“Whatever happened to you, you own it”: Joanne Hichens and Jo-Anne Richards on writing memoir (Part 2)
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, read part one 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.
Do you have to be more aware of liable and defamation law as a result?
JH: For me, the first rule of writing memoir is to write the story. Whatever happened to you, you own it. It is your story. Too often we’re put off and we think, well, what right do I have, or who will I expose, or what will the backlash be, or what will my children think, or will I have a nervous breakdown?
If the desire exists to write the story, that comes first. We’ve got to get on with it and we’ve got to write that story. If you think its going to be nerve-wracking and you need the support of a therapist, I would certainly advise that you invest in that. Have someone that you can talk to if the writing is too painful. But it’s your story. I love the quote by Anne Lamott: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Memoir is really coming to terms with, mostly, things in our lives that didn’t work out well, and the lessons that we learned through that.
If you’re concerned that you have defamed someone, you might have to seek legal opinion, to cover yourself and to protect others, particularly if you are writing about Big Names, or doing any sort of exposé.
How do you get the balances between the facts and your memories about a person concerned versus what a reader wants to read? When does self-indulgence stop?
JR: You are not writing an objective truth. You are describing your journey. That’s the story you’re setting out to tell. I don’t think you should bother about what the reader wants to read. It’s impossible to know, in any case. If you tell the story compellingly enough and allow us to be immersed in that life, the reader will want to read it. Don’t allow yourself to second-guess that.
Self-indulgence is connected to story, and what takes your story forward. Your story has an arc. You’re telling a particular story that rises in tension as this character – you – faces obstacles in their life. Anything that takes your story forward isn’t self-indulgent. If it doesn’t take your story forward, don’t include it.
JH: Memoir is about the self. One has to indulge the self. You’re looking at yourself, you’re recreating scenes from your childhood, in order to find the meaning we’ve talked of. Self-indulgence can be positive in a certain way. Of course no one will be interested in every detail of your life, but the memoirist chooses the details and scenes which illuminate the life story in some way.
What one wants to do is tell one’s own truth. A lot of the questions asked online concern not hurting or exposing others, such as: ‘Won’t someone be upset that I’ve exposed a certain truth or broached a certain subject or shown a family secret to the world?’ I think we need to be aware that it is our story, and in order to tell the story we’ve actually got to face those family secrets, and face that truth, and write about it and tell it. At a later stage we can decide whether we’re going to include a certain detail or not. But at the end of the day, if it’s an intimate part of the story, if it moves the story forward, it’s necessary.
What are your favourite memoirs?
JH: Joan Didion’s My Year of Magical Thinking and A Widows Story by Joyce Carol Oates, Running With Scissors and Dry by Augustus Burrows, and anything by David Sedaris. I have read many death memoirs, including those by Christopher Hitchens and Terry Pratchett who describe their own dying days – this was very poignant reading.
JR: I’ve recently read Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. It’s a fabulous memoir, extremely honest and open. I was drawn in by her story and drawn onward by the sensitively described tension.
Plus a special question from a teacher, Tanya Matthews:
I would like some advice from you, as the author of YA novels, about getting high school students (grades 10, 11 & 12) to write reflectively, using a memoir style of writing. This is a compulsory part of their writing curriculum. As teenagers, their life experiences are short. I am also aware of many who have had traumatic experiences. The last thing that I want is for a writing task to be triggering. What advice can I give to teens about writing reflectively, yet maturely and sincerely?
JH: I would not put any conditions on the children or youth to write ‘maturely’ or ‘responsibly’. This is more a less imposing a sort of censorship, which already places boundaries on the writing. What you could do is to get the young writers to ‘go deeper’, to be more free to express whatever it is they need to express, or want to express. Be on hand if it gets too much for any child, but children are stronger than we think, and memoir-style writing can help them come to terms with their past trauma.
Allow youth to write freely and truthfully and honestly, not to be bound by grammar or the conventions of style. Then allow the writer to edit, to cut their pieces by half, in order to get the essence of what they want to say or explore. There are many voices and stories that need to be heard. I would say make a safe space for these stories to be written, without putting too many pre-conditions on the type and style of writing.
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.”