How to write a memoir – part one

My diaries are the starting point when it comes to writing memoir

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.

Research index cards.

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.

Seaside accommodation is not strictly necessary when it comes to writing.

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.

Happiness is..A wet day on a hill with the volunteers.

debbie in the field

The lovely Debbie enjoying a wet day with the gang. 

I love being out with the volunteers. Even on a day when the heavens open and it rains solidly. I walk across the site in muddy trousers and the rain is lashing down and still I’m happy. Why is that?

I think because this is life. Out here, in the elements, being rained on, with every other living creature. Not separate but part of it, the earth, and the woods and the season.

Life is here, slipping in the mud, using your muscles to chop and haul and climb, laughing with your mates as you hole up in the back of the Land rover for lunch with soup and sandwiches and hot cups of tea passed through the windows to you.

This is life, this doing and being and loving the moment. The thing we all did for millennia before urban life and technology separated us from the world, the moment and each other.

Something in this, something essential in this, feels like the very thing you were put on this earth to do.

I walk alone.

old apple tree and footpath No MansAnother research trip for my book took me to No Man’s Orchard outside Chartham Hatch at dusk on a January evening where my presence seemed to concern others.

No Man’s Orchard – January

I walked away from the village down the narrow cut leading to the orchard, the wood sorrel lemoning the bankside verges. The tops of the pines burnished in sunlight. Emerging from the woods into the orchard , the light dazzled you. Wood smoke gathered in the deep dish of the valley. The blackbirds were chinking and sighing out the day.

I stopped at the noticeboard leading to the orchard. Three dogs came careering down the path, surrounding me, barking,  followed by a couple striding out in wellies.

“You look suspicious,” the women said accusingly, gathering in her dogs with irritation.

“Do I?” I say, wondering just how.

“Well, you’re on your own. Without a dog.”

“In that case, I’m often looking suspicious.” I told her.

I could see she was unimpressed. What are you doing? She wanted to ask. What can you possibly be doing, out here, at dusk, on your own?

But, it seems someone forgot to send me the memo telling me that women are not supposed to do this. Just walk in the countryside, dogless, after the allotted hour of curfew.

I walked on, Under the arms of the grandmother trees, 150 Bramley’s, fleckle barked, Fieldfare chucking and the warm rot of apples still scenting the air. Wrens fizz by into the bramble.

enhanced moon rise BigburyI’m heading for Bigbury, where the ancestors lived. Up on the hill they traded and worshipped and enslaved their neighbours before being discovered by Julius Cesar and his invading army.

It’s growing dark, in the woods, it is all mud and rot, my iris’s darken to let in the light. My senses become alive to twig crack and footfall. I am not immune to fear. I don’t walk alone in the woods with no sense of it.

Charles Foster in his book, Being a Beast says, that hunting ‘gave me back my senses. A man with a gun sees, hears, smells and intuits much more than the same man with a bird book and a pair of binoculars,’  Maybe so, but the same man will never know the sharpening of the senses a women who walks alone in the countryside at dusk knows . He knows only what it is like to be the predator not what it is like to be the prey.

The full moon rises, the first of the year and the owls begin to call. I walk softly back up the darkening cut. I can’t escape the fear, it is hardwired into me. It makes me that bit more alive to the darkening woods. I can only refuse to be driven indoors by it.



Return to the Estuary

Kingsnorth 1Headed down to my beloved Estuary yesterday to relive a day 11 years ago when I sat on a pillbox and received a phone call which took my life in a new direction. We never know which way the change is coming, what’s blowing down the river. I was back to make some notes to use for my new book, which has the working title of, The Volunteers.

Medway – January

The spartina spewed out across the mud like a spray of golden lacquer on a Japanese enamel box, brightly burnished under the iron sky. My bladder burnt, hot and urgent but I ignored it. The blasted pier stretched a finger out towards the island, the three cranes on the end looked out in different directions, guarding all approaches.

Dog walkers occasionally appeared, trudging along in impractical trainers through the mud. We didn’t greet each other. They were head down and determined into the wind and I, a muddy marvel, perched in tattered and splattered layers on the pillbox. Clearly not normal. Once again, odd, cast out, fringe dwelling.

Society of Authors Award

my writing space

It’s back to my writing space in the cellar for me as I set to work on a new book

I am delighted to announce that I have been awarded an Foundation Grant by the Society of Authors to help fund research into my new book, which currently has the working title of, The Volunteers.

For six years I ran a volunteer group for a small conservation organisation. This experience had a profound effect on me, as it did on everyone who found their way to us. Now I want to write about those years in the woods and tell the stories of the people that came.

In particular I want to write about the young people, many of whom were in a bad place in their life at the time, either through mental health problems, drugs, a brush with the law, or simply because they had lost their way and needed something good to happen. Each one of those people took a brave step out of their door the day they joined us. Their stories are bound up with my own walk back from a dark place following redundancy and a breakup.

Behind this story is my theory, which is that, for hundreds of years we worked with our hands, on the land, alongside our neighbours and then suddenly the world changed. The volunteer group restored people, if only for a little while, to the way we are meant to be.

Nature is hardwired into our genes but increasingly we are alienated from it. We spend our days in high rise boxes cut off from such life-giving essentials as fresh air and sunlight. We are lost amid noise and concrete, our every move watched and followed by gadgets that we welcome into our lives. Small wonder that we are in meltdown. Loneliness, depression and drug use are all on the rise and, even those of us who can’t put a label on things, feel stretched thin.
For the volunteers the woods offered a respite, a chance to return to the world of bird song and dirt beneath the fingernails. To regain a sense of community and of ourselves.

I have been beavering away at this story for the last two years, visiting locations to relive the years I spent running the group and planning my research of everything from how working outdoors affects our mental health to traditional woodland management techniques.

This story of the volunteers and what that time meant to me is a tale I have long wanted to tell but find it hard to put in the time needed to write when writing just doesn’t pay the bills. Now, I feel like I have been given a breathing space, an opportunity to create something which I hope will be worthy as a follow up to my 2017 book On the Marshes.

Watch this space. A new journey begins.

A wet day, a new book, a big question.

digging holes for waymarkers

find happiness in the woods

So, It’s a wet, wet day and I am holed up in my kitchen doing some research for my new book, which I have been slowly working on for the last year. I am writing the story of my time with the wildlife conservation group I ran for six years, an experience which had a profound effect on me as it did on everyone who found their way to us.

Sometimes I think is it just a bit old fashioned to write a book about a wildlife conservation group when young people are camping on the streets of London and pressurising governments about the climate crisis. Wouldn’t I be better off spending my time joining them?

But what I am discovering from my research is that I am also part of the solution. For governments to take action they need to think that enough ordinary people care and people care about nature if they feel the need for it.

Some people feel the point is to save the earth for the sake of humanity. After all we cannot survive without a planet and we cannot survive without nature’s ‘ecosystem services’ of carbon capture, fresh water and healthy soil that can grow food. Personally I find myself more interested in saving the planet simply because it exists and is beautiful and other creatures have as much right to life as us. But it is the truth that, while nature will survive just find without us, we cannot survive without it.

Nature is essential for our physical survival But what I am learning through my research is that we also need it on a more subtle level too. Studies show that our brains have become wired through lack of contact with it.

Urban environments and technology are literally sending us crazy. Constant noise, proximity to other people and attention grabbing websites are sending our amygdala into overload and leading, not only to rises in depression and anxiety, but even to illness’s like schizophrenia. Nature resets our brain and makes us calm down, become less prone to rumination and more able to concentrate.

So we need nature for our physical health, for our mental health and also for our soul. Whether you believe in the existence of it or not, you probably know that indefinable something that soars in the presence of nature’s grandeur. At least I really hope you do.  Nature links us with the unknown, with something larger than ourselves that we cannot pin down. We need this. We need that heart stopping sunset or rush of bird wing overhead, we need that moment of silence in deep woodland broken by one insect buzz. God how we need that.

It makes me feel justified, this research. What I am trying to write about is not just a story of a group of people who went to the woods but why being part of a group that went to the woods made us all feel so damn happy. It is a book about connection with nature and how it heals us in a world gone a little mad. It is a story about how we need nature far more than it needs us.

In writing this story I not only hope to tell people about the power of nature to heal but encourage them to get out and see for themselves how much difference it can make to all our lives and why we should all be supporting those people camping on the streets of the capital that are fighting for it’s future.

A work of art that money just can’t buy!

box builders (2)Great and much needed day out yesterday with my beloved volunteers. Working with a crack crew of Simon Houstoun and Richard Yarwood,  I helped build a rather marvellous kindling box from the tatty remains of old apple bins. It had the kind of patina that money just can’t by, complete with bent nails and bits of dry rot. We thought about selling it in Whitstable high street as a reclaimed retro artwork but decided to gift it to the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership instead. pride in our kindling box.JPG