As we entered 2022, it seemed that everyone was either writing a memoir or writing a book about how to write a memoir. So, are they of any use?
The short answer is yes, they can be inspiring and motivational, as well as offering practical advice about the basics of getting started, keeping going, and getting published. One of the best new entrants in a crowded marketplace is Cathy Rentzenbrink’s Write It All Down, published by Bluebird this month, a follow up to A Manual for Heartache (2017, Picador), which also covers some of the basics of memoir writing.
Cathy’s books are especially good for the complete beginner. Her message is relentlessly positive – if you’ve been thinking about writing your story, just do it! Pick up a pen and start writing things down. We all go through life accumulating experiences in shades of light and dark, joy and pain, and everyone has a backstory. She says most people approach the writing of their first book assuming no-one will be interested in reading it – and this is liberating. It gives us a freedom to write that we may never experience again.
I read Write It All Down after I’d already drafted several chapters of my book, which meant I devoured much of Cathy’s advice thinking I wish I’d known this when I started out.
But it still provided a rich seam to mine. Among the gems I found especially valuable were:
- Most early drafts have too much in them – too many people, too many facts, too much information. You’re telling a story not compiling a police report;
- Memoir writing should be a sensory experience. Portray your world, not your thoughts and feelings. John Crace said, ‘describe the coffin, not the grief’. Cathy adds, ‘don’t say it’s Spring, observe the daffodils’;
- Don’t gloss over the most difficult, painful parts of your story. Be brave with the thing you are most scared to talk about, for that is the thing you most need to talk about;
- Memoir is a magic trick. It looks like real life but isn’t. Be truthful, but don’t try and capture the literal truth;
- Cherish the meaning and purpose of writing without attaching too much value to any affirmation that may or may not come through publishing;
- Editing is as important as writing. Interrogate every sentence and paragraph and ask yourself what it adds to the whole;
- When you’re at the polishing stage, change the font – it tricks the brain into thinking it hasn’t read the text before.
At the end of Write It All Down is an addendum containing tips from successful writers, including Maggie O’Farrell, Julia Samuel, Lemn Sissay and Matt Haig, which is packed full of brilliant advice and observation. I won’t recount all the good stuff here – buy the book and read it for yourself.
Another resource I found motivating as I contemplated getting back into writing at the start of the year was Anna Wharton’s compilation ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’. You can subscribe to Anna’s newsletter and find this invaluable compendium of advice here – https://annawharton.substack.com
Anna interviewed twelve writers who all have something thought-provoking to say. A few themes I found reassuring crop up again and again. One is that reading is vital to writing. Jan Carson advises us to read deeply, across eras, genres and cultures. Read books you wouldn’t normally read. You don’t necessarily have to acquire a qualification in creative writing in order to produce a book, but you do need to read excessively and glean all you can from other people’s writing.
Another encouraging remark comes from Kit de Waal. It can sometimes seem as if most debut authors are in their twenties, but Kit says that coming to writing later in life should never be seen as a hindrance. In fact, it’s often a blessing. You cannot find your voice until you have found yourself.
Equally reassuring is Laura Marshall’s advice that everybody’s first draft is terrible (Cathy Rentzenbrink calls it the ‘vomit draft’). Their advice is to just write. It might be rubbish, but what does it matter? At least you’ve got something to work with. A.J. Gnuse adds that when writing a first draft, we should be creative, unbound, whimsical, even – but not critical. There’s no such thing as writer’s block, he says. It’s simply that you’re trying to write the second or third draft of a story on the first go.
I found it helpful to hear Kate Sawyer advice, ‘Ditch the imposter syndrome’. Jennifer Saint adds that you should give yourself the gift of time and not view writing as selfish – see it as a kindness to yourself. And, finally, Emma Forrest reminds us that exercise protects our mental health and frees our creative spirit.
I know that when I keep three activities in some sort of equilibrium – running, reading, writing – I tend to feel better, as well as being more productive. So, here’s to a creative, fulfilling, healthy 2022.