Every family has at least three great secrets waiting to be told. Writer, Stephen Poliakoff.
One of the lessons I’ve learned from writing this memoir is how much we all have in common. Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle
Biography, autobiography, and memoir can all be gathered under the general heading of Life Writing, which is simply ‘the recording of selves, memories and experiences whether one’s owns or another’s.’ So if your family catch you scribbling or recording away and ask what you’re doing you can loftily reply, ‘I’m writing/recording my memoirs’ and fix them with a look which will leave them nervous you’ll include that embarrassing incident. Or even worse leave them out altogether!
Life writing doesn’t have to be a straightforward linear narrative from youth to mature years. It’s your story (or your relative’s) and the way it’s presented can be equally original and imaginative. Most of us assume that biography and autobiography takes a cradle to grave approach, but perhaps you passionately want to show your reader what life was like as an evacuee or your wild times as a teenager in the 1960s.
Sometimes the initial urge to write can spring from the desire to understand a particular family trait, or one of those little family secrets. Maybe the joke in your family was that your grandfather was always very careful with money. Could this be related to the ‘scandal’ you’ve heard whispers about? Or maybe your dad’s workaholism is because he came to England as a refugee? Perhaps there’s an unusual antique or piece of crockery in your house with a story behind it?
You might want to write down your life story for posterity. Memory is a strange thing. We have all experienced being able to remember an event of over thirty years ago, with crystal clarity, yet be unable to recall what we had for dinner last night. Perhaps jotting down our clearest memories can be a good start.
There is no right or wrong way to approach your story or that of a family member, but here we look at the different types of life writing to give you some ideas.
An autobiography generally focuses on the trajectory of an entire life.
It usually follows in chronological order. A good example is Nella Last’s War. Nella began writing for the Mass Observation project in 1939 and wrote over two million words, charting everyday life for ordinary people. Her confidence grew and she wrote about depression, and that her marriage sometimes made her feel like a slave, which ran counter to the rosy picture of domesticity usually presented. But nobody had asked an ordinary woman to write about her life before. Writing gave Nella confidence and a sense of her place in the world.
When writing your whole story, ask why a lot. So rather than just beginning with, ‘I was born in Yorkshire’ – why were you born there? Did your family move there or had they lived there for centuries?
You don’t have to write from cradle to grave in an autobiography either. In Alexander Masters Stuart, a Life Backwards, Masters explores how his friend Stuart became a career criminal by starting with his adult life and working backwards through his troubled adolescence, family and schooling to discover why he ended up the way he did.
Memoir focuses on a key aspect, event, or theme in a life, such as:
- Your early years as a deckchair attendant, so you chart the changing attitudes towards beach holidays, exposure of flesh, the British Seaside
- Your experience in World War Two as a Warden
- The love letters between you and your love separated by a disapproving family or a war
- Your experience as a teenager in comparison to your own father
A memoir can start anywhere and move around. It’s not bound by chronology. This form of life writing may suit you if you have the desire to write about a particular point in yours or someone else’s life. Also it’s more personal and strives for emotional truth.
Examples of good memoirs
Bad Blood by Lorna Sage
Writing about her dismal childhood in 1950s Wales is not something that would make a publisher’s eyes normally light up. But Sage writes with such elegance and wit, taking us up to her first class degree which she managed with a small baby that you are cheering for her by the end. Perhaps she chooses to write about her early life because once she graduates, her own blood takes over.
Toast The Story of a Boy’s Hunger by Nigel Slater
This book recounts the early years of food writer Nigel Slater, from his mother’s struggles to cook through to her death and his father’s remarriage. It’s a prime example of a memoir where nothing majorly dramatic happens but Slater’s voice is honest and he uses food as a sensory spring to memory as he takes us through his childhood and adolescence. The book is structured like a lucky dip bundle of headings, mostly connected to food and each evoking a 1960s childhood i.e. Spaghetti Bolognaise, Arctic Roll, Butterscotch Flavour Angel Delight. Since Nigel is a professional cook, the recipes provide natural prompts but this is a format that could translate to other subjects. Suppose your parents met through their shared passion for amateur dramatics you could use theatre programmes to tell their story. Or use a box of old photos.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
Frank McCourt opens his memoir of his Catholic childhood with ‘worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood. Worse still is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.’ An opening to the Pulitzer prize winning book that demonstrates McCourt’s dry sense of humour that permeates the entire book. Despite the title and the content, Angela’s Ashes was no misery memoir – it’s shot through with an impish humour. But he didn’t write it until he was in his sixties – perhaps after gaining a sense of distance.
Don’t assume however, that in order to write a childhood memoir, you have to have had a rotten one. Andrew Collins, Where did it all go Right (Growing up Normal in the Seventies) opens with this:
Andrew Collins was born 37 years ago in Northampton. His parents never split up, in fact they rarely exchanged a cross word. No-one abused him. Nobody died. He got on well with his brother and sister and none of his friends drowned in a canal. He has never stayed overnight in a hospital and has no emotional scars from his upbringing, except a slight lingering resentment that Anita Barker once mocked the stabilisers on his bike. Where Did It All Go Right? is a jealous memoir written by someone who occasionally wishes life had dealt him a few more juicy marketable blows.
But aside from keeping a diary so he could remember ‘what he had for his tea’ every day, Collins is writing about his seventies childhood and his lightness of touch and humour makes this a great read.
Writing about two or more people who have a natural symbiosis can give the reader more for less. James Fox’s The Langhorne Sisters is both a group biography and a family history where he uses letters and diaries to examine the lives of his great aunts and grandmother. Perhaps you want to explore attitudes to marriage in your family and gather together the letters and conversations of all your female relatives. Or maybe you discover a ratty old teddy in the attic and set out to find who this teddy belonged to – and discover it was passed down to three generations. So Horace, the Story of a Teddy, becomes a group biography of all the family members who owned him.
Try writing a draft at least in the first person present tense (I am four and my dad wheels in a huge bike). This has the effect of bringing your reader closer to the four year old ‘you’ and it also has an effect on your memory. You may well find that you remember far more when writing in present tense trustmypaper writers explain.
Small sensory details bring writing to life. Don’t just tell us what your favourite toy looked like, what did it smell like? What did cod liver oil actually taste like? Death on a spoon? Like an oiler Brighton Beach? Anything other than ‘horrible’. We know it tastes horrible but it doesn’t tell the reader anything. Try and find ways to describe something that aren’t just ‘nice’ or ‘beautiful’ or ‘horrible’. Describing a person as ‘beautiful’ doesn’t tell the reader anything about them. What was it that made them beautiful? When you dig past your initial choice of adjective you’re likely to come up with something much more interesting. Maybe the delicate golden freckle on the right hand side of her nose made her beautiful.
Showing the reader is always more successful than telling them. Suppose you woke one night in your granny’s spooky house and heard a creak? Writing ‘I was scared’ doesn’t show us your fear as much as ‘I sat bolt upright in bed, icy fingers creeping down my neck.’
Be specific. Saying that you hated school is one thing but why did you hate it? Was it the grey mashed potato? The teacher who had eyes like boiled haddock? The itchy school trousers? Little specific detail will make your writing sing. And your memory live on.