Memoirs and Autobiographies – a workshop at SAW Conference 2017

Cumbernauld, 18th March 2017.

This is the first part of a talk I gave as part of a workshop at the Scottish Association of Writers Annual Conference in Cumbernauld on Saturday.

‘……Memoir is classed by publishers as narrative non-fiction, and sits, in a category all its own, between pure fiction which has characters, a plot, and is based (at least in theory) in our imaginations, (though we all know that fiction is based around what we know and have learned in our own lives) and non-fiction, a ‘How To’ book by an author who has to demonstrate his expertise and get their facts right.

However, we are the experts when it comes to writing our memoirs. So, do we have to write the truth or get our facts right? The tagline of my book, My Life with Cerebral Palsy is there to signal to a reader that s/he is not reading a narrative of pure fiction, but a story about real people.

But as a memoir writer, I do not have to tell ‘the truth’, nor can I. (Autobiography makes that attempt, usually starting with an anecdote about Great Grandpa Wilfred who treked across the Apallacian Mountains, but even autobiography is subjective.)

It is not possible for me to tell the truth. I can’t remember what happened when I was three; and in any case, everyone’s version of the truth is different. My mother tells me that my memoir is simply not what she remembers, and that is fine: her view of what happened will never be the same as mine.

So, when writing about our memories how do we protect ourselves from allegations that what we have written is unfair, untrue, unkind, just plain wrong? People are only too ready to tell us when then they think we have got it wrong.

It helps to remember four things.

  • Sincerity – be as authentic and sincere as you can. You may have to write a hundred thousand words – of anything – until you find your voice, but you will. Persist, until you find your voice, and be sincere. Avoid exaggeration, if you can, and be honest.
  • Even-handedness. Your final version must be even-handed. If you dish it out to or about other people, give yourself a hard time too. If anyone then suggests that I have been unkind to my parents or my colleagues, I can, in all sincerity, say I have been at least as hard on myself.
  • Walk your own path – Stick to your own story. Always. Only borrow the minimum of what you need, and resist the temptation to poach other people’s stories for your own purposes.  If you are writing your story and you find it boring, that is the challenge to go out and make your life more interesting.
  • Avoid naming or shaming anyone – malice. Do not be tempted.

Don’t use the occasion of publication – a public platform – to lambast or wound any named individual. Obviously, (A Child called ‘It’) there are times when that warning will have to be tempered by the need to tell as story, but it is an aim. We can lambast classes of person – When I was writing Trapped I have it in for doctors, lawyers…but no one single individual is singled out…..’

(To be continued)

Thanks to Jen Butler for inviting me to participate in the Conference, and to everyone who signed up on the day! It was lovely to meet you all and share our stories.

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