Tag Archives: memoir

Have you read any great memoirs lately?

As I mentioned a few months ago in my blog post When was the last time you felt really happy? I’ve been reading a lot about the craft of writing autobiography lately, and when I posted about this on my fb author page someone recommended Joy Harjo’s wonderful memoir.

IMG_2180It’s beautifully written, short but perfectly formed, with the text divided into four sections named after the directions – East for sunrise and beginnings, North for difficult teachings, West for leaving and being left, and finding your way in the darkness, and South for release.

I love the voice, so thoughtful and steeped in the spiritual traditions of Harjo’s ancestors, and the way the story begins with her journey towards being born, which gives her the opportunity to describe the lives of her parents before they became her parents.

The story is embedded in its time and place in such a way that it evokes her whole social situation, bringing it alive even for readers like me, who may have known nothing at all about the Mvskoke/Creek Nation.

Much of what she says really chimes with me, such as this idea, that has informed my life in every area, especially my writing:

I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you. Or drag you down with their immense sadness at being abandoned.

 I’ll be blogging about other great memoirs and books on memoir writing over the coming months, while I’m planning my workshop days on ‘Writing Your Life’ and pondering my own next autobiographical adventure.

Have you read any great memoirs lately?

 

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Why you should never read someone else’s journal

In the long hiatus between my mother’s death on October 19th and her funeral last Friday, I wasn’t able to focus on work much at all, and that felt OK and appropriate. I slept a lot, dreamt a lot, read non-fiction books and wrote in my journal.

I was working through some of the exercises in Change Your Story, Change Your Life: Using Shamanic and Jungian Tools to Achieve Personal Transformation by Carl Greer one morning, when it occurred to me that anyone reading my journal after I died might not understand, as I do in the writing, that it’s an experiment, and not a report.

Slow start warning: I nearly gave up on this book after the first chapter, which felt like puff and waffle. Glad I didn't.
Slow start warning: I nearly gave up on this book after the first chapter, which felt like puff and waffle. A few chapters in, I’m glad I didn’t.

Actually, my whole journal is a perpetual work-in-progress. Every page I write is part of a creative exploration. It isn’t me – it’s a kaleidoscope of all the possibilities of me, and I’m aware of that when I’m writing in it in much the same way as when I’m gathering notes for a work of fiction, knowing all the time that many of my ideas won’t fit the story and will have to be discarded.

A journal or diary is a first encounter with ideas and events, before you’ve had a chance to ponder and decide what you think of them. To get a true sense of a person’s life, I guess you’d need to read their autobiography, because there you have a completed work. Where a journal is a mess of notes, often contradictory or inconsequential, an autobiography is an expression of the writer’s identity, his or her choice of what’s important and how they understand what’s happened.

I was struck by something in Natalie Goldberg’s book on memoir-writing Old Friend from Far Away last week; she says we shouldn’t think we have to be old before we can write a memoir. We don’t need the whole story all in one go, at the end. We can write memoirs from time to time throughout a long life, and each one will be the most complete expression of who we are and how we understand our lives up to that point.

In that sense, I guess autobiography could be seen as a work-in-progress too, but the difference is that in autobiography we are writing what we know about ourselves and our life, whereas in journalling we are feeling our way along the borders of our knowledge, and what we find must be judged as me or not-me, accepted or discarded, as part of the process of becoming.

If you read someone’s journal – as well as the obvious problem that it is private writing and they did not intend it to be read – you will not find the person there, and thinking that you will could give you every which kind of wrong impression, like listening to someone’s dreams and believing you can interpret them. A good dream therapist will simply hold the dream so that the dreamer can look at it from different angles, because only the dreamer can find out what it means.

I love my journals
I love my journals

I include all sorts of things in my journals – dreams, ideas, experiences, book reviews, quotations, drawings, writing exercises and creative experiments. I love them, just as I love my dreams, specifically because they don’t define me.

With both, there’s a feeling of infinite possibility, a continuously forming sense of direction, so that even at the end of a lifetime of journalling and dreaming, I’m sure there will be no conclusion, because the conclusion is always up ahead.

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My children have strict instructions to burn my diaries without reading them when I die. What would you like to happen to yours?

When was the last time you felt really happy? Write for 10 minutes…

I’m reading Nathalie Goldberg’s book on writing memoir, which goes under the wonderful title of Old Friend from Far Away. As you might expect with Goldberg, it’s full of practical writing exercises, and when I came to this one, I was briefly stalled: When was the last time you felt really, really happy?

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I’ve done the exercise before – I can’t remember now what prompted it – and it was really easy. Having fresh blueberries on my morning muesli – that had made me happy. Watching an old episode of Frasier while I was eating it – happy, happy, happy. My normal approach to life is celebratory and thankful, so happiness always feels close to the surface.

But today I found myself having to cast my mind back, across the numb times of these past few weeks, during which my mother was given a diagnosis of leukaemia, developed pneumonia and died, all within ten days. She approached the end of her life the way she approached every part of it, with stoicism, taking care of the practicalities and being clear about her preferences and decisions.

She was 90 years old, and had been ready to go for several years, as her physical condition deteriorated; she was not at all afraid of dying. She died in her own home, having steadfastly refused all life-extending treatments, with her family at her bedside, on her wedding anniversary, so in many ways it felt like a blessed death.

In this interval between my mother dying and her funeral, I’ve been mostly sleeping, walking and reading – books like the Nathalie Goldberg.

When was the last time I felt really, really happy? I suddenly remembered my book launch, at my friend Gill’s art gallery in Devon. My younger daughter was staying with me, and she raised the toast for one of the books I was launching. One of my oldest friends raised the second toast. I did some readings.

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It was a stunning, beautiful evening, a full moon over Dartmoor, and a happy throng inside the bright gallery, among the paintings and artefacts. Everything flowed.

A happy throng
A happy throng

Afterwards, my daughter stayed on for a few days. The weather was hot, as it often is in Cornwall in the last days of September, and we walked the coastal path together.

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So that’s what I’ve just written about, and now the last time I felt really happy was half an hour ago.

Such is the transforming magic of writing. When you use all your senses to immerse yourself in the creative experience and allow your body to feel the emotions, you are creating or re-creating real experience for the self.

Right now, I can’t manage to push forward into new worlds with fiction and my current work-in-progress, but writing into the more familiar territory of my own life feels easy and affirming.

I’m looking forward to offering a new course in memoir writing in 2016