Having completed the first draft of my new book, with the working title of, The Volunteers, I thought I would give you a quick guide on how I attacked the process of writing a memoir.
Number 1 – trawl diaries – I have been an avid diary keeper since 7 years old. Diaries are always one sided and introspective, unless you are writing them with a view to providing a window on the world but without my diaries I wouldn’t have much chance of writing memoir. In them I record how I felt and conversations I had at the time.
My first step is to read through all the diaries for the period I am writing about and pull out all relevant information which I type up into a separate document. I find this process often quite illuminating. It gives you perspective and helps you see the story arc.
You also need to realise that people don’t really want to read about you ruminating on a particular grievance for pages and pages so you need to step back and see yourself as a character and think, is this really relevant to moving the action forward?
All the basic rules of story telling still apply even if you are writing about yourself.
Number 2 – Consider the theme – I am not an expert on this but, unless you are writing a misery memoir (and possibly even then) you need to make your story relevant to the world at large.
Ask yourself why anyone would want to read your memoir? Maybe because it chimes with their own experiences or maybe because you use your own story to illuminate a bigger theme for society.
For example, my first book, On the Marshes, was about my life living in a caravan on the North Kent Marshes, but I used my own experiences to look at bigger issues such as housing in the South East and why some people wish to reject conventional notions of a successful life and find a life that gives them personal fulfilment.
What is your book really about?
Number 3 – Write it as if you expect no one to ever read it – I found it really hard to begin writing about the volunteer group I ran for six years, mainly because I was aware that I was portraying the lives of people I really cared about and was worried what they might think.
Conversely, I wrote On the Marshes without any real expectation that it would be published and read by others so I was oblivious and possibly naive to other people’s reactions.
In order to begin my new book I had to tell myself forcefully to just forget about everyone else and write the truth as I saw it. It was the only way to free myself up and get going. I ended up with a disjointed but honest narrative. I could reconsider everyone else’s feelings when it came to editing.
Number 4 – Do your research – If your book is to include themes which are relevant to society as a whole then you probably need to do some research into current thinking on these issues. I wrote out a research plan. Got led wildly astray reading some amazing and really interesting ideas and then was given some good advice by a Cambridge scholar, “don’t let the research take over.” Good advice. Know when to stop.
Number 5 – embroider your setting– My diaries formed the background to my story but in order to make the scenes come alive I needed to revisit the places the action happened at the correct time of year. I created a list of places to visit and the season in which to visit them and then worked my way through the list over a course of a year creating notes on sounds, smells, changes of light etc.
This is particular necessary for nature writing but is relevant for everyone I think. An urban street in summer contains quite a different array of sounds and smells than the same street in winter.
Number 6 – Weave it all together – By this point I had a whole load of research, a whole bunch of notes on seasons and a wobbly narrative, which didn’t run in any sort of logical order. Now was the time to weave it all together. I disappeared to a shack overlooking the sea and began to stitch things into something resembling a first draft.
I should add at this point, that the shack by the sea isn’t a requirement. Silence and lack of distractions help but I wrote most of my first book in the cellar of my house and most of this one sitting in the back of my car with a thermos.
Number 7 – Begin to edit. That’s not it folks, that’s not anywhere near it. The book still needs to be edited. This is where the hard work begins. The difficult decisions on what to leave in and what to remove. Followed by close editing of the text. Only after this process is complete will I be ready to send it out tentatively into the world.