Writing your memoir: the perils and rewards

This Autumn I devised and taught my first memoir-writing evening course. I had included sessions on autobiographical writing in several of my general writing courses, but I wanted to do it over several weeks, with daily tasks people could do at home between sessions, so they could hold the focus and deepen the experience of writing about their own life if they wanted to.

Take-up for the course was so good that I was able to run two groups, and everyone in both groups engaged wholeheartedly with the adventure, even though it took them by surprise.

All kinds of writing can surprise you. In fiction, your imagination can take you places you didn’t expect, because venturing into imagination is venturing into the unknown. In poetry, symbolic resonances may emerge that you didn’t know were there, leapfrogging  the familiar trails of your rational mind across what Jung called the bridge of your emotions. Even non fiction can surprise you, both in revealing how much you know and how much you don’t know about your subject. It can challenge your assumptions.

But writing about your personal past can be particularly surprising, because memory is a story you live with every day, and you think it’s the whole story of your past.

Only memory isn’t history. It’s a construct of the story making mind. It’s a sifting and selecting of experience to construct a coherent narrative that can explain to us our present feelings and circumstances, based on the assumption of cause and effect.

This sifting and selecting means that much of our actual experience drops completely out of our awareness. Writing about the past can rediscover what has been lost, and some of what we find may not fit with our ideas about who we are and how we got to be this way at all.

Many people say ‘I had a happy childhood’ or ‘I had an unhappy childhood’, but actually writing into it, writing around it, using creative techniques to uncover authentic memories, means the person with the sunny childhood may recall darker moments, and the person with the unhappy childhood may remember happy ones.

Writing about your life is a bold adventure because a richer, broader and more nuanced awareness of the past means your ideas about yourself may need to grow to fit it, and that can be a very uncomfortable process.

Also, once started, this writing is just the beginning of a process. I had phone calls from several of the ‘Writing Your Life’ course participants two or three weeks after the last session, saying how their memory was continuing to open up; they were still remembering all sorts of forgotten things, and understanding the events and characters of their past in different ways.

The goal of some dreaming traditions is ‘to make life better.’ Through techniques such as dream incubation and lucid dreaming,  you can transform nightmares and make your dream life better, and in making your dream life better, you make your day life better too, because all that rich and positive experience becomes part of you, who you are and how you see yourself.

I think that in the same way that creative dreaming, through making your dream life better, makes your day life better too, memoir writing, through making your memories of the past richer and more satisfying, can make your experience of the present better too.

For me, this isn’t an incidental benefit; it’s the actual purpose of writing, in so many different ways, to make life better.

Have you ever done any memoir writing? Did what came up surprise you?

10 Fantastic Christmas Presents for Writers

It’s that time again, and the great thing about buying things for writers is that you can give them something that will provide weeks or months of writing pleasure and inspiration without breaking the bank.

Here are some suggestions for things your writing friends might like – or if you’re a writer, why not treat yourself?

Gorgeous Notebooks.

The name says it all, and they really are gorgeous. I’ve been using them for my writing journals for several years now, as readers of my newsletter will know. Great quality paper, beautiful binding, a useful ribbon to mark your place and a handy pocket at the back for bits and pieces.

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Disposable fountain pens.

They write just like a fountain pen but the ink doesn’t smudge, and they come in every colour. If you aren’t keen on sharpies for book-signing, these are a good alternative, as well as being excellent for writing in your gorgeous notebook, of course.

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Coach Yourself to Writing Success

Whatever kind of writing you do, it helps to understand what’s most important to you and create writing goals that fit with your core values. That way, you’re both more likely to succeed and also more likely to enjoy your success when you do. My friend Penny Dolan recommended this book to me a while ago, and I’ve recommended it to other writer friends ever since.

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Go Stationery pocket notebooks

Even in these days of mobile phones, most writers like to carry a notebook somewhere about their person when they’re away from home, and these are perfect – not too big, bulky, or heavy to put in your pocket; soft but not flimsy covers; good quality unlined paper and attractive cover designs.

I got mine from Waterstones.

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100 Prized Poems

Not just writers, but everybody in the world can find solace, joy, companionship and inspiration in poetry, and this new book is full of wonderful poems. My thanks to Jackie Kay for recommending it during her brilliant workshop at the North Cornwall Book Festival🙂

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6 A writing workshop – any writing workshop!

Speaking of Jackie Kay’s workshop, which was pure delight, a place on a writing workshop will please your writer friends or writer self, and it’ll be something to look forward to at the end of the Christmas festivities.

I love going on other people’s workshops, and I’ve yet to meet another writer who doesn’t. (I’ve added the link to mine, but you can just google writing workshops in your area to find ones local to you)

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7 Probably my favourite book on writing ever

Being a writer isn’t just a way you pass your time – it’s a part of the way you are. Developing a practice of writing is a profound kind of self development, and Natalie Goldberg brings a Buddhist sensibility to it which I love.

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And speaking of self development…

8 Shamanic and Jungian tools for writers who want to rewrite their own story

This is a fascinating workbook with loads of writing exercises. Not for everyone, obviously, but I really enjoyed it.

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9 A day out to somewhere interesting

Most writers are more excited by experiences than things, so how about a ticket to somewhere that might spark their imagination, such as the Foundling Museum?

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10 And finally…

Two companionable books for writers from me, which both offer plenty of short writing tasks for you or your writer friends to take refuge in if you need to pace yourselves over the festive period.

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Happy Christmas shopping!

Have you got any recommendations for Christmas presents for writers? Please share!

 

What can you do when the black dog comes calling?

What can you do in the depths of depression? Nothing. That really is the point. You may be able to keep functioning for years, keeping the lid on the echo chamber of your heart, but if you fall through, your reason and senses, your energy and willpower, your connection with other people, everything that normally sustains you will be gone.

This is a terrifying experience and, while it’s still horribly fresh in my mind, I’d like to say a bit about what helped me, in case it happens to you.

When you fall:

  • be kind to yourself. Be aware that negative thoughts, especially about yourself, will rise like scum. Let them bubble over and be gone. Don’t drink them in.
  • explain to others what you need – they may not understand that detaching yourself feels frightening for you, and doesn’t even slightly mean you love or need them less. You need them more, but you need them to allow that distance, and hold the space.
  • bear it. Have faith that it will pass, because everything does; that’s the nature of life. It might come back, but then it will pass again.
  • believe and be alert. Look for treasure in the darkness, and be ready to embrace the opportunities it brings for balance and transformation.

After the crisis, as you begin to feel life stirring again:

  • try to connect with other people, especially in ways that may be helpful to them. At first, connecting with people you don’t know well could be easier, because you may still feel too fragile to cope with the powerful emotions you feel for your nearest and dearest.
  • surround yourself with beauty. This doesn’t mean you have to seek out beautiful things, but simply to notice the beauty in every single thing around you.
  • feel part of the natural world. In wild places, parks or your own back garden, feel the bare earth beneath you and the boundless sky above.
  • give yourself time. Don’t try to get back to normal as quickly as you possibly can, because a deep bout of depression changes you, and ‘normal’ might not be the same. In my experience, it will be better.

When I was able to get up again from my bed of tears, these were the things that helped and soothed me back to myself.

I couldn’t write books, but I could create new workshops, because I thought of them like gifts to other people. And as with every gift, I got back much more than I gave, in warmth and positive regard. I couldn’t walk far, but I spent hours on the beach or outside in the garden, just being.

Nobody wants a visit from the black dog of depression, but if he’s part of your nature, as he is for many creative people, trying to keep him out is fighting yourself. This is only my view, I should add. I know that other people prefer to hold the black dog at bay with drugs or therapy.

I would never suggest you shouldn’t seek medical or psychological help if you suffer from depression. I tried every therapy going throughout my teens and twenties, and beyond, and if anything had worked for me, I probably would never have taken the hard choice to stop trying to keep the black dog out, and learn to live with him. (I’ve blogged about ‘How I Tamed My Black Dog’ here)

But I’m glad I had to in the end, because through disrupting my known and normal life, he opens me up to change.

How do you respond when the black dog comes calling? Have you got any tips of your own to share?

 

 

A dream of darkness

A few days after I last blogged, way back in May, I went to Iceland. I’d always been drawn to the North, so Iceland had been on my must-see list for decades, but what made me actually go this year was a series of dreams I had around the time of my mother’s death last November. They were ‘big dreams’ – dreams that had a momentous quality, a deep sense of mystery and meaning.

They were a call to ancestors, to the place beyond death and, specifically, to Iceland. So like all dreamers, who have learnt how and when to listen, I followed the call of my dreams.

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Being in Iceland felt, to me, like being in a dream. I had completely underestimated the size of the island, and the sparseness of the population; I had not expected the vast tracts of volcanic deserts and inaccessible mountains. I hadn’t noticed that the key on my map had only three kinds of terrain – places where something’s growing, places where not much is growing, and places where basically nothing is growing at all, which was about 40 percent of the land.

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Ice, water – and fire too. In Iceland, the hot water in your shower smells of sulphur, because it’s piped straight out of the volcanic ground, and when you’re walking in some places, you can hear the gurgle of water boiling and bubbling, breathing out wafts of sulphurous steam, and then the earth feels like a living being. You can absolutely understand why Icelandic people believe in earth spirits – you can believe it yourself.

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Land of fire and ice, and of light and darkness too. I visited several art exhibitions which explored the creative sensibility of the peoples of the North, shaped by long dark winters and summer months of continuous light. They made explicit how this environment can drive a psychological rhythm between extremes of celebration and isolation, of joy and depression.

I felt these extremes in myself, the whole time I was there. On the surface, excited and enchanted by everything I saw and everyone I met, but sensing all the time, the darkness moving underneath. A few days in, I had this dream:

The car is packed for the next stage of my journey and I’m having a last cup of tea with my hosts. Looking out over Rekjavik through their big window, I see a sudden darkness coming across the sky – clouds?

I see black clouds rising along the edge of town, pouring up into the air from the ground, and as I watch, a sudden column of sparkling fire shoots up, exploding in a great shower of sparks, orange and red, filling the thick black cloud that’s covering everything.

‘What is that?’ I gasp.

‘The volcano’s erupting.’

Black soot is falling everywhere, covering everything, but it doesn’t matter. This is what I’ve come for. The darkness. Not just fun and distraction. I always knew it.

It was the beginning of what has been, for me, a difficult summer. I went to Iceland following the kind of dreams that will take you deep into your own darkness, as well as bringing you, eventually, to wonder and light.

I had expected to meet the black dog, but black dogs come in different shapes and sizes. This one turned out to be huge and hungry, feral and strong, and he was never going to settle for living in my house like a sad old labrador for just a few weeks or months.

It’s been a long and exhausting trek through his cold darkness but, last week, I woke one morning with a great sense of relief, after my first full night’s sleep for months, and a bright thought filled my mind like a sunrise, ‘It’s over now.’

I’m sorry I was away so long, but very happy to be back. 

 

Should writers read, read, read?

A participant on one of my recent writing workshops told us that she’d got stalled with the book she was working on, possibly because she had grown disheartened after reading several particularly wonderful books in the same genre.

It made me think about the advice most authors give new writers, to learn from the best and read, read, read.

I realised that although I do read a lot, it’s never in the same genre as I’m currently writing. When I was a new graduate working in a public library, I gorged myself on children’s fiction, catching up on all the books I’d missed as a non-reading child, but when I started writing children’s fiction in my late thirties, I  moved away from reading children’s books and immersed myself in adults’ books about self-help and popular psychology.

By the time I started writing self-help for children in my forties, I’d stopped reading it and moved on to books about spirituality, dreams and the creative process.

Over the last few years, when I’ve been writing mostly about dreams and creativity, and working on my first dream-inspired fantasy fiction, my reading has been mostly memoir, and I have a few ideas for autobiographical writing firming up in the back of my mind at the moment, which I think may be my next big writing project.

Of course, by the time I start to write any memoirs of my own, I’m sure I’ll be reading in some new genre altogether.

I think I’ve always instinctively avoided reading the same kind of book as I’m writing, in order not to be influenced or discouraged by other people’s work. I’m inspired by it, but usually in the months and years before I decide to have a go myself.

I’ve no idea what my longer-term future writing will be,  but it occurs to me now that the clue will be in whatever I find myself reading while I’m working on these fiction and memoir ideas.

This is how it works for me, and my first advice to would-be writers would not be read, read, read so much as write, write, write. Diaries, articles, poems, stories – write whatever you fancy writing. Write your way into your own voice.

Read whatever you fancy reading too; don’t feel you have to stick to the same kind of thing as you want to write, because you never know where inspiration might come from. Enjoy other people’s writing, but take a break if it puts you off doing your own.

When it comes to what I’m reading and writing at any given time, I prefer different genres. How about you?

 

The glimpse is the gift

Last night, I had a dream about the rewards of writing, and when I woke I thought, I can blog about that. When I turned on my computer in the morning, I discovered this quotation in my Facebook timeline, which was a delightful synchronicity to start the day.

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy ~ Rabindranath Tagore

Because this was my dream.

I am in a wild, upland place, being taken to see a wonderful plant. I’m given just the briefest glimpse of tall stems with early blooms of the most intense purple, and I realise it’s the colour that I’ve been brought to see. Usually, I am brought to see the indescribable aqua, but this time it’s this purple.

I’ve been writing something, and it’s a test – if I pass, I can come back and see this purple in all its intensity, in full flower. But this time, I have not passed and I will have to go back and start again, and try with another piece of writing.

This is the work, and I’m grateful for it. I don’t feel disheartened by failure, because the work itself is my reward.

It was always like this. I look back at all my writing, so many books I poured my heart and self into that never saw the light of day – real work, hard work – and I never achieved any kind of fame or recognition, but I don’t regret any of it.

Like the family years. I remember the sense of pride I took in the tasks of the household and childcare, which felt important, and a privilege, to be able to live in service to the work. I never felt bored or resentful, or that what I did was unimportant.

I had work, and I wanted to do it as well as I could. Not everybody is given that sense of purpose. I’ve glimpsed the colour, and one day I might see it in full flower, but the glimpse is the gift.

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Dreaming purple

 

The shortest book review ever

The book: Grief is the Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter

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The review: Wow.

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That’s it. Everything I want to say.

Can I tell you what happens? I don’t want to tell you what happens.

Can I tell you about the writing style? I don’t want to tell you about the writing style.

Am I glad I read it? No, because now I’ll never be able to come to it new again.

If you haven’t read it, you can come to it new, which is why I don’t want to tell you anything about it.

So there you have it.

Wow.

 

 

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