My memoir journey – Dee Sullivan
I opened the parcel and took out the book. I held it. I stroked the cover. I turned the pages, one by one. I sat silently, feeling the weight of it.
It was the first time I’d completed any creative writing, though I’ve started several novels. It represented a huge part of my life that has profoundly affected me – but not defined me – ever since. And it felt like a huge achievement to have dredged through my first 19 years in this world and made some sense of it.
It was September 2019 when Marnie Summerfield-Smith breezed into my creative writing class to tutor us for a term. We were all new to memoir writing and a little trepidatious about what we were opening ourselves up to.
From the start, each of us was grappling with several big questions. Why am I writing this? Who is it for? And, fundamentally, what is the story I want to tell?
Then there was the how. The structure, format, length, style and tone.
It was so helpful and important to have people to discuss all of this with. I don’t think I’d have written (and certainly not finished) my memoir without this group of women.
I’d had a complicated and often troubled childhood but I didn’t want to write a misery memoir. I had loving parents and relatives. I was encouraged to take education seriously. I didn’t go without food or clothes.
But I wanted to delve into the formative years of being part of an unstable, fractured family, forced to live with my mum’s mental illness, worrying about my dad’s drinking and wondering where I belonged in the world.
Now I was confronted with the fact that my strongest memories are of some of the worst events and my recall of the normal, everyday times is sketchy. In recent conversations with my brother and school friends I realised that we each have different takes on the same events and also remember very different experiences. So how could I write a truthful memoir? And how could I write it if I couldn’t remember exact conversations?
In the writing group we thrashed out these questions and more. We concluded that what was important was the overall truth of each experience and the impact it had on us. We also felt it was alright to take poetic license with dialogue, as long as the language and tone were true to the people involved.
So where to start? I had to decide if I wanted to tell a linear story, present a series of scenes or jump back and forwards in time. I could have easily got side-tracked by the planning, so in the end I felt I just had to start writing, anywhere, and worry about the shape of the narrative later on.
That was clearly the right decision for me because the words started to pour out and memories began to emerge. Until I reached the first painful scene. I felt panicky and had to stop typing. I found I couldn’t stop crying. It was too upsetting to continue.
I took a break and let the emotions settle a bit. Then I forced myself to go back to the writing.
And so it went on for several months. Stopping and starting. Writing and deleting. It became obsessive. And I began to resent having to live in the past so much. But the words and pages built up and suddenly I had written more than I’d ever achieved before.
In our group, we took it in turns to read out a section of our memoir and get feedback from each other. It was profound and moving. In some cases – certainly in mine – we were sharing things we’d never told anyone else. It was also funny and life-affirming. Sometimes we cried. Often we laughed. It was invaluable.
What I also found difficult in writing the memoir was how much to say or keep back about other people. I was anxious not to hurt or upset anyone but at the same time I wanted to be as honest as I could. Again, discussions with my writer friends helped me see how I could draw the line and advised where I may have crossed it.
In April 2020, I’d completed a first draft. I was thrilled and relieved and exhausted. A school friend who’s a novelist offered to give her critique. This was the first time I had shared any of my creative writing with anyone outside my group, and I was extremely nervous about it, particularly as she had been a big part of my teenage years. She loved it, and that boosted my confidence enormously. Her honesty and positive suggestions really helped – one key comment she made was that the strongest chapters were those which started with a scene written in the present tense, with dialogue. I agreed, and re-wrote a few chapters to reflect this.
By the time I’d finished the second draft, I felt emotionally drained and wanted to forget about the whole thing. In August, I handed it over to Marnie for editing, nervous about her response. I needn’t have been. She was overwhelmingly positive and suggested some very good changes. This gave me the impetus to finally complete the memoir and in November, I handed it over for formatting and printing.
I had planned to publish my memoir but three factors made me change my mind. First, my brother is a very private person and it felt wrong to expose his childhood to public scrutiny. Second, my aunt, who was a huge presence in my teenage years in particular, is still alive and might feel upset by some of my account. And third, the idea of it being out there with a life of its own suddenly panicked me.
At first I was disappointed. But I’ve come to realise that first and foremost, I wrote it for myself and I’m very proud of it. When I complete my first novel I will be desperate to publish it but this memoir is too personal.
I have shared it with my school friends and feel overwhelmed by their positive reactions about my writing and storytelling. But what is amazing is how little any of them knew about what was going on in my life and how sad they feel about it.
I knew I hadn’t told them very much when we were at school. Perhaps I wanted to seem normal; or couldn’t find the words or the meaning to convey it; or maybe we were just typical teens, absorbed in our own lives; or possibly it was because people then shared less private stuff than they do now.
I believe we’ve all got hidden stories. Writing my memoir forced me to delve and dig, to overcome fear and to keep putting the words on the page. It’s been a difficult but rewarding journey but I’m so glad I wrote it. I now feel encouraged and inspired to get on with my novel. And finish it.
Marnie’s retreat was relaxing and supportive, just the atmosphere you need for writing, even though memoir writing is so personal and often challenging. Hearing other writer’s journeys was fascinating, and I now understand how Marnie’s retreat was relaxing and supportive, just the atmosphere you need for writing, especially since memoir writing is so personal and often challenging. Hearing other writers’…
I had the pleasure of working with Marnie as she carried out a manuscript assessment for my memoir. Marnie was referred to me by Jericho Writers. She’s truly an expert in her field. Marnie’s written feedback to me was valuable, relevant, insightful and very encouraging. She clearly set out the areas that were working and identified the key elements that…
With my current health problems, I do feel content and happy that I have been able to write my life story for my loved ones. My grandchildren are very young, but in the years to come they will enjoy and appreciate reading my memoir Darlo Boy. Thank you so much for your assistance Marnie.
I felt as if Marnie was holding my hand throughout. She wanted to do the very best for me. Her caring and compassionate nature was evident from day one. Apart from being extremely intuitive, her wonderful writing skills seemed contagious and I found myself expressing myself like I had never done before! She gently prised open my life without me…
If you’ve already written your memoirs but need a bit of guidance as well as an experienced memoir checker, then you need look no further. I contacted Marnie about a memoir I had already written entitled ‘The Life and Times of a Seminary Kid’ which was a humorous look at five years of my life at a priest’s training college. Initially,…
My memoir is written from different points of view. Marnie recommended adding more of my own emotions, that I sew the story together using my voice and feelings as the thread. She is open-minded and encouraged me by understanding the atmosphere I am trying to convey about a sensitive topic that informs the lives of three generations of women –…
Working with Marnie was a dream come true! She as so helpful and encouraging with my memoir, we corresponded a year before we started working together and she gave me very helpful advice from the start. We worked together editing my memoir over seven months. Marnie is very patient, understanding and kind, traits that are so important when writing a…
I first met Marnie when she interviewed me at Harbour Books, Whitstable about my book Kill The Black One First – a memoir. I found her a very warm and helpful person. She was very well researched and her questions incisive and pertinent. She certainly helped make the event a success.
Throughout the whole editing process I felt both expertly held and simultaneously challenged to push my memoir to rewarding new heights. Marnie instinctively knows how to inspire with insightful suggestions whilst marshalling disparate strains of thought into cohesive order. My project was particularly exposing on a personal level and Marnie handled everything with extraordinary insight and sensitivity. I can’t imagine…
I was delighted when Marnie agreed to provide a workshop for the 2018 Kent Festival of Writing. Zuihitzu, the Japanese art of following the pen, proved a very attractive proposition for our delegates and we were oversubscribed. Neither Marnie or I wanted to turn anyone away, so it was a packed event!
Thank you for your help in making this happen, and for putting Neil’s words together so accurately. We were so pleased that the first draft arrived in time for us to read it as a family to Neil. I know he really enjoyed his couple of days with you. Thank you. Sarah Vines, brother of Neil, author of Powerful Beyond…
In the run-up weekend to our 2018 festival Marnie hosted a very well attended day of memoir-writing events, beginning with a moving, eloquent discussion in which she talked to author Sarah Pullen about her memoir A Mighty Boy. As an interviewer Marnie is a true professional, asking thought-provoking yet sensitive and heartfelt questions, and putting everyone at ease in that…
It was a pleasure working with Marnie on the Writer’s Weekend. She was approachable, professional and communicative in the lead-up to the event and during the weekend she was wonderful. All delegates commented on her kind manner, her knowledge, and her ability to bring out the best writing in them. I can highly recommend collaborating with Marnie, who would be…
A couple of weeks after the Memoir Writing Weekend, I am reflecting on what a difference it has made. For a long while I have had a desire to share my story, I did not have a clue how or where to start. All I knew is that there was at least one story there to be told. The workshops…
This was a brilliant weekend – way above my expectations. Marnie just knows about memoir and her presentations were superbly focussed and paced. It’s rare to find someone who combines a high level of professional knowledge with the relational skills that make it all work. If you are needing support with your writing, hire this woman! Edna Murdoch Director Coaching…
I have been lucky enough to work with Marnie on several occasions where she has interviewed, hosted and compèred events I have been managing. Marnie is a joy to watch at work. When the lights dim and she takes the microphone, I feel totally at ease knowing that everything will be safe in her hands. Marnie has a real gift….
Marnie interviewed me about my memoir Have You Been Good? for Whit Lit in 2015. Before we met at the festival, we had a long telephone conversation and I was struck at how quickly she understood my book. Her intelligence, warmth and sensitivity made the interview on the day feel more like a conversation with an old friend. A year…
Thank you for interviewing me for my event at the London Fashion and Textile Museum in November, 2018. You made me feel so relaxed and I appreciate your unerring and priceless support. You made the talk possible for me and I’m incredibly grateful. Liz Wilson, owner of Eclectica Vintage
Thank you Marnie for sharing your insightful and inspirational creativeness with me – well, and all of us. I loved the weekend and have come away full of excitement to write write write. Actually perhaps it’s more to organise organise organise! Oh well somehow I am determined to get my ‘stuff’ together. Thank you again. Penny Wadsworth
Absolutely loved every minute of this amazing memoir writing retreat, and the time spent with such lovely people, sharing their deeply touching life experiences. Special thanks to you Marnie for all your encouragement, support and know how. Marnie helped me with my first book and now I am going to write the sequel myself. Feeling truly inspired and motivated with…