Dear Oldie readers,
For the last 15 years, The Oldie has held memoir writing courses which have been led by Rebecca de Saintonge of LifeLines Press.
Seeking to alleviate your boredom during these isolating times, we have asked Rebecca to set out a full course to help you write your memoir, something for your children and grandchildren to cherish. Such courses normally cost £195 a day. What better opportunity! Although she will not be able to offer you consultation, she will be able to help you if you subsequently decide to use her excellent publishing services.
The lessons are set out below. As an added bonus, you can enter an 800-word extract into the Jeremy Lewis Memorial Prize which has a prize value of £1,000. Simply email your extract to firstname.lastname@example.org by November 1st, and please mark it JEREMY LEWIS PRIZE.
James Pembroke, Publisher, The Oldie
OLDIE MEMOIR WRITING COURSE ON LINE with Rebecca de Saintonge
The Blank Page
Beginnings are all about seduction!
The opening paragraphs of your story will determine whether or not your reader will want to continue, so you’re going to have to grab their attention right from the start. Your first task then, is to transport the reader out of their world and into yours.
To do this you will need to reveal three crucial things early on:
a sense of who you are a sense of time
and a sense of place
Right from the beginning your turn or phrase, your approach to story telling, must give us a sense of who you are.
We need to know if we’re going to enjoy travelling with you, so you must entice us, somehow. You could start by giving us a clue as to what age you are when your narrative opens. Are you starting from childhood, for example - in which case you could write from a child’s perspective - or will you begin from some mid-point in your life, from which you will later flash back to earlier days?
Maybe you are starting your story from where you are now, looking at your life retrospectively. The ‘voice’ you use should reveal this to us. The samples in your first exercise will help you explore some of these possibilities. And by the way, do explore.
Have fun experimenting.
A SENSE OF TIME AND PLACE
Establish these early on.
For example, are you leading us into a foreign country, to start your story there, where, perhaps, some major turning point in your life took place, or will you start at the kitchen table where you watched your grandmother baking, and licked the spoon from the mixing bowl.
All this adds up to the general rule that you should rarely start at the very beginning. “I was born on …..”
A final tip. A good way to entice us into your world is to start with a predicament or intrigue. “I was not to know, when I left for school that day, that I would never see my father again.” Or perhaps something more enigmatic: “I had no idea what she meant. All I knew was that I needed to find out.”
For a wonderful example of someone who achieves all three of these hooks - a sense of person, of time and of place, and starts with a predicament - read the opening paragraph of Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee.
Here are some ideas you might like to play with. Write two completely different sets of opening paragraphs.
First, begin your memoir at some stage in your childhood. Think about the language you use, and your perceptions of yourself and the world around you at that particular age. Take us into your child mind and emotions at that time. Secondly, write a completely different beginning that starts from some point in your adult life. Try opening with a predicament!
And finally, for fun, take one of the above and re-write it in the third person.
The purpose of this is to see if, when writing from a more objective point of view - looking at yourself as a character on the page - other details spring to mind, or you find that actually you want to write the opening in a different way.
Releasing hidden memories
It was the writer John Irving who wrote: “Your memory is a monster; you forget - it doesn't. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you - and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you!”
Really what he’s saying, in part, is that everything that has ever happened to us is stored away in the back of our brains. As memoir writers, all we have to do - somehow - is access the information.
Luckily there are some magical tricks to kick-start your memory when you’re trying to get in touch with those parts of your life that have got a bit hazy, especially when you want to flesh out in more detail events and emotions that seem important. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but the best trick of all is to conjure up the five senses; touch, taste, sight, sound and smell.
The exercises below should help you discover how these can add colour to your story, embellishing bald facts with evocative touches that take the reader deeper into the world you’re trying to create.
But first, a little warning about ‘facts’. One of the hardest things, when writing a memoir, is to know what facts to leave in, and what to leave out. What bogs down so many autobiographies in the early drafts is the abundance of (often deadly) detail! There is a temptation, as we hinted in the first session, to start at the beginning and record the events of your life in strict chronological order and with scrupulous precision.
This is partly an anxiety to be truthful, to reproduce faithfully what a person was like, or what happened. But it’s partly creative laziness. We have not taken the bald facts, the basic ingredients and magic-ed them into a creative picture.
So try thinking of painting your life story in broad brushstrokes, rather like a landscape painter. If you were painting a tree, for example, you wouldn’t paint every leaf on the tree, every crumpled fold of bark, you’d paint enough leaves, give enough details of the trunk, to give an overall impression of ‘tree’. So give the reader enough information to bring your world to life, but not to crush it to death!
Another trick I’ve often used, especially when thinking where to begin a chapter, or a particular section of the narrative, is to throw all the facts in the air and pluck something out of the middle.
Start there. That ties in a bit with what I was saying in Session One about starting with a predicament of some sort. So this session is just for fun. I will list an idea for each of the senses and you write whatever comes into your head, immediately. The very first thing that comes into your head. Don’t worry over it, just write, for as long as you want to. Stream of consciousness. Don’t edit at this stage, just let it flow.
It’s true what they say, that memories never come alone. One always leads to another. The purpose of this exercise is to see if this happens to you, and that once you start, you find moments, half hidden, rise to the surface. Where do they take you?
Try some of these. Remember, write about the first thing that comes into your head for each, however strange! SIGHT: The first person you ever saw in bed SMELL: A smell that reminds you of your childhood SOUND: Wind TOUCH: Soft skin TASTE: Salt.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
This could be dodgy! How do we bring to life the people who have come into our lives, for better or for worse?
In the next session, we’ll be thinking about how to get round any tricky bits, but for now it might be worth looking at how we make the characters in our story come to life, because what ever part of your life you will be writing about - all of it, or a significant aspect of it - essentially you will be telling a story, and so the people, the characters, in your story must be revealed in much the same way as characters are developed in narrative fiction. That is to say, slowly, carefully, and with as much insight as is possible.
Some authors of fiction say you have to know your characters inside out, if they are to come alive. Well, we’re not writing fiction; we’re writing about people who really have, or do, exist, and who’ve lived lives that are not fictitious, 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.
This, of course, will mean observing from a distance, more often than not, a distance, maybe, of many years.
So what are the things we should be looking for, as we think seriously about people we want to include? Well, those things that most characters, most people, are made up of.
Contradictions, for one. Complexity. There will always be a sense of a person’s unknowability. Maybe we sense an internal conflict, maybe their behaviour surprises us at times.
My favourite word in this context is paradox. There is the yin and the yang in all of us. Don’t be afraid of paradox, of not understanding those close to you - or indeed yourself. You don’t have to tie up all the loose ends, either in others, or significantly, in yourself. You too are a character on the page, and you too are a complex mixture.
I’m stressing all this because there can be a tendency, when writing autobiographical material, to tie things up into parcels, to concretise emotions and reactions because then they are dealt with. We know where we are. Mum was like this, this is what happened, and this is what I feel/felt about it. In wanting to understand we can end up putting ourselves, and others, into boxes, for neatness sake.
So my point (long time getting there) is that 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. In other words, we must develop the characters and let them unfold as our story unfolds, in just the same way that characters unfold in literary fiction.
Our lives and personalities will always have ragged edges, and our memoirs should reflect that if they are to ring true. Importantly, they should also reflect our changing relationship to the people in our lives as we grow older through the story, and our understanding of them develops.
Final tip. The writer A.L.Kennedy urges us to keep asking Why? Keep asking yourself why. After each revelation/reflection about a person, ask yourself why. Why did they do this thing, say this thing, dress in this way, respond in this way? You will be surprised by how much that is hidden becomes revealed this way and will help you write a more nuanced account of the people in your life.
Here’s an exercise to play with. Take a photograph of a group of you - family or friends. Chose some of them - however many you want to - and try to describe their characters. You may want to look at how they dress, or how they are looking at the camera. You may recall any mannerisms, idiosyncrasies of speech, attitudes to others. If you have known them a long time - especially if the photo includes your parents or siblings - write about what you thought about them when you were young, in the language of your young self. Now write about them from the perspective of maturity.
Use the Why? questions, and see whether this leads you to a deeper understanding of them. The purpose of this exercise is to help you write more knowingly about them when you set about your memoir.
Write like nobody’s watching
Most of us have some tricky bits to circumnavigate. Even some naughty bits. We can respond in two ways. We can ignore them and leave the difficult bits out of our memoirs altogether - and why not - or we can find a way of tackling them, hopefully without completely destroying our family and friends!
So for this session all I’m going to do is suggest some questions you might like to think about, and give you a couple of thoughts from my own experience as a published memoir writer and mentor to others.
There are three questions to ask yourself before you settle down to write in earnest.
1. What sort of memoir are you wanting to write?
2. Who are you writing it for?
To tackle question two first. Who you are writing this for? Is this memoir just for intimate family? Will it be for friends as well, or are you writing with the hope of publication and so reach a wider audience?
The reason this is important is obvious, and the answer depends on how much that is intimate do you want any of these groups to know. So who you hope to read it will dictate the nature of the content.
The third question is Why? Why are you writing this? Well, obviously, it could be to pass the hours while we all battle with the lockdown. But actually there are many important reasons for writing our life stories. For a start our descendants will be fascinated. Never think that your life is not interesting to others. The world is changing so fast that in 50 years from now we will seem like people who lived on a different planet, so everything about you will be of interest to future generations whose lifestyles will be so different from our own. And while technology becomes obsolete with every passing year, books, the written word, remain and endure.
And so to question one. (I could have done this chronologically, I know, but it works better this way!) What sort of memoir do you want to write?
Maybe you want to write simply to recall, with pleasure, some of the things you’ve done, the places you’ve been, people you’ve met. A travelogue maybe. Perhaps you want to record an interesting career, or, which is more difficult, you have faced challenges you feel it’s time to talk about, to set the record straight, or just to make sense of all that has happened to you. You may be motivated by a mixture of all or some of these reasons, or you may simply want to leave a record of your experiences for your children and grandchildren, to record what life was like for your generation.
For whatever reason you are writing, and for whatever audience you are writing, a fundamental question has to be asked, “How honest should I be?” And perhaps more difficult still, “Whose truth do I tell, and how and why?”
I want to mention my thoughts on just two of these groups - the intimate family and the general public. If you are aiming at something totally lighthearted, then perhaps the rest of this session is not for you. But here goes, anyway.
I’m sure most of us wish we had known more about our parents, and our grandparents. Each generation faces a new set of emotional and financial challenges, copes with evolving social ethics and expectations, experiences pleasure in different ways. And every individual life has its difficulties, the every day criss-crossed with complexity. And some lives, of course, have experienced real darkness.
Emily Dickinson wrote: “Writing your own life story, or an integral part of it, isn’t easy. And it shouldn’t be, because life itself isn’t easy. But the harder your story is to write, the more truthful it will be. And so, the more powerful it will be. ‘A wounded deer leaps the highest.’”
Dickinson makes an important point. If you have had difficult passages in your life, especially if they involve other people, but don’t allude to them - however tactfully - your memoir is less than the truth. If you are writing for your family alone, then maybe you are missing out the very things that could help them make sense of their own lives and understand family dynamics better. I can’t be alone in thinking that had I understood more about my parents years ago, then many things would have fallen into place, and difficult memories healed sooner.
The title of this section is “Write like nobody’s watching”. It means don’t be inhibited as your write your first draft. Nobody is looking over your shoulder. Have the courage to write what you need to say, then you can go back and edit it, to soften it, if you need to. It is often said “let the reader do the work”, in other words you don’t have to spell everything out in lurid detail. You can allude to the facts, touch them, if you like, as with a feather, and allow the reader to read between the lines. They will.
This all ties up with the question, why are you writing? I wrote my own memoir, One Yellow Door, published a couple of years ago, because I had something I really wanted to say, and hoped it would be helpful to others. But there was a personal cost to pay. Which brings me to writing for the general public.
My advice is, be careful and be sure you can handle the flack. A friend warned me that once your book is on the market, it no longer belongs to you. Other people own it and can do what they like with it. You may run the risk of unsympathetic reviews and cheap headlines in the press which could belittle both your work and you. But if you have published because you believe you have something helpful to say, trust your judgement and keep your head down til the storm blows over!
A supremely wonderful electric and dynamic session … on how not to use adjectives
The trick with adjectives is to avoid them unless you have found one that really enhances the image of what you are trying to convey and stimulates the imagination of the reader. Always avoid the common ones - large, beautiful, exceptional, funny etc etc, because actually they don’t mean anything. Mark Twain hit the nail on the head when he wrote:
“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”
It’s true that many writers, when they start out, scatter adjectives over their text like confetti, believing that if they add a clump here and there, one of them is bound to be right, and they will brighten the text. The snow will somehow be more like snow if it is pristine and sparkling. But it doesn’t work like that. Less is nearly always best.
We’ll talk more about editing in the last session, but for fun, find a piece of work you’ve written and try cutting out every adjective. Then read it out loud. You may well find the edited sentences have more impact by the very fact that they are tight, and you’ll see that the adjectives were mostly redundant.
CS Lewis also had something useful to say. He said don’t use adjectives that merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. “Instead of telling us a thing was ‘terrible,’ describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was ‘delightful’; make us say ‘delightful’ when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, ‘Please will you do my job for me.’”
That doesn’t mean, of course, that you should never use adjectives. I have just been reading Now we shall be entirely Free by Andrew Miller. He doesn’t use clever words in his descriptions, he just uses the right words, words that draw a reader deeper into the scene. “They saw rabbits under the briars, and at dusk the soundless running of deer.” Take out the word “soundless” and the sentence loses its power. And why that simple adjective is so good is because it is observed. He didn’t just bung in any old word to stuff out the sentence. He can only have used ‘soundless’ because he had experienced being taken by surprise by the silent dance of a band of deer as they suddenly cross your path. So adjectives should be a result of close observation as well as imagination.
The important thing is to make sure any adjectives you use actually mean something. A ‘blue’ sky could mean any sort of blue, a ‘beautiful’ flower likewise, doesn’t actually describe it. A ‘handsome’ man… You get my meaning.
So here’s the challenge. Firstly, describe the scene from your window. In your description, use adjectives, but think carefully about each one. Read the piece out loud. Now cut all the adjectives out and read the piece out loud again. Are there any you can do without? How does it read naked, as it were (the sentences, not you!)
Secondly, recall someone close to you whom you haven’t seen for a while. Could even be someone no longer alive. Describe them - their clothes, their features - hands, eyebrows, feet, their walk, their voice - whatever you remember. Make sure every adjective means something, could not be interpreted any other way (like ‘fine’). Bring them to life. Then again, cut out all your adjectives and decide which ones were really necessary.
No, I tell a lie…. The art of dialogue
All narrative benefits from dialogue. Dialogue changes the pace of a story, heightening emotion, revealing relationships and individual character. It also conveys information obliquely, which adds subtlety and interest. So it’s vital to get it right. Good dialogue keeps the reader engaged. Bad dialogue is a killer!
So the key thing to remember is that dialogue should always have a purpose, either to reveal character, to expose emotions, to provide information, or to move the story on. While all rules are there to be broken, here are some basic principles you might like to observe.
1. “Dialogue is like a rose bush - it improves after pruning” Nigel Watts. Or to put it bluntly, cut, cut cut!
Written dialogue should sound real, but it’s not the same as conversation in real life. It’s more about giving the impression of real life conversations while actually cutting out the extraneous, the irrelevant, the boring, which pepper our everyday talk. “Oh, how are you?” “Fine thanks, how are you?” etc etc.
Tight dialogue isn’t realistic, it’s true. People don’t often talk in short sentences, in single worlds. Not often. They lard their conversations with all sorts of asides, repetitions, exclamations. But that doesn’t work on the page. What works are short sentences, often ungrammatical, often single words. This is because fictional dialogue needs to have more impact, to get to the point. Ramble, and you’ll lose your readership. So here are some tips.
*Never use ten words when five will do. Try cutting your dialogue right down. When you’ve written a piece, read it out loud. Then cut it to the minimum number of words. Read it again and see what it sounds like. Some writers suggest following the ‘three sentence rule’ - never giving a character more than three sentences in one speech. People don’t talk in paragraphs.
*Keep utterances short, and not in perfectly formed sentences. People don’t speak in perfectly formed sentences. Keep listening to others, and you’ll see this is true. Characters don’t have to say everything when they talk to one another. You can convey feelings often by a lack of words, a gesture. As in real life, the silence, the pause, often speaks louder than the words. Readers read between the lines, they pick up the unspoken.
2. Beware of too much information. Dialogue is there to reveal something to the reader that hasn’t been revealed before - a fact, an emotion. But be careful. Don’t use dialogue to convey huge chunks of information. That will clog up the flow. As I said earlier, most people don’t talk in paragraphs. We usually learn to avoid those that do!
3. Interrupting speech with action. This is a very good ploy for conveying emotion without being explicit. It also places your character in a real situation. Here’s a rather daft example. The Lord of the Manor, known for his meanness, is unexpectedly throwing a party and inviting some, but not all of the locals. Two women meet in the local corner shop. “So Lord Fiennes is throwing a party then.” “Yea. Amazing.” “Know who’s going?” “Not really”. Mary turned aside to take a packet of digestive biscuits from the shelf. “Not us anyway. No room for wheelchairs apparently.” “Bastard.” “Quite.” Too daft to go on, but my point is that by interrupting the dialogue with an action - turning aside to pick up the biscuits, you are implying an emotion - she’s upset - without actually having the character say so.
4. The emotional moment. It has been said if you want to write an emotional moment, increase the number of stumbles and restarts. You can overdo this, but here’s a little illustration I picked up elsewhere. If you want your character to say “I didn’t mean it. Please don’t leave”, think about the words they might actually use. Perhaps, “I just… must you go now?” We nearly always half say things. Silence speaks.
5. Finally, Characterisation. How we speak reveals not only our character, but what we feel about the person we’re speaking to. That means you really have to understand your characters before you put words in their mouths. You will need to recall the turns of phrase the people in your story use, that are particular to them.
And make the words someone speaks fit their situation in life. The way we speak to people differs depending on who they are. For example the way doctors speak to their colleagues will be different from the way they speak to their patients, their partners, or their children. The way we speak to others reveals what we think of them, what they mean to us. Do we respect them? Consider them inferior? Feel indifferent? Secretly love them. One of the dangers when starting to write is to give all the characters the same voice. And often it’s the voice of the writer!
So the most important exercise of all, when writing dialogue, is to listen to people in real life, to their half sentences, their pauses, their idiosyncrasies of speech, to those little ticks of language that are typical of them.
Exercise. Write a few sentences to set the scene, and then a snatch or two of dialogue which will reveal the characters of the people talking, the emotional nature of the encounter (happy, sad, fearful, hopeful, lighthearted) and try a paragraph that implies information without actually giving it. When thinking about a conversation to write, think about the age of each person, their background/ profession, the circumstances surrounding the conversation, where it is taking place, and so on.
Cut, cut, cut - the necessary art of editing
You’ve written your deathless prose, and now you have to edit it. Warning, this can hurt, but it’s for your own good!
It has been said that when editing you should ‘kill your baby’ - meaning that often the passage we most relish is the one that should go. Samuel Johnson expressed the same view in a slightly more civilised vein. He said, ‘Read over your compositions and, when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’ That may seem daft, but often you know in your heart of hearts that that particular passage doesn’t really fit. It’s just that you like it! Maybe its over-written, just a little too lush, or a bit of a side-step. Or maybe you’re saying the same thing, but just in a different way. Whatever you suspect, try cutting it out and then see how the section reads.
It may seem an obvious thing to say, but the editing process needs you to really understand what your story is about. Is it about a particular period in your life, or a specific event, or your relationship to a particular person or group? Or is it an over-view of your life to date, in which you pick out those personalities and events that have been most pivotal? Ideally, of course, you will have worked this out, planned it, before you started writing. But life is not always like that. Quite often we have to write a first draft before it becomes clear what the book we are writing is really about. A central theme will emerge that you hadn’t expected. That’s why it’s important to understand, and accept, that a first draft is just that, a first attempt. The final draft may well look very different by the time you’ve finished it.
So here are some brief tips.
1. Think first about the structure, the trajectory of your narrative. Every story should have a forward trajectory, rather than be a simple meander through the years. So what is your central theme? What is the spine, the core idea, onto which you attach your anecdotes. Who are the central characters who need to be at the heart of this story, and who are the minor characters who, like the adrenal glands, add the fizz and sparkle to the body of the text.
2. Prune. “Reducing your word count, even by a small margin, will improve the intensity, power and flavour of your prose - much as it does a sauce.” Romesh Gunesekera. He’s right. So start by cutting adjectives, and make sure you haven’t said the same thing, in different words, in different parts of the text.
3. Read your work out loud. You’ll soon hear if it doesn’t sound right. Prose should be a little like music in that there should be a variety of rhythms and cadences. The most helpful quote I know is from Gary Provost, printed here with permission. Read it aloud.
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound drones on. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.
“Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences, and I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals - the sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
“So write with a combination of short, medium and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.”
5. And finally. Let it rest. When Joe Orton finished writing a play, he put it under his bed for six months before he looked at it again. Good move! It’s always a good idea to let your work rest. Put it aside for a few months and then look it again, afresh. You will be amazed how good bits are, and how clearly the bits that don’t work, stand out. Including your ‘babies’.
Happy writing. And stay safe.
Copyright Rebecca de Saintonge