‘It’s a good way to lose friends’: the perils of a memoir

Adrian Kenny’s first memoir, Before the Wax Hardened (1991), was republished recently by Lilliput Press. He looks back at its origin

About 1984 my mother asked what I was writing. I said I was writing a memoir of my upbringing. She said “ I hope you do yourself justice.” She soon gave in to caution, and said “I think you should leave that until you’re older”.

“ How old?”

“ Sixty. Or seventy.”

I got the message, but went on writing. She prayed that the project would fail. It became a silent struggle. I typed another page. She lit another candle. I was like Odysseus trying to reach home; she was like Poseidon cooking up storms. It went on for seven years. I won, in that I finished the book; but she would not come to its launch, and so I felt I had lost.

A memoir, even if it is awkward, just because it is awkward, can keep us close to the experience and force us to more honest responses

In a way she had won, because her piety determined the book. I had tried to write it as fiction, but that failed. Our family had been so intensely close that no characters I invented could match those family originals, and no others could take their place. I had no wish to change them, not enough power or distance to subdue them to some general argument; no belief that I should. The tide of youth had gone out, but they remained as solid as ever, like rocks on the shore.

Reading that book after almost 30 years, I notice its obsessive detail: of faces, places, birds, trees, smells. I had to be rid of the past before I could be free; but I was attached to it, and had to save it as well. A tug of war with just one team – mad! We all make myths from our experience. Mine – of rich suburbs versus poor country – became the plot. Dialogue crept in from the start. Characters and reflections gave it a novel’s shape. I pulled punches, used irony instead of the boot with the bourgeoisie, but enough honesty got through to give it life.

My old English teacher liked it, wasn’t angry at his portrayal, but added “It’s a good way to lose friends.” He was right, I soon found out.

One of my many aunts had strong principles. On her mantelpiece stood a large statue of St Michael driving his spear down the devil’s throat. She dealt with me as thoroughly one evening, angered by what I had written. We were close. I had her hall door key to let myself in. As I left she took it back and said “You won’t be needing that again.”

My favourite aunt said “You made me out to be a right dragon”. My mother’s response – “Well, have you said all you want to say about me?” – was given with a smile that makes me guilty still. I never knew what my father thought, for he died before it was published. I see now that I could never have finished it while he was alive. I feared? loved? respected him too much. Not that it was nasty or shocking. It was simple and plain. But it was my way of dealing with my past, the only way I knew of relating it to my present, in the hope of opening up a future path. I think. Who really knows why we write?

Fiction is vital. When – rarely – it succeeds it is like a prayer: a giving, going outwards, enlarging, free of the self. It exists because there are things we can’t tell to anyone, not even to ourselves. But its plots, conventions and freedom can carry us too smoothly over the hard questions, bringing answers too easily won. A memoir, even if it is awkward, just because it is awkward, can keep us close to the experience and force us to more honest responses. Yet – perversely – now I am the one who prays, as my mother did, that I will write a proper novel one day.