Why I Write Memoir

I write because when I tilt my head the words fall out.

I scoop them into containers – journals, digital notes and scraps of paper – but they spill out of these. They pour onto my laptop and hide between the keys, waiting to flow onto a blank document. It’s never ending, and frankly exhausting at times.

At night I’ve been known to nosedive out of bed as I reach for my glasses in the dark so I can scribble a word or concept down.

Whatever are you doing?’ asks hubby

Shh go back to sleep – I’m just playing scrabble on the floor’ is all I can profer.

Of course my subconscious must be working overtime and I’ve got unresolved ‘issues’ (who hasn’t?) Somewhere is an out of control processor inspecting each disparate part of my life and flipping it into particular categories: “Too embarrassing to mention”; “Permanently Damaged by This”; “Evidence she’s Bonkers”; “Surely that can’t be True”; “Secrets”, “Miscellaneous”. It’s the last one that causes me untold grief. The others I can empty every once in a while into a blog – that settles the noise for a nano second or two.

But “Miscellaneous” rattles around permanently discontent, sulky and ever unresolved.

So it’s the facts of life I deal with – or at least I believe they are. (If not I have a problem). And that’s why I write mainly memoir. Do my categorised words neatly line up on the page? Hell, no. They are a disorderly bunch, one group might easily make a comprehensive phrase but the rest I wrestle with for weeks, sometimes months to get them to say something coherent. Then out of nowhere, usually when I’m attending an important matter, an opening paragraph or a title hits me on the head and I’m away … except I’m not because I’m having to focus on the task at hand. So I walk around with my head dead straight to keep the inspired sentences from sloshing out before I can pen them on paper.

So what’s the difference between autobiography and memoir?

Autobiography would be like having you move in with me. You’d get to see all my irritating habits and my shepherd’s pie would start to bore you. Before long you’d be finding excuses to run away and hide.

Memoir is like inviting you around for afternoon tea. There’s a selection of eats – sweet and/or savoury. I’ll persuade you to try a morsel. It’ll have substance, texture, a specific flavour and a spice that may linger on your palate. If you really don’t like the after-taste at least it’s only bite sized and you can leave at any time because I’m not providing a full meal.

In an autobiography I would need to say: “She was born on 19 October, 2026 the same day her father abandoned her.” In a memoir I could say: “She was born as the autumn leaves danced through the front door and her father crept out the back.” Both are true but the one gives more scope for attaching emotions to the words, rather than cold dates and facts. Autobiographies are often long reads about those who have lived very interesting or famous lives where names, places, particular events and dates are regurgitated to remind and impress us.

Memoir is usually about teasing from ordinary lives those details which others can relate to.

Memoir is not about airing the family’s dirty laundry but helping readers identify with those who wear the clothes that hang on the line.

What a memoir writer shares is always only one side of a multi-facetted story. Favourite writers of mine who do this so well would be Alexandra Fuller, Isabelle Allende and Isak Dinesen.

My next few blogs will come in chapters – imperfect ones – but if I hold onto them for any longer I’m in danger of succumbing to the tyranny of perfectionism. I’ve called this lot ‘Reading Between the Tiles’. It’s about the unconventional love letter my father, awkward with words, wrote to my mum and how she let it wash over her.

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