Workshop in Brisbane – writing memoir

On Sunday I flew up to Brissy to attend a workshop at the Queensland State Library, run by the QWC. Facilitated by Patti Miller, it was on Writing the Real Story. While my focus is fiction, and novels (although am working on a novella en ce moment, god knows why, it seems from my reading that publishers aren’t interested in them unless you are someone like JM Coetzee say), I have had some thoughts lately of a small, neat memoir with a title that has already been used by an Australian writer. Poo. Along with small thoughts of essay and slightly larger intentions for book reviews as I’ve mentioned here before.

In the workshop, we discussed memories and how they are stored in the brain, how to access them effectively to produce richer, more patterned work. How to use things like photographs, or music, or thinking about the five senses. If most of this seems quite basic and quite obvious, well that’s what I thought too. But when we did a couple of 10-minute writing exercises, I felt that I had tapped into something quite easily and naturally. I’ve always said things like ‘Oh, I have a terrible memory’ but I don’t, it’s really quite good. I think years of keeping a journal and filling it with the most banal, tedious detail made me stop using a particular part of my brain for storage. I know it’s all there in the diaries (although, when I look back, I can see I have censored and left out things that I remember on my own for no significant reason other than maybe time) so when it comes to retrieving details about something, it’s recorded, pretty much EVERYTHING from 1980 to around when my daughter was born, or shortly after in 1996. Sixteen solid years of diarising. Then I started my blog in 2005, so from then to now is another eight years. I wonder whether I didn’t write fiction during those years because I was doing another form of writing OR whether I was just biding my time, collecting material and processing ideas. During those years I have clipped newspapers and made notes for ideas and the other day I found some old story beginnings, and even a story from Grade 5 which is pretty good, even though I had no idea about using quotation marks. Maybe I’ll publish them here one day for a laugh.

At the workshop, one exercise included an imagining of a particular stimulus and then we spent ten minutes writing about something that came to mind; just letting it flow. This is what I came up with:

The first ‘person’ I see is Aldous, our cat. Smoky and lithe she stretches on the patio, the door mat, the planter box. Around my ankles. She escorts me in, running to the kitchen, to the back door where her bowls are.

Aldous is a cat who thinks she’s not. Sometimes she’s a piece of fruit – languid and curved in the fruit bowl. Other times, you find her settled in a half-open desk drawer, looking at you as if to say: Ruler? Eraser? Pen? What now? Empty grocer boxes, washing baskets, beds. These are her domain, she can fill any vacuum and she entertains us with each new spot.

‘There’s something wrong with her,’ we laugh.
‘All our pets are strange. Remember Bon? That dog was mad.’

My mother shakes her head as she reaches around the cat who sits on top of the cooling oven.

‘Whose turn is it to feed her?’ she asks.
‘Not mine.’
‘Not mine.’
‘It’s not mine. I did it last night.’

My mother sighs and tells me to do it. I whine and drag my feet, making the rubber come away from the toe. Like a flap it bends underneath.

‘Don’t do that,’ my mother says. ‘I need to get some glue.’

Aldous is so thin her neck is single bone and as wide as my thumb and forefinger in a circle. When I do this to her, making a finger necklace, and call to my brother to look! Aldous sits calmly, trusting I won’t snap her.

‘Don’t,’ says mum. ‘Don’t be cruel.’

This is how I wrote it, but I would make changes on a second pass through, of course. I would change Sometimes she’s a piece of fruit – languid and curved in the fruit bowl to somehow avoid the repetition of the word ‘fruit’ – maybe just have bowl. That would also make the rhythm tighter. I would adjust: Ruler? Eraser? Pen? What now? Empty grocer boxes, washing baskets, beds. And take out probably ‘eraser’ as well as probably beds because that is too obvious. And I’d also adjust ‘I need to get some glue.’ to ‘I must get some glue.’

I had wondered whether I would find much of value and if I did, what I would do with it. But I took notes and found value and shall store away (for now) my intentions, and these beginnings of learning about memoir. My novella has become much darker over the last day or so, and I would like to have the memoir work as a piece about happiness to offset my reading for the other one. So many people write memoir about difficult, sad, traumatic times. I wonder how many there are about happiness; those fleeting times when (if you are lucky) you know you are happy and you make it stretch for as long as possible, knowing that the lived moments will be the ones possibly out of your whole life that you’ll look back on, thinking them ‘the happiest or best.’ I think you can recognise these times when they are happening, they are pretty rare.

And yes, the Turkey novel. Waiting for my attention; it stands at 99K and is still only second draft’y so will need much more work. I plan to get back to that in a couple of weeks and go gangbusters on it. I’m quite busy during May with teaching, and another quick trip to Hong Kong which will be great.

Publications I noted to look up after the memoir workshop:

Patti Miller The Memoir Book & Writing Your Life
Viktor Shklovsky’s work
Natalie Goldberg Writing Down the Bones
Dylan Thomas Under Milk Wood
Augusten Burroughs Running with Scissors

2 thoughts on “Workshop in Brisbane – writing memoir

  1. That is great. Isn’t it amazing the amount of juice you get from a workshop?
    Loved Natalie Goldberg’s book, that changed the way I wrote at the time.

    1. Thanks Sarah, yes I do enjoy workshops but some are more useful than others. This was helpful. I will defo look up the Goldberg with your extra recommendation. Hope your writing going well…

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