Category Archives: Memoir writing

Why we need to tell our stories

I wasn’t going to write any more posts about depression and suicide, but I’ve been thinking this week about a writer I knew, Jonny Zucker, who killed himself last year.

Jonny’s family have just announced the Striker Boy campaign, in which they are donating all proceeds of a new edition of one of his books to the mental health charity, Mind.

When Jonny died, the tributes and memories that poured in all said very similar things. How generous he was, how full of energy and enthusiasm, how funny, and how very loved.

So often, those who take their own lives seem to be bright stars like him, people who have touched other people’s lives in one way or another, but don’t seem to have understood how amazing they are.

So here I am, thinking and talking about suicide again, wishing like everyone must, that there was some way of reaching across the dreadful chasm that can open up around a person and swallow them down.

I don’t think we can convince somebody thinking about suicide how wonderful and loved they are, or how much they matter. Even if we could, would that be enough to reach across the chasm and hold onto them?

Certainly, we can make sure the people around us know we are there for them, and will listen in a non-judging way, if they ever need someone to turn to. We can avoid saying unhelpful things that will make the person feel even worse, such as ‘I don’t know why you’re so hard on yourself’ or ‘Why don’t you just snap out of it?’ But not everyone is actually able to talk about it when they’re struggling with depression.

My feeling is that the biggest thing we can do for each other is be honest and not hide our own darkness. Sadness, feelings of pointlessness, even despair, are all part of the human condition, although that goes against our cultural assumptions.

We think we should be able to be happy all the time and every kind of pain is – or certainly should be – fixable. In our culture, unhappiness feels like failure, and we’re ashamed of owning up to it.

But the golden life is an illusion. We shouldn’t be claiming it while hiding our own darkness, because that make the darkness even more terrifying and lonely for people currently going through it.

What we need to recognise and especially to teach our children is that everyone experiences sadness, fear, despair… it’s natural. Life can be hard, but we can learn to handle it. This is the message in all my kids’ self-help books, including How 2B Happy.

I don’t mean I think we should bang on about our problems all the time, but just be real with each other. Real life stories belong to all of us; they lift us above our own situation and show us our wider human condition. They give us a sense of belonging.

A member of Jonny’s family commented, ‘Mental health needs to be discussed in the open and these personal stories need to be shared.’

I could not agree more.

If you would like to buy a copy of Jonny’s book, the new special edition comes out on October 6th. 

 

 

 

 

 

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Diaries and the joy of remembering

This week, I’m delighted to welcome Julie Newman in the House of Dreams to talk about her diaries, as part of my occasional series of guest posts about personal writing. Julie has written a number of memoirs and nostalgia pieces for magazines including This England and Evergreen, and her diaries have proven to be a really useful resource.

I first met Julie in 2008 when she enrolled on my course, Finding Your Voice. She is currently working on an account of all the houses she has lived in. She still keeps a daily diary and attends various writing courses. She says creative writing has become something of an obsession!

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Julie Newman

I discovered my love of writing at secondary school, writing comic-strip stories for my friends to read in break-time. Then, as a teenager, I began to keep a diary. Now I have a cupboard full stretching across thirty years. 

My first little diary had a tartan cover. The year was 1966. One of the girls at work kept one and I decided it would be a good idea, mainly to record dates with boyfriends and different events.

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‘He’s lovely!’

This extended to writing about my feelings/teenage angst. One boyfriend in particular made a huge impression on me, so much so that he is the subject of my memoir ‘No One Comes Close’.

When we met up again it was 1987, twenty years after we had parted. I sent him a 40th birthday card, not knowing where he was living, but it found its way to him in Australia. I was unhappily married at the time. We met secretly in Trafalgar Square, while he was visiting his family. After two more meetings, I was overjoyed when he decided to come back to the UK and make his home here, with me. This was the catalyst for my divorce.

My diary-writing had lapsed in the intervening years but started again in earnest when my life took this unexpected turn. This time I recorded all my feelings, hoping to find answers as to why our relationship did not make it past the first post. He couldn’t find work and went back to Australia but we kept in touch.

I later remarried but never forgot him. I instinctively knew when he was visiting – a kind of spiritual pull – and would phone his mum, hoping to speak to him, which I managed to do on a number of occasions. This continued until his death in 2008.

I still have my little tartan diary. Last September was the 50th anniversary of our first meeting; I carefully thumbed through the pages, now spotted brown with age, and remembered all the times we met in London as if it were yesterday.

If you have enjoyed Julie’s contribution, please leave a comment.

If you would like to contribute yourself, email me author@jennyalexander.co.uk with about 600 words about your personal writing and a couple of photos.

I’ve got some cracking guest posts lined up for you already – I’m loving this series!

 

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?

A must-read for would-be memoirists

Last week, I mentioned a brand new book edited by Meredith Maran called Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature . I was hoping it might help me develop my thinking about the issue of whether it’s OK to tell your story when in doing so you will almost certainly intrude upon the privacy of those closest to you.

I’m happy to say that it has.

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Most of these thoughtful essays about memoir writing address the problem specifically, with many of the authors saying that they send the relevant pages to anyone mentioned by name before they go to publication.

Several say that if the person had any objection to being named they would either disguise their identity or omit the passages concerned altogether. Others say they make the judgement on a case-by-case basis.

I like this approach from Sue Monk Kidd:

Whenever I use someone’s name or reference them, I send them the relevant page or pages of the manuscript before turning the book in. They are usually close friends or family members. I tell them, ‘This is what I’m saying; if you have problems with it, let’s talk about it. I won’t necessarily change the content, but I’ll change your name ~ Sue Monk Kidd

I think a definite upside to sending the manuscript to anyone you’ve mentioned would be that there wouldn’t be any surprises – you’d have had the discussion before you decide how to proceed.

No surprises for the person who is mentioned and none for the author either: several of these essays mention the experience of expecting someone to find a particular thing intrusive and finding they’re fine with that, but have taken serious umbrage about something else the memoirist never dreamed might be problematic.

Related to the question of whether it’s OK to expose other people in telling your own story is the question of why we want to write the memoir at all. The point is made that since memoirs  pretty much always risk hurting people, what could make that a risk worth taking?

The most common reason the writers here give is the desire to help or inspire other people who may be experiencing something similar to what they have lived through. This made me smile, since one of my writing goals for this year is ‘Let go of the drive to be helpful in my writing.’

How can I make my writing better, deeper, truer? Is it true to my voice and my vision? Questions like that often consumed me. They were vital; they still are. But as I got older, the point was not only how I served my work; it was about what my work served ~ Sue Monk Kidd

But I guess this drive to be helpful may be another aspect of my writer self that makes me quite well-suited to memoir writing, besides the mix of fiction and non-fiction I write and the examined life that I mentioned in my last post.

So those are my big takeaways from this book, but there’s so much in it that I’m sure anyone who’s thinking about writing memoir will find the answers to their questions too.

Have you ever considered writing about your own life? Why might you want to, and what holds you back?

Is your life story yours to tell?

I’ve always suffered from this odd inconsistency as a writer: I love reading memoirs and I  have lots of creative ideas for writing one myself, but it’s never felt acceptable to me to go there because you can’t tell your own story without involving other people.

I got round this in the memoir sections of Writing in the House of Dreams by focusing on my inner life and barely mentioning anyone in my day-to-day except my older sister, who had been dead for forty years, but it was a struggle and meant I had to leave out some of my most powerful dream experiences because they involved other family members and close friends.

I only realised this week that I’ve probably been put off writing autobiographically by a particular kind of memoir that seems to dominate the market, even having its own section in many bookshops – so-called inspirational lives, or more commonly, misery memoirs.

I’ve never actually read one of these. I don’t like the idea. Writing about traumatic childhood experiences feels like something that could be very therapeutic, but therapeutic writing is private writing for me. Therapy is about healing, and publishing this kind of book feels like something that’s more likely to put existing rifts beyond healing.

(Having said that, and in passing, this article by ghost writer, Andrew Crofts, on the excellent Authors Electric blog makes an interesting case for the misery memoir as lifting the lid on child abuse and paving the way for the current exposure of people like Jimmy Savile.)

But there are lots of different motivations for writing autobiography besides therapy or a desire for justice, and I’ve had to give some thought to those in planning my upcoming Writing Your Life workshops.

As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction and the owner of an examined life, I suspect that writing memoir may be my natural speed. It’s certainly the kind of writing I feel most alarmed by, and the things you fear almost always turn out to be your greatest opportunities.

I’ve got some ideas for telling some of the stories of my life which feel exciting and intriguing but, in the meantime, I’ve just bought a book called Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Maran. I’m hoping it’ll help me develop my thinking. I’ll let you know if it does.

Any thoughts?