Today’s guest blog post is brought to you by author and lecturer Jonathan Taylor.
Writing Memoirs by Jonathan Taylor
There are many reasons why people decide to sit down and spend hours, days, even years of their lives writing memoirs. For some, writing is a way of remembering what they’ve found out through research; for some, writing is a way of preserving what they’ve found out for their children and grandchildren; for others, writing is a way of telling personal or family stories to people outside the immediate family unit, often with the ultimate aim of publication.
All of these different kinds of writing imply different spheres of readership, from the self, to other family members, to the public at large. And, in turn, these different spheres of readership determine the kinds of writing involved. Put it this way: if, as a writer, you are writing for your own memory, you might just list facts, dates, names and notes. If you are writing for your family, you might need to develop these notes into anecdotes and stories, in order to interest younger family members, who might otherwise prefer watching Eastenders. If, on the other hand, you are writing for the reading public at large, you will need to shape your anecdotes, stories and histories in a very different way altogether. This chapter concentrates on this third form of writing because, in some ways, it is the most difficult and certainly the strangest of the three.
‘a perverse and solitary desire’ (Michael Ondaatje)
And the first thing a memoir-writer needs to acknowledge is that it is strange to want to let people you don’t know into personal or family secrets. It is strange to want to hang out your family’s old laundry for all to see. As Michael Ondaatje says in his wonderful memoir, Running in the Family, his urge to ‘touch … into words’ his ‘relations from [his] … parents’ generation’ is ‘a perverse and solitary desire.’[i]
And perhaps it’s even more perverse that readers want to gawp at people’s old laundry – that there are readers out there (by the thousands) who consume memoirs, biographies, autobiographies and social histories by the dozen. No doubt some of this is simple nosiness: after all, everyone is intrigued by other people’s dirty laundry, other people’s secrets, other people’s faults, eccentricities, failings, failures. Hence the popularity of chat shows on daytime T.V.
As a writer, you can’t overestimate the importance of the ‘nosiness’ factor in your readers. It’s a basic human urge. People want to know other people’s business, pry into their relationships, sneak a peak in their underwear drawer. They want to know what makes other people tick, what is special, odd, unique, idiosyncratic about them. So when you’re writing for publication, you need to think about this all the time: what makes your subject special? What makes it worth reading? What differentiates your personal story from everyone else’s? In the words of the publishing industry, what is your story’s ‘unique selling point’?
Such questions don’t have to bother writers who are writing for themselves or their own families. But for the memoir-writer who is aiming at publication – for the writer who wants to interest publishers and general readers – the story has to have a central theme, image, character, setting, anything which sets it apart from a million million other stories. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the story has to be world-shattering or Napoleonic in scope. In his book Writing Home, Alan Bennett claims that ‘ordinary middle-aged men in raincoats can be instruments of the sublime,’[ii] and a good memoirist knows this. A good memoirist finds the sublime in supposed ordinariness, and focuses on what is special and unique about their supposedly ‘normal’ family or personal background. Every family, every life has something which marks it out from all the others, and it is this element which should form the central point of a memoir, lending it some kind of coherence.
Again, people who are writing for themselves don’t need to worry about coherence; they can write about anything and everything, listing lots of unconnected facts, transcribing anecdotes verbatim, recording everything they’ve discovered. But the writer who wants to be published has to have a central subject – something, as I say, which makes their work special – and has to focus on it single-mindedly, selecting what is relevant, and cutting everything which doesn’t fit in. Such a writer is not writing to record and remember all of his or her history. He or she is necessarily focusing on a particular subject or theme which makes the story special, and therefore of interest to general readers.
‘unlike every other; and yet, at the same time, so like every other’ (Thomas Carlyle)