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Writing memoir: tipping the balance with Alison Chisholm – 9th Oct, 2013

And then someone asked the killer question.

“Do you have a perspective on the truth?”

It exploded with the shrapnel of ethics and sensitivity ricocheting around the room. The prospect of defamation, libel and law suits was clearly something that concerned many in the room. Any fledgling or fully-formed memoirs lurking within the club must be brimful of exposés and revelations.

Will the Ayrshire Post have a big enough front page to cope?

Our speaker, Alison Chisholm, leaned more toward the cautious and sensitive approach rather than alienating potential readers with the “publish and be damned” school of thought. Unless the facts have a cast-iron provenance, or we have bottomless bank balances, seek legal advice before proceeding.

It shouldn’t be assumed however, that this was an evening when we focussed on the kind of salacious headline grabbing upon which Max Clifford earns a living. He’s got his own problems at the moment anyway, so we’d better not trouble him with any Ayrshire antics.

Advice a-plenty had been lapped up as Alison shared her observations and experience. So, apart from being careful not to line the pockets of the legal profession, what did I learn?

•    Know why you are writing memoir – revenge, catharsis, self-understanding, and don’t shy away or be embarrassed       by  the potential for financial success. “Dream on,” I say.

•    Set boundaries about what’s going to be included – a specific period of time, a particular aspect of life, or best of all – having the last word.

•    “As a writer you are an entertainer” counselled John Braine; and while the misery memoirs of recent years may have seen their day, tears and emotion can be handled in a way that entertains. A reminder of Deric Longden’s writing was quite poignant as I lived in Chesterfield myself when he wrote his famous “Diana’s story” in the late 1980s. Humorous kitchen-table moments counterpoised with the sharing of life-changing news, that I remember being well-worth reading.

•    Find a focus, and then plot a route up, down and around the high points. A rollercoaster read acknowledges that we haven’t all ridden the crest of an unending wave: the low points, the social fabric, the recurring motifs and day-to-day trivia can all help to add colour and interest.

•    Apparently Mavis Nicholson was urged to “stir it with the senses.” As the grey cells decline and we struggle to remember the elusive detail, it’s a useful way that builds a picture of a moment in time and can trigger recollections. I guess we’ll all have been doing plenty of that.

What finally stuck in my mind was the first thing Alison said, the age-old writers’ suggestion: write about what you know. With memoir the balance between experience and imagination has to be tipped in favour of the former rather than the latter.

Which also goes to show that you don’t need to take a strictly chronological approach either.

And then that killer question.

Now, shall I or shan’t I?

Nigel Ward

One comment

  1. Thanks, Nigel, really enjoyed reading that! 🙂

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