In Teacher Man, author Frank McCourt recalls a question once posed by a young student. "Mr McCourt, you're lucky. You had that miserable childhood, so you have something to write about. What are we gonna write about?"
Although a miserable childhood can help when writing a memoir, it’s not entirely necessary. Most people lead ordinary lives, but every one of us is trying to make some sense of our shifting fortunes. Every life has its influential people, a fork in the road, changing beliefs, secrets and mistakes.
Even if you have no intention to publish, sifting through memory is a valuable endeavour that can give you a new perspective on your experiences. It also helps your descendants understand where they came from. After all, long after a person is gone, the only thing that survives of them is story. This year, take the time to write your memoirs so that your story is not lost.
Unlike autobiography, there is no requirement here to write a chronological list of your life’s accomplishments and pitfalls. Memoir is about the selection of pivotal, intimate experiences. Don’t be daunted. You’ve lived the research; you are the main character.
"Writing is recalling," said Karl Ove Knausgård, author of the six-volume My Struggle series of autobiographical novels, in an interview with the the Paris Review. "I think that all our ages, all our experiences are kept in us. All we need is a reminder of something, and then something else is released."
Write your story with precision. “In the particular is contained the universal,” James Joyce wrote. Give your reader a true sense of the world you lived in and how it felt to you, so that they might share in the commonality of the experience.
Ivy Bannister on teaching memoir
Ivy Bannister’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and died. Her sister Patty was killed in a plane crash and her elderly mother, a difficult woman, had dementia. Bannister was living in Dublin, married with children. Her frequent trips to her native New York to spend time with her mother were so fraught that her only outlet was to write it all down.
“I was more or less alone with this challenging circumstance. My mother was so difficult I couldn’t talk to her, so I’d write stuff down. I can remember kneeling next to my bed, my mother was screaming in the other room, and I’d be writing down what she said. She had a colourful turn of phrase.”
Her memoir, Blunt Trauma: After the Fall of Flight 111, contains "very tricky stuff" about her relationship with her mother, but there was little trouble after it was published because "almost everybody's dead". The book, however, makes her uncomfortable for the light it shines on her thoughts about her life. It's sitting on the table between us, and she hides it under a newspaper.
She found the experience of writing it cathartic. “I felt I was able to move on in my life. There: it’s all out there. I cannot change it. I can let it all go.”
Bannister teaches a class in writing memoir at the Irish Writers Centre in spring.
“In my class, there are all kinds of levels of people who come into it,” she says. Is there not a danger of a writing class turning into group therapy? She insists she is always interested in good writing first and foremost.
“It helps them when they’re trying to put [their story] in a form that someone else can read; it helps them to clarify what they think themselves and helps them to work it out. I don’t see that as therapy, I see that as common sense.”
There are a lot of different reasons for writing memoir, and many people have no interest in the commercial potential of what they write. Bannister believes that “self-published memoir for your family is one of the best gifts you can give them. They might not think it at the time, but the day will come. A lot of older people come in and they want to write about their lives and what they remember. What I say to them is, ‘I wish to heavens that my parents had done this.’
“They want to write for their families, and they come up with these nice books and they’ve got photographs and relationships and milk carts and the barn, which is wonderful. I say that is as valid a reason as any.”
Bannister’s memoir advice
- Don't worry: "When you're writing memoir, there are all kinds of reasons to do it, but the first thing to do is write it as it was and don't worry. Don't inhibit yourself by saying, 'What's my Auntie Jane going to say about my writing about this?' because that silences you. That shuts you up."
- If you need to, change names at the end: "By the time you get to having a finished draft, you can edit out anything or change any names. But if you inhibit yourself at the beginning of the project, how can you move forward?"
- Don't censor yourself: "Work your story through the way you feel it. If you say, 'I'm just going to silence myself about this particular area', it will infuse the rest of it."
- Identify key moments: "Make a list of 10 points in your life where your life has changed. 'Why did my life whizz off one way at this stage?' Look at them and say, 'Do I want to write about the lot or do I want to focus?' "
- Be disciplined: "If I have 10 [key moments], why don't I spend the next 10 days getting up at 6am and putting aside an hour and a half to just write about each of these? If your life is not organised so you can do one every day, do one every two days. But do them very regularly: if you leave too much of a gap between writing sessions, you lose the impetus that has got you to the page in the first place. It's better to write for half an hour every day than for two hours on one day and then not write again until next week."
- Make side notes but stick with your original list: "In the process of doing it, you'll get lots of other ideas. You'll need a little piece of paper on the side. Write those ideas down, stick with your original list, and then, when you're done with that, look at what has come out of it. At some stage, you'll want to say to yourself 'What do I really want to write about here?' "
- Be honest: "People's memories are different – sometimes it kind of changes in your head, so it's not exactly what happens – but your intention when you're writing memoir is to be truthful."
- Keep going: "The real key to writing is persistence."
Adrian Kenny on writing memoir
Adrian Kenny has written three memoirs detailing different periods of his life: Before the Wax Hardened, The Family Business and Istanbul Diary. A self-confessed frustrated novelist, he seems ill at ease with the idea that memoir might be his true calling.
"There's a need as deep as can be in people for a meaning in life: what on earth is it all about?" he says. "Before the Wax Hardened was about school and didn't cause a lot of trouble really; just one or two people complained about that one. Then I wrote one when I lived in Istanbul, and some people were angry about that because it's based on real people."
While he is not at ease with the process of life writing, he finds it therapeutic. “Yes, I’m afraid I do. I would feel when certain things are written in some form you’d feel it satisfied some sort of desire for harmony or meaning or explanation, and without that I’d feel melancholy.”
So what would drive a writer to push through the risk of hurting people? “If you don’t . . . I mean, I’ve nothing against Alice Taylor, for example, but I think she dwells on the sunny side of life and that’s grand. But there’s more than the sun in life, there’s also the dark.
“Yet if you bite off too much, you’re really just presenting a mess of memories, and that’s not much use to people, because people come to writing still to have some sort of a shape. The pleasure in a good book or a good film or a good piece of music is that there’s some shape given to it, and that satisfies something in us.”
What does he believe to be the strength of memoir? “The veracity,” he says. “The feeling that this is real.”
Kenny’s writing advice
- Write every day: "You should be there every day, and work. I work 10am-2pm every day and I've done that for the last 45 years. I've done that today and I hope that I'll do that till I die."
- Write about something you love: "If you write a memoir about something you love, you're not going to do it wrong. If you're writing about people you love . . . My first book of memoir is about school friends and school, my relations in the country and so on. That was my life."
- Don't be nice, be precise: "I wouldn't have dreamed about being nasty about anyone in [my first memoir], but at the same time I tried to show what you were like at the time. When you're young, you're a barbarian in many ways, aren't you? We spent our time killing birds and fish, and tearing things up. And then everyone having nervous breakdowns as they did in the late 60s. Just try to describe it as passionately and accurately as you can. Trying to balance niceness and precision is the thing."
Lionel McCarthy on reading family memoir
Lionel McCarthy’s grandfather Mick McCarthy was a bricklayer by trade, and he owned the Embankment pub in Tallaght. During the ballad boom of the 1960s and 1970s, it was one of the main venues showcasing music by the likes of the Fureys and Dubliners. “He would work all night and be in bed all day writing these memoirs,” McCarthy says. He died in 2004, leaving three volumes of memoir. “It’s a fascinating story. It starts with growing up in Kerry during the War of Independence, and he then stows away on a boat to Liverpool at 14.”
Even as a child, McCarthy was well aware of what his grandfather was working on. “The only way you’d be allowed into the room is if you were delivering a cup of tea or a slice of toast or a bit of dinner. You’d all vie for the opportunity to bring in the cup of tea because you’d be tipped well for your trouble.”
These stories were not just written down for posterity. McCarthy’s grandfather had writerly ambitions. “He definitely felt he had the ability to write. He was of writing stock, of sorts; he was from Listowel and he would’ve been taught at primary school by Bryan McMahon. His brother Sean McCarthy was a reasonably well-known balladeer and writer.”
The first two books were published in the early 1990s. Intriguingly, McCarthy has yet to read the third and final instalment of his grandfather’s work. “My dad has a copy of it. There’s probably a bit of reluctance to know what really happened during those Embankment years. It was a booze-fuelled environment; God knows what went on. I’m reluctant to expose myself to it but it’s something I’m going to have to do,” he says, laughing.
Like his grandfather, McCarthy believes in the importance of documenting the family story. “Even if it was just something personal that was held in the family, people are just so interested in their roots and where they’ve come from and how it has shaped them.”
Many self-publishing companies, such as selfpublishbooks.ie, require a minimum order of 100 books. If your requirements are more modest, consider these options:
- Creating a paperback: CreateSpace and Lulu allow you to create your own paperback by downloading their MS format templates and laying out your book as you would like it to appear. Placing a book for sale on Amazon.com with CreateSpace costs about €10.
- Creating an ebook: Smashwords and Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing allow you to create your own ebook by following their formatting guide.
- Writing.ie has more tips on self- publishing.
HOW TO GO ABOUT WRITING MEMOIR
- Develop a writing habit: If you haven't written down a thought or observation in years, begin a journal. Note down a few points every day about a character you met or a place you visited. Teach yourself to write vividly, with all your senses.
- Use writing prompts: Look through old diaries, photo albums and newspaper cuttings and regularly write 500-word pieces about the memory that is triggered. Visit the place where the event occurred and keep notes. Talk to family members and friends about their memories.
- Cultivate a voice: Write the way you speak. Don't write with an imaginary beret on your head. Tell your story with the colour and detail you would use in life if talking to a friend.
- Read widely: If you want to write travel memoir, read Geoff Dyer, Paul Theroux and Jan Morris. For childhood memoir, read Mary Karr, Frank O'Connor and Lorna Sage. For redemptive, uplifting memoir, read Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert. Keep note of structure, use of flashback and dialogue. Underline. Write in the margins.
- Read the Malcolm Gladwell essay 'Late Bloomers': Realise that it is not too late to become a writer.
- Complete a writing course: These usually run for eight weeks and can be useful for helping with structure and voice. An inspirational teacher and helpful feedback can be invaluable. Accept criticism gracefully and learn who to tune out.
- Start a blog: Be brave. Using Tumblr, Medium or Wordpress, post your work on the internet and share it via Twitter and Facebook.
- Enter a writing competition: Fish Publishing runs an annual Short Memoir Contest. Mslexia.co.uk runs several competitions a year for women writers.
- Attend a writing retreat and get down to some serious writing: See the websites of Anam Cara Retreat and The Story House Ireland for more details.
- Create a piece of writing you can hold in your hand: Self-publish a short memoir of 30,000 words and give a copy of your paperback to members of your family next Christmas.
- Submit a piece to a literary magazine: Bite the bullet and put your work out into the world. The Stinging Fly, the Dublin Review, Gorse and Banshee Literary Journal all publish memoir.
- Make like Oprah: Secure an eight- figure deal for writing an "inspirational memoir" to be published in 2017.
A HELPING HAND: AVAILABLE COURSES
- Writing Memoir with Ivy Bannister. Irish Writers Centre. Begins February 10th, 2016. €220
- Essay and Memoir with Henry McDonald. Irish Writers Centre. February 9th, 2016. Eight-week course, €220
- Big Smoke Writing Factory: Introduction to Memoir. One-day workshop. January 30th, €60
- For a more affordable option, the Irish Writers Centre also hosts a number of writing groups that you can attend for a cost of about €5 a session.
- Find a local writing group near you on creativewriting.ie