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Basic tips on writing memoirs


It was a revelation to me when I first heard someone say that when writing memoirs you must remember to think of yourself as a character. Once we are on the page, we too have become a character in a book to be managed for the purposes of our story, for what we are trying to say. This is liberating and gives us a useful sense of distance from the events that take place and our responses to them. It helps us to be objective and the discipline we apply to other characters and how we reveal them, we can apply to ourselves as the subject of the autobiography.

Many new writers, for example, tell the story of their lives like a synopsis, instead of unravelling it, bit by bit, like any other adventure story – because an adventure story it certainly is. As memoir writers we still have to build in suspense, paradox, unknowability. To this end one approach is to try writing in the moment, i.e. writing about your childhood self within the confines of the understanding of that child, and not necessarily with the hindsight of maturity; being the character in love who really doesn’t know what will happen next, the character setting out on a journey, destination unknown.

So when you write about yourself, use your memory, but also your writer’s eye. Your writer’s eye is both objective and engaged. You enter in, trying at one level to empathise with your characters, including yourself, and yet you remain an observer, for ever on the outside. Wordsworth, you recall, described poetry as emotion recollected in tranquillity. He experienced it, then, as a poet, he distanced himself to observe the experience. That’s a bit what I’m getting at.


Writing autobiography is of course, not just about us. We’re writing about all the others who people our lives, our memories, our realities, so a good autobiography will have characters, in the same way that a work of fiction has characters. Some characters will just be vignettes, people who pass through the story temporarily, but there will be a core of permanent characters, and these must evolve as the narrative progresses.

What makes character? It has been said that a good character has internal conflict. This makes for inconsistency, sometimes, for unpredictability. Some authors say you have to know characters inside out, to have their psyche at your finger tips. That may be OK for fiction, but we are writing non-fiction, writing about people who really have or do exist, and who have lived lives that are not mere fiction, lives that, because we are not their authors, we cannot know ‘inside out’, however intimately we are connected to them. Our role then is primarily to observe, but to observe with such sensitivity that we can detect paradox. We don’t have to try to resolve these conundrums, not even when the paradox involves our selves. We just have to reflect them. This sensitivity to complexity is what can give our narrative depth.

I suppose what I am saying is that there can be a tendency, when writing autobiographical material, to tie things up into parcels, to concretise emotions or reactions because then they’re dealt with, and we know where we are. This is what Mum was like, this is what happened, and this is what I feel/felt about it. In wanting to understand ourselves we can end up putting ourselves, and others, into boxes, for neatness’ sake. Perhaps that’s something to be wary of. As people we evolve, and so we must allow the characters in our narrative to evolve, and to surprise us sometimes, to act ‘out of character’, to be confusing. Our lives and personalities will always have ragged edges, and our memoirs should reflect that if they are to ring true.


So the richness of your memoirs will in part have to do with the depth and subtlety of your perception of others. Many of these characters will have been brought up in a different era, and in different social situations, their personalities and attitudes formed by these differences. The tensions, subtleties and challenges these differences produce have somehow to be conveyed, that’s partly why it’s important to capture the character of time and place, as well as of personality, when dealing with, say, our parents and grandparents. Make sure that in any reported speech you use the idioms of the period. More subtly, make sure that the reactions of your characters reflect the understandings and moraes of the times in which they lived, rather than current attitudes.


The use of sensual clues: colours, smell, sound, touch, taste.

Finally, a tip on the use of sensual clues which, incidentally, can liberate your own memories wonderfully well. (Just think of some smell of your childhood – perhaps of cooking – and see what pictures come flooding back).

As you know, as writers we have to be not just poets, but painters. A painter has to decide what details to keep in, and what to leave out. What bogs down so many memoirs is an abundance of deadly detail. It’s partly an anxiety to be truthful, to reproduce faithfully what a person was like, or what happened, step by laborious step – but it’s partly creative laziness. We have not taken the bald facts, the basic ingredients and magic-ed them into a creative picture.

Think of a portrait painter, an impressionistic interpretation can often reveal more about the character of the sitter than a minutely detailed painting which robs the portrait of personality.

If you want an illustration of how to use the senses to evoke a scene, and of how to paint a portrait in broad, but telling, brush strokes, read the opening paragraph of “The Visitor”, A Prospect of the Sea, by Dylan Thomas (J.M. Dent 1955). For copyright reasons I can’t quote it here, but it is the most stunning example of how, in a single paragraph, you can smell, touch, see and hear an old man’s world, and gather so much information about his state of mind and heart – and all written with the utmost delicacy.

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