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!

 

 

 

 

 

1980’s Newspaper Round

This is an excerpt from the memoir I started writing last year. This particular vignette is set in the early eighties…

The boy was about thirteen when he started his early morning paper round. He’d creep out of the house when it was still dark and deliver newspapers seven days a week to the wealthy residents of Hutton Mount. When the AIDS crises hit, he knew all about it from the headlines in the Daily Mail or The Sun. ‘Britain Threatened by Gay Virus Plague’, ‘My Doomed Son’s Gay Plague Agony’, ‘AIDS is the wrath of God, says Vicar.’ The centre-spreads were a gorge-fest of photographs showing AIDS patients looking skeletal, covered in the skin lesions of Kaposi sarcoma. Attending hospital staff and ambulance workers wore protective suits and giant helmets with visors, like astronauts in space. He would burn with shame delivering those newspapers, and would shove them through the letter box like he was shoving through a big, dirty secret about himself. He had more of an inkling that ‘gay’ had something to do with those wet dreams he was having about Tarzan in his leopard skin loin cloth swinging through the jungle. But what he couldn’t quite figure out was what those photographs of young men ravaged with AIDS had to do with him squirting his stuff in the middle of the night. What did that deadly virus have to do with Tarzan beating his hairy chest with his fists and releasing an almighty, ululating yell before swinging so heroically on those hanging vines? Still, his Gran reckoned she’d figured it out. To her it was simple. AIDS was God’s punishment. For queers going against God.