How to Write a Succesful Memoir.

 

‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ Maya Angelou

As many of you will already know, I am currently in the process of writing a memoir. The current working title is Love. I have wanted to write this memoir for some years but, until recently, it has proved too painful. Now time has passed, I feel I have some distance and perspective on certain traumatic events. So far, I have found the writing process both cathartic and healing. And my hope is that I may be able to help people who have gone through similar situations to myself. I am nearly half way through my first draft, and, having previously written two novels, have been reflecting on the process of writing both fiction and memoir. Here are some of my thoughts on how to write a successful memoir:

  1. Remember memoir is not autobiography. It is important to select your theme and focus. Is your memoir a ‘coming of age’, ‘spiritual quest’ or ‘confessional’ memoir? Does it focus on the theme of bereavement, addiction, divorce or any other subject matter? What part of your life does it focus on?
  2. The management of time is important. Events do not necessarily have to be written in chronological order. Feel free to move beyond the linear narrative structure. You may, for example, decide that you wish to switch back and forth between time frames. I recently read an excellent memoir focussed on the theme of drug addiction, Portrait of an Addict as a Yong Man, by Bill Clegg. In his memoir, Clegg switches back and forth between the present day narrative, where he is struggles with an addiction to crack-cocaine, and a narrative based around key events from his childhood.
  3. One does not need to be overly concerned with the ‘voice’ of the character as one does in fiction. Memoir is a truthful personal account written in the first person. You already have the ‘voice’ of the character. It is you! Just dig deep and get visceral!
  4. It’s possibly a good idea to change the names of some of the people in your memoir to protect their privacy. It’s also important to bear in mind that no one really wants to read a memoir which is about getting even with people who may have hurt you. Where it is appropriate, one should include an honest appraisal of the part one has played, however small,  when writing about painful events from the past.
  5. It is important to be rigorously honest. Memoir is based on real events that happened to you. People who read your memoir will expect these events to be based on truth. One breaks this essential pact with the reader at one’s own peril.
  6. However, when writing dialogue, for example, it is unlikely you will remember, word for word, what your father said to you when you were ten years old. Even in this area of writing though, it is important to remain truthful to the essence of what was said in conversation.
  7. Memoir is not fiction but it still needs a ‘character arc’ and a ‘narrative arc’. What have you personally learnt from the life experience you are writing about? How has it changed you? When thinking about the narrative arc to your memoir, it may be useful to reflect on the seven basic stories that Christopher Booker writes about in The Seven Basic Plots. Why We Tell Stories. Is your memoir, for example, structured along the archetypal storyline of a ‘quest’, a ‘voyage and return’, or an ‘overcoming the monster’? Perhaps it is a good idea to have a ‘beginning point’ and an ‘end point’ in mind.
  8. I have found that I can use my skills as a novelist when writing memoir. This certainly does not mean I am making it all up! However, it does mean that I am able to carefully craft and construct the writing and employ effective dialogue, scene description and sensory detail to bring the writing alive.
  9. Build in time for personal reflection concerning events that have happened. This is your chance to offer nuanced observations about life and the world. However do not be too heavy-handed with your pearls of wisdom and write huge chunks of text about what you have learnt. Rather, sprinkle your insights sparingly. The end of a chapter might be a good place to reflect on what has happened to you but obviously this should not become a set rule!
  10. Remember, writing a memoir has a huge personal pay-off. The process can be immensely cathartic and healing. Overcome your fears (and I have encountered many so far en-route to writing Love) and you will be rewarded with a greater sense of understanding about past events and a greater self-awareness. Get published, and you will offer valuable insights and wisdom, often gained at great personal expense, to others.

hand of fatima

 

 

What I Would Have Told My Thirty Year-Old Self

I am now forty six and, feeling in a somewhat reflective and philosophical state of mind, decided to write down a few words of wisdom to an imaginary younger self. Some of the advice that follows could equally apply to me at forty ( do we actually live and learn..?) but I guess  you have to draw the line somewhere! Here goes…

1. Follow the advice of Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese-American poet, who says: ‘Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.’ If I had been guided by this wisdom, I would not have chased after certain handsome and charming gay young men with emotional issues.

2. Perhaps it is better to think in terms of acting beautifully, or creating beauty, rather than being ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’.  This is a more inspiring way of looking at things for those of a more creative persuasion.

3. Allow yourself to be guided by life itself – certain people that may cross your path, opportunities that may come unexpectedly. If you are too wilful, it may actually take you longer to get to where you need to go than if you enter into a more ‘receptive mode of being.’

4.Life is not linear. Live long enough, and you will see the cycles, loops and patterns in life. Celebrate! There is beauty in this.

5.Do not compare your path or life’s journey with any other. That kind of stuff will get in the way of you living the life you truly want to live.

6. ‘Home’ is much more than a beautiful apartment with a great view. More than a certain kind of gay lifestyle. It is feeling comfortable in your own skin. It is discovering your passion and finding your place in the world. Above all, it is finding your people, your tribe.

7. When in doubt, listen to that quiet voice of conscience. It is usually right.

8. ‘Getting free’ is completely different and much more important than getting high.

9. It is better to work for little or no money at something you feel passionate about than become enslaved to a job that is killing your soul.

10. Meditation is a great way to start the day!

 

 

 

 

 

Saying Goodbye to Nana

– Here is another extract from the memoir I’m working on..

January. A new year. Nana’s burial. The service takes place in a tiny, unheated chapel in a crematorium on the outskirts of Essex. We sit on wooden pews in winter coats, our breath intermittently turning into vapour, waiting for the vicar to take his place at the podium. He is a portly man with a voice and manner of someone who appears to feel genuine compassion. He talks about Esme’s life: her children, her husband who died nearly forty years previously, the years she spent working for Avon and making homemade jams. He talks about the exciting times she’s lived through: two World Wars, the advent of mass tourism and technological inventions such as the aeroplane, the washing machine and the internet. Not that Nana had ever used a computer or even once been on an aeroplane. She’d never left the shores of the British Isles. Nor had she wanted to. And now, there she is, finally laid to rest inside that box which is strewn with wreaths of roses and lilies from her children, grandchildren, and Ida, her one and only friend. The vicar recites one of Esme’s favourite poems, Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as A Cloud. Part of me cringes inside as I’m taken back to the time when I had to sing the lyrics to that poem in school assemblies. We’re asked to stand and sing the hymn All Creatures Bright and Beautiful. There’s only a handful of us; the words, when they come, are slightly out of tune, barely voiced or simply mouthed.

Two men, dressed in black, carry the coffin out of the chapel. We dutifully follow behind, as it begins to snow, and make our way towards the burial plot. This is my first burial. All the other funerals I’d attended had been cremations – a simple curtain drawn to signify the snuffing out of a life. The first cremation was that of my other grandma when I was in my early twenties. This was followed some years later by the cremations of two friends: Orisca, a party girl with a joie de vivre who suffered from Crohn’s disease and, towards the end of her life, tragically contracted meningitis, and the well-known playwright, Sarah Kane, who ended her days by hanging herself in hospital.

The coffin is lowered. The vicar throws a handful of earth into the hole that has been freshly dug. It lands on the casket with a thud. The snow is beginning to settle and I think about granddad lying in the plot next to her – or what’s left of him. (It’s been nearly forty years.) And I think about the painting I did all those years ago at primary school, soon after he died. The one based on the Jacob’s Ladder story from the Bible. All that gooey, yellow-orange paint I had mixed in the palette with the thickest paintbrush from the jar. How I’d painted not just one mythical ladder that reached up to heaven but a multitude of them. A ladder, not just for granddad, but for other souls too, to help them on their way up. Or so I thought at the time. As my auntie and uncle clutch handfuls of earth and throw it onto Nana’s coffin, their faces crumpled with grief, I see that story for what it is: a children’s fairy tale.

 

 

Pharmakeia – drugs

The Role of Drugs/Chems in ‘Pharmakeia’

Pharmakeia is a transgressive tale on many levels. But, these days, is it transgressive to take drugs? In many quarters, they seem so commonplace, particularly on the gay scene.  But what is relatively new in the gay community is sexualised drug use. And the specific drugs that ramp up the libido like nothing on earth – crystal meth, GHB and methadrone..

I was lucky enough to go to the opening of the documentary ‘Chemsex’ at the ICA in December. This surely is a wake-up call to the gay community as it follows several very brave gay men and their descent into sexualised drug use and drug addiction. Gay men are shown ‘slamming’ or injecting crystal meth on screen. And, in no way, did I wish to minimise the potential negative effects of some of these harder drugs by referencing them in ‘Pharmakeia’. Indeed, I am aware that many gay men, who, in the past, used other party drugs recreationally, such as ecstasy or cocaine, find themselves completely out of their depth when it comes to drugs like crystal meth/methamphetamine aka ‘Tina’ to those in the know on the gay scene.

However, for my purposes, as a novelist writing this particular story, I decided to make use of the drug crystal meth. (which initially presented some problems as crystal was not that readily available on the streets of London in 1997! – although it had made inroads in The States.) When Mahvand smokes crystal meth at the club Kaos, thereby losing his drug virginity in a full-on way, it represents a further temptation/slide into the dark underworld, which is populated by shady characters such as Daimon Mount-Stuart and the conceptual art collector/dealer, Jean-Baptiste Lebeau-Chevalier.

The use of methamphetamine in the novel also relates directly to the title of the book, ‘Pharmakeia’, which is a Greek word, and appears in the New Testament. It is often translated as ‘the use or administration of drugs’ / ‘witchcraft’ or ‘sorceries’. Crystal meth, is purported by some, to have a supernaturally dark side and enable the user to see ‘shadow people’ demons etc. (However, it is also well-known for inducing psychosis and even schizophrenia..) I guess it’s all about perspective!

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For my story, I tapped into the sorcery/witchcraft perspective on crystal meth because I was interested in a transgressive narrative which has the theme of temptation at its heart. In the chapter ‘Kaos’, Jean-Baptiste smokes crystal from a glass pipe, and says, ‘I like to think of this pipe as a glass portal to another world.’ He also smokes the drug, as does Mahvand, during their sex magick sessions which culminate in visions for disturbing pieces of conceptual art.

At one point in the writing process, I edited out all drug references to make the ‘magick’/fantast element more real. But then I decided I liked leaving the reader in a state of ambiguity. Is what is happening actually ‘real’ or a drug hallucination? Or a combination of the two? Towards the end of the narrative though, I hope I have given enough textual clues to enable the reader to decide which perspective is ultimately the deciding one!

I think the relationship between drugs and magic is an interesting one. In the chapter set in the nightclub, Kaos, the antagonist, Jean-Baptiste, quips, ‘I like to think that encoded in the very DNA of every drug is some kind of spell or enchantment.’ The Oxford dictionary defines magic as ‘the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.’ In ‘Pharmakeia’, crystal meth is the doorway or portal that allows the supernatural, diabolical demonic entity of Belial to manifest. Another definition of magic/magical, according to the Oxford dictionary, is (that which has) ‘a quality of being beautiful and delightful in a way that seems remote from daily life.’ Again, in ‘Pharmakeia’, drugs (namely crystal meth) are used in sex sessions so that the characters who have consumed them can gain experience that is remote from daily life. Whether the experience can be described as ‘beautiful’ or ‘delightful’ is open to interpretation. I certainly enjoyed writing some of these passages, in part, because I could allow my imagination free reign! This is a passage, towards the end of the novel, when Mahvand and his lover, Jean-Baptiste, have just made love.

‘Mahvand collapsed on top of Jean-Baptiste quite spent, and rested his chin on his lover’s chest, which was splattered Jackson-Pollock like, with jism. He realised the magick was still at work, when JB’s throat was adance with flecks of dark light. Each one exploded in a tiny puff of smoke before giving birth to its very own pair of black, paper-thin wings. A cool breeze snuffed out the remaining candles and Mahvand witnessed a host of black butterflies make their way to the open window and towards a sickle moon in a sky now stained red by the early morning sun.’ (pg 239)

There are many parallels between ‘Pharmakeia’ and my first novel, ‘Homo Jihad’. In both stories, the main character takes drugs. But, unlike Mahvand in ‘Pharmakeia’, who, at the beginning of the narrative, is a drug virgin, David Underwood, in ‘Homo Jihad’ is a seasoned club kid who takes drugs in gay clubs in Vauxhall, London. David’s ‘jihad’ or struggle is to overcome his addiction to recreational drugs and the lifestyle that goes with it. To know whether he does or not, you’ll need to read the book! Suffice it to say the endings to both of my novels are quite different!

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My own views on drugs are nuanced and complex. I think, in some shape or form, humans have sought to alter their everyday reality and their perception of it, for thousands of years. Whether it be the shaman in the Amazon ingesting an hallucinogenic drug or Athenian citizens in Greece drinking vast quantities of wine at the festival of Dionysus. Certain hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD can enable the user to experience a sense of their own expanded consciousness – and indeed this particular drug, along with MDMA has been used in psychotherapeutic settings. (Although such drugs don’t come without side effects and can in some circumstances be dangerous)

So, in some respects, the drug experience, and whether it is positive or negative, depends on many factors. These include the context they are taken in, what drug it is, the dose, who you take it with, general state of health etc. However, all pleasurable activities, can easily turn into addictions. The negative side effects can outweigh the perceived benefits. Pleasure can turn to pain. However, I recently read, Johann Hari’s ‘Chasing the Scream’. It is a book about drug ‘addiction’ but has an interesting take on ‘addiction’. Hari argues that the old ‘pharmaceutical’ model of addiction is misleading and erroneous. The pharmaceutical model of addiction would argue that drugs literally hijack your brain and diminish your will and autonomy to such an extent that you are turned into a helpless addict. Narcotics Anonymous may work for many, but it’s premise is built on the pharmaceutical model of addiction.

In short, Hari, whose book I thoroughly recommend, proposes that much drug addiction is due to the life history and quality of life of the ‘addict’. In other words, if you have a satisfying job, partner, good friend, a good standard of living, and grew up in a family where you felt loved, and that you belonged, the chances are, if you do take drugs at some point in your life, you are less likely to become addicted than someone who does not experience these positive conditions. In some respects, you could argue that minority groups in society such as the LGBT community are more prone to issues of addiction because of the underlying conditions of inequality and injustice. Perhaps this is partly why I, as an author of gay fiction, am drawn to write about drugs and the issues surrounding them.  All the studies I have read suggest that gay men tend to take more drugs and for a longer of period of time than their heterosexual counterparts. It’s easy, but erroneous to individualise, or even stigmatise groups in society who have been marginalised, criminalised and discriminated against. If the gay community does have a problem with drugs, straight humanity needs to share some of the responsibility for this.

I leave you with a song from the Brit Pop era – Suede’s ‘The Chemistry Between Us’ I hope you enjoyed this post.

 

 

 

YBA’s and Conceptual Art

 

Pharmakeia is set in the iconic year of 1997, when Tony Blair came to power with Nu Labour and Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. The late nineties were when conceptual art really took off in the UK. ‘Sensation’ was held at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1997, exhibiting the contemporary art of Charles Saatchi. Yong British Artist, Damien Hirst, exhibited his shark suspended in formaldehyde solution, entitled ‘The Physical Impossiblity of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. Another YBA, Tracey Emin, exhibited that infamous tent, ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With’, and Marcus Harvey’s ‘Myra’ (a portrait of child murderer Myra Hindley) was also on display.

The penultimate chapter of ‘Pharmakeia’ takes place at White Cube gallery, then situated in Duke Street, St James. It was famous for curating artists with international appeal and YBA artists. This, of course, is where Mahvand exhibits his shocking and blasphemous pieces of work, including a fibreglass statue of Christ being buggered by a shepherd’s crook. It was important that the works of art were transgressive as they were the culmination of Sex Magick practice. (Read the book!) Although there were plenty of transgressive or blasphemous pieces of art at the time, including Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ and the Chapman Brothers ‘Fuck Face’.

 ‘Piss Christ’ by Andres Serrano

In some of these pieces of art, and indeed the pieces of art conceived of between Mahvand and Jean-Baptiste, one could argue that it is the collision between the profane and the sacred that provokes or outrages, depending on one’s sensibilities. One could also argue that it is this artificial division between the profane and the sacred, the body and the spirit which is harmful. After all, if God is not in the bedroom, where is she? Up in the clouds..? Whether the Christian Church is partly responsible for this splitting or simply reinforced it, is a matter for debate..

But to return to ‘Pharmakeia’ and White Cube gallery, I must say what a joy it was to meet up with Sohphie Grieg, then Head of Archives at White Cube, one afternoon. She talked about the vibe of White Cube back in the nineties and showed me numerous photographs of celebs who would visit – The Pet Shop boys, Janet Street-Porter, Jarvis Cocker etc. Some of these have cameos in the White Cube chapter of ‘Pharmakeia’. She made me realise how small the old White Cube was and filled me in with details such as the tradition of drinking bottles of beer, and not champagne, at YBA events!

However some of what happens in that infamous chapter is down to ‘poetic liscence’! The roof to the real White Cube was reached, apparently, via someone’s flat.. I thought this would be a tad too comical, so Mahvand just climbs a few flights of stairs before he reaches the roof.