THE BENEFIT OF HINDSIGHT – Layers of Time in Memoir

Reflections

Recently I attended Kristina Olsson‘s excellent Memoir Bootcamp at the Queensland Writers Centre. How wonderful it was to be a student again and to learn from one of Queensland’s most celebrated writers. Kris’s book Boy Lost about the loss of her elder brother, has been a model for my own memoir in progress – “Dear Madman” – for many years. Kris has a workshop series coming up at the fabulous Avid Reader bookstore next year – keep an eye on their events.

During the course, I realised I have been trying to avoid an important and necessary element of successful memoir writing, reflection with hindsight.

Kris put us onto Sven Birkerts The Art of Time in Memoir and Vivian Gornick’s Situation and the Story which are packed with useful ideas and examples of memoir writing, including the concept of the Situation and the Story.

There are at least these two layers of time in memoir: the Situation which fleshes out in scenes the events from the past, key events in the section of life we are exploring, and: the Story, the author’s reflection with the benefit of hindsight, seeing patterns and creating meaning from these events.

As Kris told us, “Put your struggle on the page.” The reader needs to see the writer grappling with meaning making, in order for these personal events to resonate with the reader’s own story, their struggles. I now realise I’ve been trying to avoid this, hoping that, as with fiction, the scenes of key events alone would be enough. They’re not.

Much as we like to avoid it, the writer herself is the protagonist in her memoir. A raw and honest portrayal of self is necessary, reflecting on past actions and the meanings we’ve created through a compelling narrative. Helen Garner is a master of self representation in her non-fiction and thinly disguised fiction as well. She shows herself warts and all and we love her for it.

Be brave and put yourself on the page. I worried that my hippy trippy, out-there side may not be palatable to the literary community but Kris and my classmates assured me that they too all had secret inner hippies, and I should not try to hide this part of myself. Perhaps this is what will resonate most with others.

Excerpt from The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts

As the above excerpt tells us, it is by sharing the most deeply personal, our own inner journey of meaning-making, that we create the universal. And isn’t that what we all want? To reach for a kind of truth all readers will understand, a special wisdom that is beyond individual experience but applies to us all?

To do this, within a compelling narrative that keeps readers turning pages, is the memoirists’ challenge. Perhaps the most demanding of all genres, memoir requires great courage and honesty, exposing our inner selves in the hope that by sharing our personal battles we can create a work of art, a thing of beauty from all that pain.

Go deep memoirists. Go hard or go home. Uncover those buried secrets and bring them to the light. Show us how it’s done.

Are you writing a memoir? Have you been avoiding putting yourself in, like I have? Any hints and tips you’d like to share? Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Take care, keep smiling and write like a fury!

Lots of love

Edwina xx

10 SUPER STORY STARTERS

Trees as big and beautiful as this one start as seeds. Stories start from seeds too.

Here are some story seeds to plant in the garden of your imagination or memories.

These prompts can be used for both memoir pieces and fiction. For fiction just invent situations for a character, not yourself.

  1. A moment of joy. Big or small. Where were you? What was happening? Use all five senses to describe what was going on. Go into your body – how does the emotion of joy feel in your body? What happened just before this? What happened just after?

2. Shame. Not for the faint-hearted but great story material. A moment of shame, maybe one you’ve carried a long time. Get it out of your head and onto the page – or give it to a fictional character.

3. The biggest lie you’ve ever told and why. Again you can write from your own life or give it to a character.

4. The best decision you’ve ever made. Why was this decision so important? Great stories are born from these moments that change us.

5. An oxygen mask moment (or light bulb moment). A point in your life when you suddenly felt like you’d had a blast of oxygen, or a light had been turned on and you saw the situation you were in clearly for the first time.

6. A piece of clothing from childhood. This could be something you wore, (like my favourite Donald Duck T-shirt that I wore until it was in shreds and my mother threw it out), or a piece of clothing someone else wore. What story does it have to tell. Why do you remember it?

7. A smell you love, a smell you hate. Smell can open all sorts of doors. What story of yours starts with a smell?

8. Witnessing an act of small cruelty. Once, when I was living in Singapore, I saw a harried young businesswoman dragging her screaming five year old across the street, screeching at her, “After all I’ve sacrificed for you!”. It’s stuck with me all this time. A teacher at school? A mean girl at a party? Start there and see where it takes you.

9. A found object. Next time you’re on a walk, keep your eyes open for something. Anything. A scrap of paper with a few words on it. A rock. A piece of rubbish. A leaf or a feather. What story starts here?

10. Rewrite a favourite religious story or myth, updated to present day.

Okay! Pick one (or maybe two – see Thing 1 and Thing 2).

Now set a timer for ten minutes and write like a fury. Don’t stop for anything. If your pen breaks, write with your fingertip. Find your momentum and just keep going. If you’re still going when the timer goes off, ignore it!

Have fun and let me know how you go 🙂

Lots of love

Edwina xx