“A story within a life”: Joanne Hichens and Jo-Anne Richards on writing memoir (Part 1)
Have you ever wanted to write your life story? Joanne Hichens, author of the recently-published memoir Death and the After Parties, joined our own Jo-Anne Richards last week for a free webinar to answer all your questions on memoir writing.
You can listen to the recording here, or read on to hear Joanne and Jo-Anne’s thoughts on how you research for memoir, whether it is or isn’t therapeutic to write memoir, how to tell a subjective truth, and more.
What’s the difference between memoir and biography?
JR: Like most definitions, they have murky borders. A biography is generally an account of another person’s life. An autobiography generally refers to a fairly chronological account of an entire life and it tends to be more focused on facts. A full autobiography is perhaps more commonly undertaken by someone who is famous or renowned in their field.
A memoir can be a story within your life: the way you overcame trauma, for example, climbed Everest, sailed around the world, faced loss, dealt with an addiction, a problem child, perhaps learnt the great lesson of life. A memoir can have an intimate relationship between emotions and memories.
But no matter what it covers, it needs a story. Just because you have a life, doesn’t mean you already have a story. From life, we create a story. A character, who (you in a memoir), wants something and faces obstacles, and ends up somewhere else, having learned something about themselves.
The way you create this story is through selection. You leave out things that don’t take the story forward, and you include what does. You can also use the skills of fiction. You can write in scenes, you can use dialogue.
However, the fact that you make the claim that your account is “non-fiction”, means you are making a contract with the reader – you are not “making things up”. That doesn’t mean that you’re trying to tell an objective truth. There’s no such thing. It’s a subjective telling. But you are making a contract with the reader that you are telling the truth as you see it.
A great deal of fiction is drawn from life, whether from a writer’s own life or things they’ve observed. Fiction writers often believe they’re telling “a greater truth” by plaiting together what really happened with what could have happened and what might still happen. They’re not polar opposites, memoir and fiction. They’re closer than you sometimes think.
If a memoir is based on your own memoirs and recollections, how important is researching your own past?
JH: A memoir is real, you are the character in what you’re writing. The research has been done in a sense because you have lived your life and you are left with the emotions, the experiences, the stories that you have been through as a human being.
The first thing would be to really decide what memoir you want to write, what part of your life you’re looking at. Whether it’s the death of a family member, or some other important aspect of your life that you want to explore. You move from there. Of course you need accurate detail. What were the politics of the time, the frame of reference, the context, this can all be researched, including dates and names in order to reflect a more precise reality.
JR: I certainly do research for my fiction. It can certainly add a sense of reality to a memoir or help you write scenes to look up things you might have forgotten, such as what a record cost in 1974, or a dress. You’re not making things up but you’re filling in the details.
Is it advisable to write a memoir if your memories are fallible, spotty and unreliable because of childhood trauma?
JH: If you were to write a biography you’d be going to the library, you would read papers and ask questions and be doing interviews. But a memoir is really about your own life and your own experiences, and often those memories are going to be fallible, spotty and unreliable.
I think a lot of people are put off from writing memoir although they want to explore certain parts of their lives, as they feel they don’t have those memories at their fingertips. What I learned through writing this memoir is that actually those memories come back, when you put yourself in the position of writing about your childhood, or your marriage, those memories begin to resurface, even if you didn’t keep diaries at the time. In a way, the writing is the research.
Afterwards, if you want to go get the facts straight, when did I actually live in Japan? What is the name of that school I went to in Canada? What year were my parents born? Those are the kinds of research questions that are usually quite easily dealt with. Rather write the story first, as much as you can, from your heart and gut, and then go back and do that research.
I think a lot of us are fearful of writing trauma in case it brings back bad memories. Where do we start? How are we going to get going? Again the way to do it is to simply put yourself in front of that computer or in front of that notebook and to settle into one or two particular memories and see what comes up for you.
Childhood trauma can be very difficult and very scary to write about. I’m not of the opinion that writing is therapy. I think it can be therapeutic, but it’s not therapy. The writing, once its out there, it becomes a thing of its own. It becomes a piece of work, of text. But writing about trauma can also be cathartic and I think when one starts writing it can lead to deeper exploration which can be very satisfying.
Getting back to spotty, unreliable, vague memories, one must consider that when it comes to memory there is no objective truth. The memoirist is telling their story from their own truth, from how they perceived it. I started my memoir in order to write about death, I was very clear about that. What happened then was that was I started to write about my childhood, in very vivid images. And I thought, why am I doing this? This has nothing to do with anything.
But it turned out that the way I dealt with loss had bearing on the way I dealt with loss as a child. I started to remember and started to explore and recreate scenes between my mother and I, and other deaths that happened when I was a child.
The difference between fiction and memoir is that in fiction, the writer creates scenes to reflect the premise and theme, whereas a memoirist recreates the known past (as much as it can be known) to find meaning.
JR: You’re not trying to tell an objective truth or objective facts. Imperfect memories can still tell us a great deal about the characters who emerged from them. It’s those imperfect memories that formed the people they turned out to be.
Again we go back to what I’ve said before: events themselves don’t make story. We don’t need to know the full facts and details about events. It’s characters who make the story, and how events impinge on the characters. The way those events are perceived by a traumatised child is exactly what carries the story forward.
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.
Joanne Hichens is an author and editor. Her crime fiction titles include Divine Justice and Sweet Paradise. Her memoir Death and the After Parties was published in 2020.
“In Death and the After Parties I write about the passing of my mother, husband, father and mother-in-law, and examine everything that happened after their deaths – the emotional frenzy, the funerals, the family strife, the fighting, the loving. I describe first-hand the shock, the grief, the mourning, the betrayals, ultimately focusing on recovering from loss.”