The hidden secrets of writing with Jane Evans

 In The secrets behind the practice of good writing, Tips for Writers

Jane Evans, former CEO of Ntataise Network Support Programme, which provides extensive early childhood development across South Africa, has been part of our community for many years. A participant in a number of our courses, she has joined us on retreats in Venice and Zimbabwe and will, this year, come with us to Croatia.

Her recently released memoir, A Path Unexpected (Jonathan Ball), will be the focus of this blog, the latest in our series which highlights the books of our community members. It describes the twist her life took when, as a young Johannesburg journalist, she fell in love with a farmer from the Free State. Jane found herself on a remote farm with nothing to occupy herself. That was when she saw the desperate need for her, and a dream emerged …

This is how her memoir begins:

It started slowly. A tremble, almost imperceptible at first. Then the earth began to shiver, as if shrugging off a burden that lay hidden deep within. And then came the shaking. I reached out my arms to steady myself, and watched, transfixed, as the tall glasses of Coke and Fanta, condensation running down their sides, rattled and slid to the edge of the tray on the table in front of us. I stood up. I wanted to run outside. Someone pulled me back into my soft leather chair.

‘Jesus, sweet Jesus!’ a woman cried out, as she put her hands together in prayer. We were sitting in the home of Rebecca Sothoane, in the township of Rammulotsi in the Free State. She had died at the age of 73, and I had come to pay my respects to her family. Gold-coloured curtains, with delicate white netting behind them, were pulled to the side of each window. The television held pride of place in the centre of the room. And now, with the rumbling, the jittering, the clinking of crockery all around us, it felt as if the walls themselves were going to come tumbling down and destroy all of that in an instant. But just as quickly as it had started, the shaking stopped. The sudden silence was broken by Rebecca’s daughter, Josefina, who smiled shakily at me and said, ‘It’s my mother. She’s come to say she’s so pleased you’re here.’

In fact, on that day in 2014, it had been an earthquake – the strongest to hit South Africa in 45 years, a 5.5 on the Richter scale, jolting the ground all the way from its epicentre in the gold-mining town of Orkney – that had disrupted my visit to Rebecca’s home. And yet, I could feel her spirit, even all those years later, in the way she had moved and shaken my world and helped me find a purpose and mission in life.

It seemed almost impossible that 38 years had passed since Rebecca, a farmworker, hoeing the fields from dawn to dusk, had sat with me, a 28-year-old, brand new farmer’s wife, in my study on the farm. Freshly transplanted from my career as a journalist and women’s pages editor for the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg, I was out of place with the rhythms of life on the land. My world had been a world of early morning traffic, exhaust fumes, headlines and deadlines, fast-paced and filled with the cut and thrust of politics and society; Rebecca’s world was governed by patterns of weather, the planting of seeds and the harvesting of crops, rising before the sun to make a fire to heat water, cook breakfast and get everyone on their way to school and work in the early morning mist before her own day could begin. As we sat and talked on the farm, we found common ground in our concern for the generation that would come after us, the children on the farm. Our grand idea, our big dream, was to establish a nursery school for these children, to stimulate them with play, teach them basic concepts, and get them ready for the greater challenges of the school system and life. It didn’t occur to us that it might have seemed overly ambitious, maybe even far-fetched, at the time. When I suggested that the children’s mothers could perhaps fill the role of teachers, Rebecca widened her eyes and looked at me, aghast. ‘Most of them can’t read or write!’

Jane’s story holds a number of lessons for would-be memoir writers. She has drawn us in at the start with a dramatic scene and realistic, recreated dialogue – one that intrigues and gives us a sense of what is to come.

She doesn’t simply tell us what happened, in a dense expositional passage. She has immersed us in a moment from the past, allowing us to see, hear, and feel for ourselves what was happening at the time.

She has started dramatically, with short, sharp sentences, which make us want to read more. She has resisted the temptation to explain but has given us just enough information to tempt us into turning the page.

The hidden secrets of writing with Jane Evans ~ Writing tips:

  • Start your memoir at a dramatic point, which will intrigue us and make us want to read more.
  • Write a memoir with the same skills you would use in fiction: immerse us in scenes with realistic dialogue remembered and recreated from the past.
  • Don’t explain too much. Give us the details, which will allow us to experience a time and a place for ourselves.


If this extract has intrigued you and left you wanting more, please buy the book here.

If you’d like to give yourself the time to write in a beautiful and inspiring environment, join us on our Venice Writing Retreat. If you want support and inspiration on your own memoir-writing journey, join our Monthly Memoir Workshops.

Read our previous Hidden Secrets of Writing blogs

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