I was born into a family where stories were all-important. Not just stories you read in books, though those were much loved; not just stories about imaginary people and magical lands, though we adored those; but also the stories that had made us who we were—stories of the family. As a very young child, I lived with my grandmother in France while my parents were away working in Indonesia, and she told stories of her past. Later, living with my parents in Australia, I heard many stories of their pasts, and the family pasts stretching well beyond them, into the mists of the centuries: in my father’s case, right back into the sixteenth century. Secrets and dramas, tragedy and comedy, big characters and twisty plots: they all featured in the family stories and we could never get enough of them. Later still, I told stories of my own past to my children, as well as passing on the stories from my parents and grandparents and way back. It was a natural thing to do, and it still is. And what I realised was this: the fact that I was brought up in that ferment of family story not only grounded me in my identity, it also had the effect of heightening my own memories of childhood and adolescence so that later, as a writer for children, I had a deep and authentic well to draw from, for my fiction.
But fiction’s one thing. Memoir is quite another. And writing stories about yourself and your family, for public consumption, is also quite different from telling them within the family. There’s so many things you don’t need to explain within the family, but for strangers to understand, to enter into the very personal world you are recreating, you need to at least set the scene. Memoir is written usually in subjective first person; but you need the third-person objective eye, too, if it is to communicate to readers and succeed as a work of art.
It’s a very different skill, writing memoir, to writing fiction. And for me anyway it means I can’t use the same kinds of narrative techniques as I normally do, in my fiction. I write novels chronologically, coherently, events unfolding one after the other so that the story develops smoothly, yet sometimes unexpectedly. But I can’t do that with memoir. It comes to me in fits and starts, in images and bits and pieces, like memory itself. It develops slowly, partly also because it also involves the stories of other people—family members, generally—and so it needs to be written with subtlety and tact yet also be intriguing and rich. It’s a delicate balancing act! Over the years, I’ve written several pieces or essays, fragments which together make up a kind of mosaic of personal and family memoir. They’ve been quite successful, all published, with a few of them published more than once, and recently I’ve also been featuring them on my blog. And, satisfyingly, my family seem to love them too! Perhaps one day I’ll gather them all into a book. Perhaps not. But I have learned quite a bit from writing them, and I thought it might be useful to pass on some tips, if you’re considering writing your own memoir.
*Decide what you feel comfortable about writing about first—don’t force yourself into ‘revelations’ if it feels wrong. In these over-sharing times, it’s sometimes assumed you must be completely open. Not true! You don’t have to unveil all the family secrets to write compelling memoir! Don’t discount other people’s sensitivities: but don’t feel too bound by them either so that you self-censor too much or second-guess family members’ reactions.
*Start with an object or a single image—an aide–mémoire, as it’s called in French (a help to memory).
*Don’t worry too much about being chronological or being strictly factual: you are not writing an actual history or a textbook, you are writing memoir, which by its very nature is subjective. I don’t mean by that that you should make things up, but rather that you portray events and people in an imaginative way.
*Set the scene but don’t over-explain—it’s got to work as a story.
Over to you: do you write memoir? If so, what have been your challenges? If not, what do you think makes good memoir?