WRITING YOUR MEMOIR, or a memoir for a relative, can be a wonderfully cathartic experience, as well as creating an enduring legacy for family or even the wider reading public. If you’ve been considering writing a memoir, I’d encourage you to make a start! I recently ghost-wrote From the Blitz to the Burmese Jungle and Beyond: A Memoir by Brian Hennessy, and would like to pass on some tips that might be helpful for your memoir or that of a loved one.
SET ASIDE REGULAR TIME. Meeting once a week is an excellent idea if you are writing an elderly relative’s life-story. When working on Brian Hennessy’s material, I met him for a couple of hours every Sunday afternoon for most of a year. That gave him time to prepare for each of my visits, and time for me to transcribe interviews and do further research.
If you’re writing your own memoir, you may choose to go at a faster pace, but, as a general rule, expect to work on the memoir over the course of a year, or even longer. People have taken time to live their lives, so it’ll take time to record the key events!
SOURCE SUPPORTING MATERIAL. Try to gather as many photographs, diaries, maps, letters and other documents as you can before you start on the project. These will all help the memoir come to life and will give you some factual and visual help to keep the book progressing. In Brian’s case, he had many photographs and some diaries that were hugely helpful in creating the narrative. These were also invaluable in describing people and locations.
RECORD THE INTERVIEWS. If you’re writing another person’s memoir, record the initial interviews and transcribe them. This process will help you to write in their voice, and not your own. There’s no need to record later interviews once you’ve got the initial draft down. Once the first draft is done, write down any questions you may have, then go back and ‘flesh out’ what you’ve already been told.
When interviewing Brian, he could remember much more when I asked him questions after I’d initially heard his stories of the Second World War. He often praised me for helping him remember so much! By asking questions – such as, What was the weather like that day? How did other people react? How did that make you feel? What happened afterward? – you make it much easier for people to remember key events from their life in more detail. Your questions often remind them of other things they may have forgotten, as they go down different memory-pathways.
WORK OUT A TIMELINE. Create a simple timeline with dates and key events – over a page or two – so you know the structure you’re working to. It’s quite common for an older adult to be a bit muddled when telling their stories, which can prove rather confusing for an interviewer.
When interviewing Brian, one minute he would be describing being a volunteer firefighter in the Blitz in London, and next minute he’d be talking about travelling with a team of men through the Burmese jungle! Creating a timeline helped enormously. I had dates and events from his diaries, and key battles and other historical dates that I could use to reference his personal story.
CHECK THE FACTS. Of course, you can’t fact-check everything – a conversation between two people, someone’s recollection of a sunrise, things like that. But you can double-check any major events. For Brian’s book, I checked the major battles and troop movements, and any well-known people he encountered. I also checked about the weather and natural disasters – and about the various animals he encountered to ensure that he met them in the right country. All of this helps in case someone has got a bit muddled, and it keeps things credible.
AIM TO HAVE A NARRATIVE THAT RUNS THROUGH THE BOOK. While facts are important, don’t let your memoir get bogged down in them. Tell your story so that people are left wondering what will happen next. Attempt to show the real person, and engage people emotionally.
In Brian’smemoir, there is a clear sense of adventure; of Brian wanting to do his best for the war-effort; of him trying to keep one step ahead of the danger around him. And don’t necessarily start at the very beginning either – perhaps start your story at a more compelling spot. In From the Blitz to the Burmese Jungle and Beyond, the story opens as follows:
I sought cover behind a fallen tree, my fishing rod discarded by the side of the Burmese river. The firing was coming from across the river, bullets ricocheting into the ground in front of me and into the tree that I crouched behind, the Japanese unrelenting in their attempts to kill me.
My heart was racing. My shirt had stuck to my back in the tropical heat and my stomach growled, not so much from fear but from hunger. I glanced behind me, but the bank was too steep to make an escape. I considered firing back, but that would only give my position away, and what good would my Sten-gun do when I was outnumbered like this anyway?
My only option was to remain crouched behind the fallen tree, alone and many thousands of miles from home. Was this how my life was going to end? I looked around me at the fast-flowing river, at the dense vegetation, alive with insects, and then up at the sky, blue and clear. It seemed too beautiful a day to die. I vowed today would not be that day …
From this opening scene, the book goes onto Brian’s early life before the war, and the reader must wait until about halfway through the book to find out what happened in the prologue. This technique is an enjoyable way to hook your readers in.
BE GENTLE, BE PATIENT. Whether it is your own story, or someone else’s, be gentle and patient. Often writing a memoir is an emotional time, so take things easy and give yourself plenty of space between interviews and writing the stories. Especially if someone is older, you can probably expect to hear some of their stories many times over – so smile, and be prepared to hear the story yet again.
By being patient with Brian, I got beyond the ‘surface’ stories that people often tell to the hidden details and gems behind. And that’s where the storytelling gold is for memoirs.
So be patient. And be gentle. Your story or someone else’s is a very precious thing, and deserves to be given the utmost respect.
KAREN MCMILLAN IS THE AUTHOR OF 12 BOOKS, INCLUDING FROM THE BLITZ TO THE BURMESE JUNGLE AND BEYOND, EVERYDAY STRENGTH, UNBREAKABLE SPIRIT, AND THE BESTSELLING NOVELS, THE PARIS OF THE EAST, THE PARIS OF THE WEST AND BRUSHSTROKES OF MEMORY. MORE INFORMATION AT WWW.KARENM.CO.NZ