Writing Secrets: A more refined version of life
Reading an unpublished memoir, sent to us for assessment recently, I was initially beguiled by an entertaining anecdote, with vivid characters.
Ah, so far so good, I thought. But then we moved to an unrelated incident, followed by another, and on to a description of what a London teenager’s life was like in the ‘80s. All of these were interesting, or entertaining, but lacked coherence or flow.
By then I was becoming impatient. It reminded me of the sensation you get from eating too many crisps when you’re hungry for dinner.
It struck me again how many people mistake their lives for stories, when writing memoir. “Oh, I don’t need to work out what my story is, because it’s true.” I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard that.
The thing is, what you have is life. The story still has to happen.
No matter how noteworthy your life, or how energetically you may have filled your years, you still need to turn it into a story and for that, as writer David Peace said, you need “art, or artifice”.
True, you can’t make anything up, if you intend to write non-fiction. But what you can do is select. Our lives are made up of stories – but many stories are happening all at the same time.
Stories require a logical flow which life lacks. It’s up to you to decide which of your life’s many chronicles to focus on, and manufacture that logical flow by selecting the incidents which carry your story (rather than your life) forward. And you should simply leave out those which don’t.
Life carries everything along with it. In order to show us life, and take meaning from it, a memoir must be a more refined version of it.
Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Beauty is clarity, clarity beauty‘
Jo-Anne Richards is an internationally published novelist with a PhD in Creative Writing from Wits University. Jo-Anne has published five novels: The Imagined Child, The Innocence of Roast Chicken, My Brother’s Book, Touching the Lighthouse and Sad at the Edges.
Her first novel, The Innocence of Roast Chicken has been rereleased, as part of the Picador Africa Classics collection. When it first appeared, in 1996, it was nominated for the Impac International Dublin Literary Award and chosen as an “outstanding debut novel” by a British book chain.