Back in the day when I was taking creative writing courses, and the memoir writing class got going, I thought, “This will be a breeze.” Not only does a memoir fall plumb into the lap of “Write what you know,” but I didn’t have to think up a story. It was ready-made and accessible.
Authors who pen life stories/memoirs do so for a variety of reasons. Therapy, closure, family legacy, catharsis. For me it was mostly for family to read, keep and enjoy, but it also had to be unique, it had to be different. I soon debunked the unique question. Research turned up no other WWII memoirs of children living in an evacuee school.
When writing a life memoir, the first step is to read someone else’s life memoir; whether it is Frank McCourt’s brilliant and deeply moving story about growing up in the back street slums of Limerick, Ireland; or the journalistic-style autobiographical account of the very young Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban for speaking out about her concerns for girls’ education in that country. Noting the authors’ different styles, approaches, and formats assists in figuring out one’s own style/format and how one can make it unique.
Having gone through these basic exercises, I then had to make a decision. Do I write a journalistic style account of those five years, or should I turn it into a story, which would encompass stories of the other children, the teachers and how they all coped with waiting out five years of war before they could be reunited with their families.
I chose to write a story.
I was lucky in the fact that my mother had kept all the letters I’d written home during that time. I was also extremely fortunate to have almost total recall of those years. Pictures continually flickered into my consciousness as I wrote – real and alive as if I were experiencing them at that moment. I often wondered how this could be happening. Am I just blessed with the gift of vivid recall or, as some psychologists would like me to believe, was the trauma of the whole experience imprinted on my mind in indelible paint? I’ll settle for the former.
I’ve been asked why my story, Dear Cedric, has a subtitle byline: “Based on a true story of WWII.” Simple answer – “Because it is.”
I jotted down all the memories of that time. Every name I could remember. Every little smattering of conversation or lesson learned that lurked in my memory bank. The whole lot filled about five pages.
So then what?
Peter Sheridan said it best of his memoir 47Roses: “…that it floats somewhere between memory and invention is deliberate; but where one ends and the other begins, I do not know.”
I would take each incident in turn, set it down as I remembered, then weave in a fabric of dialogue, description and detail, and create a complete chapter to –hopefully–entrance the reader and have them turn to the next.
For my next two blogs here at LitChat, I’ll touch on the pratfalls and pitfalls of writing a life memoir, my publishing experience, and the mammoth marketing plan I dreamed up.