I am just home from leading RedDoor Publishing’s memoir writing weekend at the West Rocks hotel in Eastbourne. And, oh my goodness, what an uplifting and inspiring weekend it was! Eleven writers came along, 10 women and one man. Four of them had booked the starter kit, which included a one-to-one session with me. The others were further along in their writing and wanted time and space to write, plus the option of some guidance where they felt they needed it.
On Friday we gathered and introduced ourselves. Some people were bursting with their stories and held small groups in their thrall. Others talked about their writing journey, where they were at and where they wanted to be. Others simply absorbed. In the evening we had a splendid three-course dinner, followed by a frank and amusing talk from RedDoor author Dorit Oliver-Wolff. Her memoir From Yellow Star to Pop Star tells of her life as a singer and holocaust survivor. Dorit is a RedDoor author and a force of nature. You can read more about her here.
The first workshop was on the three types of writing in memoir:
- The What Happened
- The Context
- The Emotional Impact
These three strands are so important, in my opinion. If one is missing, a reader may not know which, but they will feel that something is off. You might want to inspire them to question their own lives, experiences and feelings but you don’t want to leave them with questions about yours. As memoirist and tutor Mary Karr says of Michael Herr’s Vietnam memoir Dispatches: “He creates an intimate psychic space – a mind perceiving and remembering and analysing and pondering with such variety that we cleave to it.” Or as Nicole Scherzinger might say: “Write your heart out!”
You want to give your reader, be they family and friends or a wider audience, a satisfying read. Take them into your life and into your mind and give them a tour, using these three essential types of writing: what went on, how that came to be, how it made you feel and decisions you made as a result.
I started first by dispelling the myth of writers’ block. You just have to write, and you have to write your way through the mess of the first draft. End of. “Do, or don’t do, there is no try.” Yoda said that, or words similar. He’s so wise that I know he’s right even though I’ve never seen Star Wars…
Then, after some explanation and examples read from a favourite memoir of mine, Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, all the delegates put pen or pencil to paper. Sharing was optional and four writers volunteered. I was so impressed by their bravery and deeply touched by what I heard. The way they wrote showed me that they had deep self-awareness. This is crucial in memoir. It’s an exercise in searching the soul and it takes time and thought. We need perspective on what we’ve lived so that we can share it thoughtfully and with authenticity. Beautiful, clear language and neat dialogue was employed. A spilled cup of tea was written about with delicate poignancy. There was a magical atmosphere of intimacy and appreciation. I have said it before but it bears repeating: you never know the stories that people are carrying inside them. Hearing them is a gift and a reminder to be gentle with each other.
We took a break then and returned for our second workshop. This was about how although memoir is true, we need to employ the stylistic elements of fiction to keep the pages turning. We discussed show don’t tell, arrive late leave early, how to think scenes rather than chapters and how to recreate faithful dialogue, which can be engaging, entertaining and extremely useful for revealing character. We also discussed how careful we should or should not be about sharing our work especially with people who are involved in the story (and remember it differently!). We talked about how to take care with the feelings of others, or not. My advice is to write it all down, get it out of your mind for cathartic reasons and then consider carefully. Once it’s out there, you can’t get it back. After the weekend Anna from RedDoor shared an article with me about Nigel Slater and his magnificent memoir Toast. The headline: I regret over-sharing about my stepmother in my memoir. Food (sorry!) for thought.
Four writers shared again, some the same as before, some new. The stories were intense at times, heartbreaking, amusing too. Great listening was practised. This doesn’t always come naturally at a time when we are telling our own stories but to make this easier I use the feedback guidelines of Marta Zsabo. Marta is an incredible memoirist and memoir tutor. She runs the Authentic Writing program in America, based in New York state. I hosted Marta as she gave an Authentic Writing workshop here in the UK last year. It was incredible and I since adopted Marta’s guidelines of feeding back to your fellow writers how their work made you feel and not relating it back to your own experience. You know, “I loved that because it reminded me of when…” This sort of thing can be soul-destroying when you’ve just poured your heart out! There are other elements to Marta’s feedback guidelines of course. It makes for sincere sharing and always gets great feedback, even if people struggle to adhere at times!
Rather wonderfully, just when I thought everyone had shared and we were about to finish, a little voice from the front piped up – a brand new writer had got her bravery up and wanted to share. The story was enriching and the writing, like the author, was understated but wise and witty too. Definitely the type of writing that has a twinkle in its eye.
After a wonderful morning, we ate lunch and in the afternoon I held my one-to-one sessions. Some of the writers who hadn’t originally intended to do this, booked in after our morning together. Consequently it was a long afternoon. I expected to feel really tired afterwards but the opposite happened. Listening and exchanging ideas, often about structure, was invigorating in extreme. I often say that I think we read memoir to learn how to survive what life throws at us. I think that’s why I read memoir and why I am basically addicted to the genre. Of course this means that when I’m spending time with memoirists and hearing their stories I get the same experience, but firsthand. I can ask questions. The book and all its wisdom is in front of me.
One writer gave me pieces of her never before seen diaries. (It might sound glib but I am always humbled by the trust people place in me.) On reading the extracts I was reminded that some people are just hands down instinctive storytellers and I could say nothing but: “Wow, wow, wow. Do NOT stop! Do not!”
Another author filled me with the hope that a tumultuous life chapter doesn’t mean that you can’t find contentment. How often do you hear people say they are truly content? That their life is peaceful? That was joyful to witness.
A third showed me a life lived with a gratitude, grace and dignity that was truly staggering. Another gave me as much, if not more, than I could ever give her. Pieces of advice, emotional and practical, and nuggets of wisdom that I had no idea were coming my way, bowled me over and was given with tender generosity. The gifts just kept coming from everyone I sat with and for all the advice and encouragement I hopefully gave, I received and gleaned just as much. I went to my room for a rest before dinner feeling grateful and privileged.
Dinner on Saturday night was fab again and we enjoyed two really interesting, light-hearted and informative talks by two RedDoor authors. The first was Gail Marie Mitchell, author of Loving the Life Less Lived, an essential companion for anyone dealing with mental illness, with a focus on anxiety. I’m convinced that this is an unspoken epidemic, so I was thrilled to hear from Gail and know that she is spreading the word. The second talk by novelist and memoirist Alex Marsh was hilarious. Both authors talked about their journey to publication and warmly encouraged all the delegates.
(The next day, over lunch, Alex asked me if I recommend memoirs for people to read and before he could blink I had evangelically rattled off my favourites. This will be the topic for my next blogpost.)
On the Sunday morning we talked publishing and all the options. We learned how RedDoor works. They are a hybrid publishing house, a pioneer in the field and as far as they know, the only publishers working as they do – traditional structures coupled with author investment. You can read more about their unique niche here. There were lots and lots of questions and discussions that came from RedDoor’s presentation. I learned a great deal.
I was reminded that it is harder than ever before to get memoirs published traditionally and even if you do get a traditional publishing deal it’s not always the happy ending a writer has hoped for. However you are published, writers have to do so much work aside from the writing these days. It’s a labour of love, no doubt, but as Maya Angelou says, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Anna from RedDoor asked an important question about what success as a writer means to you individually. It can be different for everyone. For some it might mean nothing less than a six-figure advance and Meryl Streep playing you on screen. For others to give copies to friends and families is enough. Some want to see their book on the bookshop shelf, some on Amazon. And some just want to finish, print it out and pop their book in their bedside drawer. It is enough for some to leave their mark on the cave wall in this way. In my opinion it is always worth the work and a gift to the world. No one can tell the story you have to tell.
And then the weekend was over. Writers started to drift away, making their various cross-country journeys, friends now, with a shared goal, vowing to meet again. I hope someone organises a reunion, although not as a displacement activity when they should be writing haha! I took the longish drive back to Whitstable feeling inspired, renewed and full of ideas. But most of all I felt immense gratitude to: We Love Great Events for organising the retreat, the West Rocks Hotel for taking care of us, to RedDoor for inviting me to lead it, but mostly to the writers, for everything they gave me, and which I will carry with me always.