A 6 week course with www.wordafterword.org.uk
Taking Word After Word’s course, ‘My Story – Memoir and writing from life’ has been my first sortie into this genre, apart from a little travel writing, and it has been both interesting and revealing. I realised early on that I hadn’t read many memoirs or biographies and therefore had a lot to learn. I signed up to the course with the idea of getting started on a new project I was planning, to write about the life of my maternal grandmother Lucy (1898-1982). Fiona, our tutor, had other ideas and I soon found I was writing about myself.
Initially it felt self-indulgent to repeatedly use the words ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’ but it became easier with practice. It was liberating to be encouraged to do personal, free-writing exercises, where the words just flowed on to a page. Here we were encouraged not to edit or re-read, but to allow the stream of thoughts and memories, arising from suitable prompts, to develop without interruption. These could be private words, not necessarily to be shared, though with an option to do so if we wished. As the small group of students got to know each other we felt braver and more able to share our personal stories and it became therapeutic, even cathartic, to read out our stories in this safe environment. It could almost have been a counselling session (life-writing often being used in the counselling process) and as we wrote about our lives, our insightful tutor supported us with skilful professionalism.
So what did I learn from the course? What did I gain?
Th The course was an opportunity to stay connected with people and the wider world, and I realise that is one of the reasons I write. Although the process of writing can be isolating, writers can through their work connect with others, in writing groups and communities (alongside the many online forums that also exist).
I learned to value the concept of bearing witness, when writers ask readers to support or endorse an experience, so both writer and reader might reach a new level of understanding.
I learned that truth can have many aspects; the truth (for sure), the truth as we see it (feasible), and the truth we tell others (fiction).
I acknowledged the benefit of using all the senses; to try to ‘show and not tell’; to be true to myself and find my voice; and (as always) to be careful with point of view.
I hope I will keep by me the list of opening ingredients for a story, be it fiction or memoir:
-a clear voice
-a vivid setting
-and an action.
I will hang on to the good advice Fiona gave us at the end of ‘My Story’ about editing – to get the words down, then rest, leave them and come back refreshed, with some distance and new objectivity.
I was reminded to try to write something every day if possible and to regularly exercise my writing muscles.
I feel better prepared to get on with writing about my grandmother’s life, but might approach it slightly differently now. I hope I will be more respectful of whose story I am telling and considerate about how I might mix fact and fiction. It could be an interesting piece of social history, but I will write it primarily for my family to appreciate. They will be my audience and the first to bear witness but who knows where it might go from there.