Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Memoirists: Building a Body of Work

Here I am, talking to the group of Memoirists on our fourth and final major workshop in Bishop Auckland.

‘By now you have done a fair deal of listening, thinking and writing. I hope. - I know! - that in time you will probably intend to have built a whole body of work which reflects your life and writing over time.

Writing the truth – which as I keep saying is based on our memory* of our life – is a bit like eating the elephant. Now the question - how do you eat an elephant? Of course the answer is “bit by bit”

It’s the same when you focus your creative life-writing on some aspects of your life. – each bit can be one of the pieces you have worked on during these workshops – or several of them – beginning with the freefall writing which I always, always, advocate as a starting point.

You will note that in the extract from Ted Hughes’s book quite two posts ago the he also advocates this. But then –-as you know - you follow the freefall writing with transcription, where you give it close editorial attention in terms of the words and the language as they will eventually appear in prose on the page.

I can’t repeat often enough that these two processes – the free initial writing and then the editing should be done at different times and even in different places. You can’t write creatively – as I keep saying - with an editor on one shoulder and your secondary school teacher on the other.

Freefall writing with an ink pen, gel pen or pencil up is the absolute beginning - the foundation of all this.  

And then eventually you might – you will! - wish to assemble the pieces you have written in time-order, even if they were not written in time order at the very beginning.. This can happen whether you are writing a straightforward memoir or developing a memoir into fictional prose and story.

Assembling – solid work - a whole sequence like this they will bring with it a new creative energy. You will make new connections and generate further ideas both in terms of content and form. You will be amazed at what you have achieved and you will begin to comprehend the truth that the core of it.
As you will have noticed in The Romancer collection and my other autobiographical writings that the pieces involved   have been assembled into some kind of logical order which eventually took on book form. You will have read a short example - a prose poem called Siblingometry – which was published here two posts ago

Now then! If you continue to work like this for a year or two or ten you will have achieved your memoir or your short story collection – whether they emerge as fact or fiction*,  they will appeal to the readers because they have truth at their heart.

In these months and ars you will have expanded and deepened your life with your observations and writing. You will have earned the right to  are a writer.

Endnote *If you are working towards prose fiction always keep in mind the advice of the magisterial Diana Athill, referring to the high skills of novelist Jean Rhys.
“In a novel the smallest touch of autobiographical special pleading, whether it takes the form of self-pity or exhibitionism will destroy the reader’s confidence. To avoid such touches the writer must be able to stand back from the experience far enough to see the whole of it and must concentrate with self-purging intensity on the process of reproducing it in words. Jean Rhys’s ability to stand back, and   concentrate on the process was intense as that of a tightrope walker. As a result novels do not say ‘this is what happened to me’ but ‘this is how things happen.”.

Diand Athill 

©Wendy Robertson 2019

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