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)
To say the central subject needs to be ‘special,’ ‘original,’ ‘individual,’ or ‘unique’ is another way of saying that it should be different, not only to other comparable books, but also to the readers’ own experiences. The ‘nosiness’ factor is all about difference: people are fascinated about how and why other people are different to us. In that way, both reading and writing memoirs are the result of a ‘solitary desire’: readers and writers want to know what sets individuals apart.
But if a memoir were only about this – if a memoir were only about how bizarre, eccentric, unique a particular family or person was – it wouldn’t inspire any other emotion in its readers than nosiness. Most published memoirs (though by no means all) try to engage their readers in other, deeper ways as well. They try to inspire sympathy and empathy in their readers – and to do this, they encourage feelings of identification between readers and the subject described. Whilst the ‘nosiness’ factor depends on difference between readers and subject, empathy and sympathy depend on a sense of identification or sameness, a shared sense (for example) of ‘Oh, I know how that feels.’ Look at Blake Morrison’s famous family memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, where readers are invited to empathise with the narrator through shared emotions such as grief, bitterness, even teenage embarrassment. Readers might not have a father who was a G.P. in Yorkshire; readers might not even have experienced parental bereavement; but these differences between readers and narrator are underscored by a deeper sense of emotional identification, or sameness.
In this way, successful memoirs, biographies and family histories are often a strange compound of difference and sameness, nosiness and identification. In fact, it is this unstable compound which gives these forms of writing their dynamism. As the nineteenth-century historian and biographer Thomas Carlyle put it: ‘every mortal has a Problem of Existence set before him, which … must be to a certain extent original, unlike every other; and yet, at the same time, so like every other; like our own.’[iii] Readers are fascinated by memoirs because the people, the families, the emotions, the situations described are at once so different yet so similar to our own.
‘We read to know we’re not alone’[iv] – so says the character of C. S. Lewis in the film Shadowlands, and this is nowhere more true than in memoirs and family histories. In good memoirs, readers find their own feelings, their own problems, their own ambivalent relationships with other family members mirrored back at them. However different the situations and events, there is an underlying connection. You don’t have to have a mother with Alzheimer’s to understand and associate with the complex mother-daughter relationship in Linda Grant’s Remind Me Who Am I Again? You don’t have to come from Sri Lanka’s old aristocracy to find Ondaatje’s portrayal of his lost relatives in Running in the Family poignant and poetic. You don’t have to come from early-twentieth-century Ireland to empathise with the narrator’s traumatic childhood in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. The emotions, relationships and traumas described are, to a lesser or greater extent, ‘universal.’
‘there is properly no history, only biography’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
The point is that, however unique or bizarre your story, it should also broaden out into more universal concerns once in a while, in order to connect with the reader’s world. Sometimes, this happens naturally: after all, a story about the difficult relationship between a mother and daughter is bound to resonate with other people who have been a mother or a daughter. Sometimes, though, you need to think more carefully about how the story you’re telling connects with more universal stories and histories.
One way in which many writers have done this is to connect their own personal histories with wider, social histories. For example, in the beautiful comic-strip memoir, Ethel and Ernest, Raymond Briggs sets his parents’ lives in the context of a wider twentieth-century history, showing how world-shattering events like World War 2 and the rise of the Welfare State shaped and changed his parents’ own, small world. In Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood, contemporary readers learn as much about growing up in 1950’s austerity, the Church of England of the time, and N.H.S. maternity care as they do about Sage’s own unique childhood in Shropshire. In William Woodruff’s The Road to Nab End, readers experience the deprivation of 1910’s and 20’s Lancashire through the eyes of the narrator. This makes it all the more powerful: social history seems much more real and affecting when individualised as personal history. And vice versa: personal history gains meaning when placed in a wider context.
That is why it’s important for the memoirist who wants to write for publication to research more generally, to find out about relevant social and political history, as well as their own personal and family history. The writer can establish connections between his or her experiences and other people’s experiences of the time. In researching my memoir, Take Me Home, I discovered some fascinating connections between my own family’s history in the Isle of Man and Oldham and a more general, public history. I discovered that the Manx boating pool on which, as a child, I used to sail model yachts was also visited by my father in the late 1930s and early 40s; and that, when he did so, he would have been within sight of one of the island’s internment camps for enemy aliens set up during the Second World War. In that way, my family’s micro-history is intertwined with international macro-histories. It’s just a small example of how the memoirist needs to be aware of the connections between their micro-history and world-changing macro-histories. Hence the writer will find out how his or her family history was determined by wider histories. The writer will find out how representative his or her family’s experience was of their moment in history – and also how that experience was unique.
‘nothing excuses us from the obligation to divert our fellow creatures’ (Alan Bennett)
Once you’ve marshalled your research, once you’ve thought about how your subject is both unique and ‘universal,’ how do you set about the actual writing?
The fact is that there is no simple or right answer. Writing is a personal experience, particularly when it comes to writing about ourselves and our families. There are, though, certain general rules of good writing which apply to memoir-writing, and which are helpful as guides for the beginning memoirist. No doubt these rules are there to be broken, but they are useful as starting-points.
The first and last rule of writing a memoir for general consumption is that it should be a pleasure to read. This applies whether the events you are describing are funny or sad, comic or tragic: a published memoir needs to be enjoyable. This may seem obvious, but it means that somehow a writer needs to engage readers who have no connection whatsoever with the family members being described, who don’t know and – to start off with – don’t care about them. As a writer, you can assume a certain sympathy and interest on the part of your own family or friends; but you have to earn these things when you come to be read by strangers who don’t know you from Adam. That’s the brutal truth of writing for publication which a memoirist needs always to bear in mind: you are writing for readers who, to begin with, don’t know and don’t care about your family. As the poet Julia Casterton writes:
Sometimes, people read or show me poems which, because of their subject matter, should move me to tears. They may be about the poet’s own experience of abuse as a child or as a sexual partner. They may be about a murder in the poet’s family, or some other form of bereavement. I listen or read with close attention …. But if the poem doesn’t move me through its language, its rhythm, its timbre and texture, then … two words start to nag at the back of my mind. So what?[v]
Though Casterton is talking about poetry here, what she says applies equally to prose memoir-writing. The ‘So what?’ question will nag at the back of readers’ minds unless you write well – however dramatic or emotionally charged your story. You draw readers into your narrative first and foremost by good writing. Readers are interested in good writing, in writing which is easy and pleasurable to read; above all, it is through good writing that you seduce readers into feeling for you and your subject. In that sense, any amount of research always comes second to the actual writing. This is, of course, not the case if you are writing for yourself, where writing is merely a means of preserving research. If, though, you are writing for general readership, priorities are reversed, and it is the writing itself which matters more than the research. If your memoir is not well-written and hence a pleasure to read, no amount of fascinating research or, indeed, emotionally-charged subject-matter will engage readers.
I think this means spending at least as much time on the writing process as on researching your subject. It also means:
- writing grammatically
- writing succinctly
- writing elegantly
- avoiding cliché
- writing humorously, where relevant
- paying attention to structure, so that each episode, moment, anecdote leads onto the next in a seamless flow
- paying attention to details – focussing on details makes writing more vivid. As Deborah Cass writes, ‘it is the small details of people’s everyday lives that readers can empathize with that will humanise your story and make it real for your readers.’[vi]
- using direct speech where relevant, because it is a way of staging other voices than just your own (which can otherwise become a little boring for a reader).
The necessity that a memoir be pleasurable to read also means avoiding:
- self-indulgent emotionalism
- teenage angst
- linear narratives (this-happened-then-this-happened-then-this-happened), without any sense of overall meaning or direction
- self-satisfaction and simplistic, progressive narratives (that is, where ‘things started off badly, but by the end were great’) – leave this to the celebrities
- psychological and emotional explicitness
- confessionalism – a memoir is not there to make you feel better about yourself and the bad things you have done.
Most importantly, you should avoid anything, any scenes, anecdotes, memories, descriptions, characters and words that are not absolutely essential to the overall subject-matter. As I have said, it’s important to have a central, unifying theme to your narrative which makes it special, and it’s also important to stick to that theme. Anything which doesn’t fit in with the central theme has to be left out. What is left out is often just as important as what is kept in. The process of writing a good memoir – unlike, perhaps, writing fiction – is often a process of editing, cutting, refining. You start off with the raw material, in the form of research, your family history, the truth, and then you chisel it down into some kind of narrative shape. Just keep reminding yourself that you don’t have to tell everything, describing every date, every little event, every single relative on a complex family tree. Of course, if you’re writing to preserve your personal or family history for yourself or your children, you may well want to write down everything; but if you are writing for publication, you don’t have to reveal the whole truth, because to do so would make for a confusing story and confused readers. As the great autobiographer Thomas De Quincey once said, ‘to tell nothing but the truth – must, in all cases, be an unconditional moral law: to tell the whole truth is not equally so.’[vii]
‘I confess to a little embroidery there’ (Blake Morrison, Things My Mother Never Told Me)
It’s frankly doubtful, though, that De Quincey stuck to his own diktat in his writings. Most of his readers are aware that he embellished, exaggerated and twisted the so-called ‘truth,’ and most memoirists ultimately find that they have to do the same. If good writing is the principal aim of a published memoir, the absolute ‘truth’ is necessarily subservient to stylistic considerations. That’s not to say, of course, that the truth isn’t immensely important; it’s the raison d’être, after all, for the entire enterprise of memoir-writing. But in the end, you have to remember that a published memoir is going to be bought and read by people for entertainment. People who read memoirs read them for the same reason that people read fiction: to be entertained. It’s all too easy to forget this when writing about family and personal histories which are so often complex, painful, bizarre, harrowing.
But that again is why the memoir is such a strange and perverse form. The memoir form is a strange conduit which turns the writer’s painful and complex family background into a reader’s pleasure. And a good memoirist will always bear the paradoxical nature of the form in mind.
- Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir (Portland: Eighth Mountain, 2002)
- Deborah Cass, Writing Your Family History: A Practical Guide (Ramsbury: Crowood, 2004)
- Ann Hoffman, Research for Writers (London: A and C Black, 1999)
- Brian Osborne, Writing Biography and Autobiography (London: A and C Black, 2004)
A few examples of memoirs
- R. Ackerley, My Father and Myself (New York: New York Review of Books, 1999)
- Alan Bennett, Writing Home (London: Faber, 1998)
- Raymond Briggs, Ethel and Ernest (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999)
- Edmund Gosse, Father and Son (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
- Linda Grant, Remind Me Who I Am Again? (London: Granta, 1999)
- John Lanchester, Family Romance (London: Faber, 2007)
- Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes (London: HarperCollins, 1997)
- Blake Morrison, And When Did You Last See Your Father? (London: Granta, 1993)
- Blake Morrison, As If (London: Granta, 1997)
- Blake Morrison, Things My Mother Never Told Me (London: Vintage, 2003)
- Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family (London: Picador, 1984)
- Lorna Sage, Bad Blood (London: Fourth Estate, 2001)
- G. Sebald, The Emigrants (London: Vintage, 2002)
- Nigel Slater, Toast (London: Fourth Estate, 2003)
- Jonathan Taylor, Take Me Home (London: Granta, 2007)
- William Woodruff, The Road to Nab End (London: Abacus, 2003)
Sample exercises for this chapter on memoir-writing
Because memoirs often concentrate on details, and are built up from fragments, it’s worth having a go (to start off with) writing mini-memoirs – that is, encapsulating short memories in fragments of a few words. Here are a couple of writing exercises which help you do just that:
- A good memoirist can make even apparently trivial and every-day events seem fascinating. So, in exactly 50 words, write about something which has happened to you today. The event you describe can be as trivial as you like, but try to make it seem interesting to a reader who doesn’t know you. This means thinking about the ‘deeper’ meaning (in terms of emotions, relationships, and so on) of the event, and how it might relate to the reader’s experience. Once you’ve written a first draft, rewrite and edit it so that it’s exactly 50 words in length.
- A good memoirist often draws on very early memories. So, in exactly 50 words, write about your very first memory – or a very early memory you have. Again, try to imbue the memory with a meaning, thinking about how your memory might connect with a reader who doesn’t know you. Once you’ve written a first draft, rewrite and edit it so that it’s exactly 50 words in length.
[i] Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family (London: Picador, 1984), p.22.
[ii] Alan Bennett, Writing Home (London: Faber, 1998), p.10.
[iii] Thomas Carlyle, ‘Biography,’ in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, vol. IV, The Works of Thomas Carlyle, 30 vols (London: Chapman and Hall, 1899), XXVIII. 44-61, pp.44-5.
[iv] Shadowlands, dir. Richard Attenborough, 1993.
[v] Julia Casterton, Creative Writing (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005), pp.129-30
[vi] Deborah Cass, Writing Your Family History: A Practical Guide (Ramsbury: Crowood, 2004), p.111.
[vii] Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, ed. Alethea Hayter (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p.119.
About the author
Jonathan Taylor is author of the memoir Take Me Home: Parkinson’s, My Father, Myself (Granta Books, 2007), as well as the novel Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring Press, 2013). He is Lecturer in Creative Writing at Leicester University. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.
Note: An earlier version of this piece was first published in Family History Monthly, vol. 166, February 2009.
Thank you, Jonathan. My father spent eight years tracing his family tree – in a way it’s a shame he didn’t spend it writing his memoirs so I’d have that rather than a scroll of names. He enjoyed it which is the main thing.
- and from this blog, my guests who have written on this topic are… AJ Kirby, Amanda Klein & Allyson Wuerth, DJ Swykert, Dr Friedemann Schaub, Graham Smith, Jane Hertenstein, Jeff Rasley, Jennifer Boire, Karen Robbins, Kate Funk, Kristine Millar, Sean Gray, and Tonya Vrba.
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