As you know, I published my memoir, Gullible Travels, in November. This book is my first memoir, but not my first published work by a long shot. Memoir writing, however, is very different to the other types of writing – academic writing, screenwriting, playwriting, and writing for a variety of magazines from financial to parenting – that I had previously done.
So, while writing Gullible Travels, I learnt a few things about writing in this genre, which I am delighted to share with you here:
Do your therapy first!
I have very strong feelings on this one – it’s a complete non-negotiable, as far as I’m concerned. If you are going to write about something that’s upsetting or difficult, don’t use writing your memoir as therapy. Do your therapy first, work through your stuff, and then write your book. Your reader’s job is not to work through your shit for you. That’s your job, and yours alone.
Sure, writing is therapeutic, keeping a journal is good for all of us, but do that work first, before you write you book. The way you write for yourself and the way you write for an audience are (should be!) very different.
You don’t have to begin at the beginning.
Years ago, I read that the difference between an autobiography and a memoir is that the former covers your entire life – from when you were born until the time the book is written. A memoir, on the other hand, covers a specific time or event; whether that’s a decade or two in your life, your recovery from an illness, or your year travelling through Africa on a goat.
When you have decided which part of your life story it is you want to tell, bear in mind that you don’t have to start at the beginning. Drop in in the middle of your anecdote, if that makes more sense, or is a more interesting point to start. Hit the ground running, and take your readers with you.
You can be honest without being cruel.
One of the women who made more than a brief appearance in my book was a champion farter. It didn’t matter where she was – her home, your home, a friend’s home, a restaurant, a five-star hotel, or the bus – she would happily, blissfully trumpet away without as much as a ‘Pardon me’ the entire time I knew her!
Of course, I could have included this piece of information – but to what end? (oops!). It would just embarrass her, and it wouldn’t necessarily add anything to the narrative. Even though it’s completely true, I had already given plenty of indication of how difficult our relationship was – so this piece of information wouldn’t have shed any new light on the situation.
Not every anecdote needs to be included.
I have quite a few funny stories that didn’t make it in to Gullible Travels, but they don’t need to be included in the book.
Doubtless, you have a sackful of those kind of anecdotes as well – interesting, amusing things that have happened to you along the way. Don’t put yourself under pressure to include them; you’re not concealing material facts by doing so. Keep them for your book launch, for interviews, and for when you’re speaking at events. Or even just for sharing with people over lunch, or at parties.
Two can become one without it becoming a ‘lie’ or a fiction.
There may well be certain people who need to feature in your memoir that you don’t want to identify, but who are necessary to the narrative. Beyond changing their names, you can change the sex of a person and their relationship to you. For example, your raging alcoholic Aunt Bertha can be transformed into your raging alcoholic Uncle Benny (who also happens to be a priest). Or you can turn two of your boyfriends from when you were 16/17 into one boy.
In Gullible Travels, for example, ‘The Horrible Boy’ is actually three people amalgamated into one. While all the events attributed to ‘The Horrible Boy’ took place, the abuse by one was very similar to the abuse by another, so it would have added nothing to the narrative to have separated them out – in fact, it may well have confused the reader trying to keep so many abusers straight in their heads. Having just one identity also supported the repetitive nature of the abuse, and the dissociation that is mentioned in the book.
Writing in dialect can be a distraction.
If someone in your life/book speaks in a particular dialect, or with a specific accent, it’s probably best not to try to reproduce it on the page. As well as being a distraction to the eye, it may not be ‘heard’ in the reader’s ‘mind’s ear’ the way you hear it in your memory. The best thing to do, really, is to write the words that the person meant, fully and completely.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that writing in a dialect or reproducing an accent on the page can also present problems for your translators further down the road.
When recounting dialogue, the rules of fiction apply.
When I started writing my memoir, I thought I needed to be completely faithful, in my recounting of conversations, to what was actually said. Halfway through the first draft, however, I realised that wasn’t useful. Just as when I was writing for stage and screen, I needed to keep dialogue to the essence of what was said: The meaning needed to be conveyed to retain the truth of whatever conversation I was recounting, but every word did not have to be set down on the page. Actual speech can be very repetitive, full of half-finished sentences, thoughts that aren’t completed, and meanderings that aren’t necessary to the story you’re telling.
Sometimes, the conversation itself doesn’t even need to be recounted at all. You can simply say ‘We shouted at each other for two and a half hours without resolving anything’. Or ‘By the end of the discussion – which we returned to on a daily basis for a week – we decided boarding school was the best option.’
Even though it’s a memoir, your job is still to entertain your reader.
Your memoir might be dealing with the darkest, bleakest of human experiences, but it can still be entertaining. My book, for example, is about being sexually abused (by several people) as a child; re-victimisation; abusive marriages; miscarriages, and lots of other un-funny subjects. Even with those subjects as the material for the book, the one thing I repeatedly hear from people who read Gullible Travels is that they can’t put it down. Some people even tell me that they laugh when they’re reading it. Good! I’m delighted.
I want to entertain the people who are giving their time to me and my book. That, I believe, is the contract between writer and reader; they read your work with the expectation that they will enjoy it, and you must do your best to render unto them something that will amuse them.
Be clear about your motivation.
One question you need to ask yourself is why you want to write your memoir. It doesn’t have to be something deep and profound – having a cracking great story you want to tell is reason enough.
I wrote Gullible Travels because someone else told me that – in spite of it being my story – it wasn’t about me. The point of writing that book, I was told, was (among other things) so that other women could identify and remove themselves from abusive relationships; so people who haven’t been abused could better understand how it affects those of us who have been, and so people who have been abused would realise they are not alone.
Of course, you don’t have to write for publication. I know quite a few people who have written memoirs in order to preserve their memories for future generations of their families. These books are prized possessions by those who are entrusted with them.
A word of caution, however; a desire for revenge is not a good motivator. If that’s why you write your memoir, then you can be sure that your writing will appear bitter, mean-spirited, and will make for squirmy reading.
Remember, it’s your memoir.
The book you’re writing is your memoir. It is your story. It is yours to tell the way you want to tell it. You are under no obligation to explain, excuse, interpret or analyse anyone else’s behaviour. Write your own story, write it in your own voice, and write it with all the integrity you can muster.