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“The Past is a Foreign Country – they do things differently there: L.P.Hartley

“Memoir is archaeology of your own past” – Karen Altenberg

For many of you, lockdown seemed to be the perfect time to think about writing that memoir for family and friends, or maybe even for publication, but from what I’m hearing, the thought has not always been the father of the deed!

To encourage any of you who may need it, I thought I’d share with you a few thoughts I gleaned from the archeologist and writer Karen Altenberg, whom I first met after reading Island of Wings, her sensitive and powerfully evocative novel about the last inhabitants of St. Kilda Island in the Outer Hebrides.

We later ran a workshop together on Memoir writing for The Oldie Magazine and hearing her talk I realised that many of the principles that apply to fiction, also apply to memoir writing. I thought I’d share a few of her pointers, which I’ve expanded a bit in the hope they may encourage you to get cracking.

“It’s about signposting, but letting the reader do most of the work.”

Details are important, but they have to be the right ones.

For example: An effective way to reveal character is to describe a setting without the person actually being there. Try describing a person’s study, or their kitchen, or the contents of their cupboards, or the inside of their car, what they keep in the garden shed, and see how effective it is in revealing personality without you actually have to tell us what they were like. It’s back to that old chestnut, “Show don’t Tell.”

“Good writing has physicality, finely observed.”

Think weather.Weather affects how we feel. Make it say something, mean something. To write that it was a sunny day doesn’t really mean much. But to explain how the sun made the individual feel, or how the change in the weather affected the emotions of your characters, the atmosphere between them, the situation, that means something. So weather has personality.

But be careful how you describe it. I remember Lawrence Norfolk once saying, “The sky is never blue.” Well it isn’t. It’s always a combination of colours, and it always has meaning. It always has something to say to you.

Finally, hone in on a specific detail, or a strange detail, or something out of place, leave the rest out.

I talk about this in more detail in my YouTube clip. It’s only a couple of minutes long.

So better get writing – the lockdown is easing… well, until the next time!