'
'No it's not a key, it's an ice cube.'
'Just tilt his head back.'
'Forward, it's definitely forward.'
'Lay him on a slab!'
Episodes from an ordinary life. Unremarkable. Nothing to write home about. I disagree. We all have a story to tell, and as Maya Angelou famously said: "there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." The smallest stories, the quiet observations, these are the things that make fiction more real, so their potential as compelling stories in their own right shouldn't be underestimated.
There's a long and distinguished history of personal memoir stretching back to the ancients, recording the lives and times of the greats. Celebrity kiss-and-tell and political diarists are the stock-in-trade of the Christmas season “new books” tables in high street bookstores. It's only more recently that there's been something of an explosion in the genre of ordinary memoir, by which I mean books and essays by more or less ordinary folk about critical moments in their lives.
There are many reasons why a writer chooses memoir as a medium, but one often stated is that the writer hopes that by sharing their experience the reader will feel supported in their own challenges. It's all about making a connection between a uniquely personal life event and universal human experience that we can all relate to.
In order for the memoir to be affecting and to make a real connection to its reader it needs to be written with the same level of care and rigour with which writers treat fiction, poetry and drama. Even if the memoir is for family and friends rather than general publication, the writer will still hope that it's a compelling read. To achieve that, as Ayelet Waldman, author of Bad Mother, comments: "Writing memoir requires the construction of story and character in the same way that writing anything does. The trick with memoir is that the story and the character have to be true."
Good memoir elicits empathy, not sympathy and the only way that happens is through well crafted writing that pays attention to all of the elements of good story telling. When memoir has impact it’s because the reader experiences the events depicted as though in the writer’s shoes. If all the work has done is elicit sympathy - a detached sense of pity - then it will not be memorable.
Memoir can of course be a personal matter, for your eyes only. Keeping a daily journal in which you record the events of the day and the thoughts, ideas and feelings they trigger, can be as creative as it is therapeutic. Coming across an old journal can be a treasure trove of personal history. We have this idea that memory is an accurate account of ‘what really happened’, but reading rediscovered journals from an earlier period in your life can tell a different story. Dates and locations misremembered. Conversations and conflicts remembered with a more or less positive spin than noted at the time. Whole episodes, significant enough to write down, entirely forgotten until now. Reflecting upon these different perspectives can reveal much and, if working through a challenging time in life, can be both enlightening and comforting.
Perhaps your journals documented a particularly difficult episode in your life and on rereading you realise that your experiences might be of use to others going through something similar. Even so, it's rarely enough to simply edit and compile the journals into a book. The reader has none of your context or back story and so what makes perfect sense to you will be confusing and meaningless to others.
Getting clear about what your story is, the context in which it happened, the main characters and setting and how conflicts were ultimately resolved: these are the elements of all good storytelling. For would-be memoirists this is the point of departure. It's what makes the difference between a stream of consciousness only meaningful to the writer, to a gripping personal narrative which reveals something of the human condition and which connects deeply with the reader.
Writers’ Wednesdays: Starting Your Memoir
7-9pm, Wednesday 1st November
Casa Paco, Cómpeta
€20 (incl a drink & tapa)
Writing for Wellbeing
Saturday 2nd December
Email for info.
Tel: 951 242 468