By Angelena Boden
How reliable is your memory?
I’ve been blessed with a photographic memory, but that doesn’t mean that I can recall every detail as absolute truth, especially now as my brain is getting tired. Short term memory problems hit all of us at some point – I recognise that face, but I can’t remember his name for toffee- so it’s a good thing that memoir writing relies more on our long term memory which is often much sharper.
That said, can we really recall conversations from the past, word for word? Did that bat really get tangled in our hair, and we screamed the belfry down? Probably not. It felt like it at the time. My point is that a memoir is always emotionally true but not always factually accurate. Telling the unvarnished truth is no mean feat, but you can’t call your book a memoir if much of it is fabricated. That’s a novel.
Your opening paragraph
Memoir writing is not a list of bullet points linked by conjunctions. I did this, then I did that. It is an emotional piece of writing which begins with the opening paragraph. The reader needs to be drawn into your story through a strong sense of place, a conflict, and a commitment to the central character, (you). The most compelling memoirs are written in a strong narrative style – like a novel.
To give you an example, here is the opening paragraph of my memoir, Chasing Peacocks, which is now on submission.
A strong whiff of curry made my nose twitch the moment I wound down the window of my Hillman Imp. I’d bought the idiosyncratic little car on impulse for sixty pounds. I loved its quirkiness: engine at the back and the boot at the front, but the gurgling that emanated from it when out on the open road was a sure sign its dancing days would soon be over. I felt my heart skip a beat. When that day came, it would be like losing a friend.
A woman in a pink sari ambled past the shabby Victorian semi to my right which was to be my new home. Double checking the address against my piece of paper, I inwardly groaned. I couldn’t imagine spending four hours in that place, never mind four years of study required for my Modern Languages degree.
Some questions for you to ponder.
- What is the mood of this opening chapter? How was this created?
- Does it really matter how I felt about my little, old car? Does it add anything to the story, or does it get in the way?
- The lady was wearing a pink sari, but could I have made it a different colour, or outfit or even a different lady. Why might she be so important so early on in the story?
- Where do you think this book is set?
- Would you want to read on?’
Suppose I adopted this style.
I arrived in Xtown, and the first thing I noticed a strong smell of curry. It was one food I didn’t like. My car was old and I doubted it would last much longer. I sat in the driving seat for a few minutes, and studied the Victorian semi- detached house with its rotting window frames and neglected garden, wishing I’d been offered a place at Edinburgh University.
- How is this different? Which do you prefer?
- I haven’t mentioned the Indian lady. Does the story lose anything important?
- Would you want to read on?
Most of my memoir is true, but on occasions I have partly fictionalised events by merging them together and adding a few frills. Here’s an example.
Later that evening, Roya brought me a tall glass of cucumber juice with crushed ice made especially for me from sterilised water. She plumped the cushions behind my head and helped me to sit up, offering me a sympathetic smile.
‘What’s Minu doing?’ I asked.
‘Oh, she’s fine. Following Maman round with a cloth.’ She paused while she swatted away a mosquito. ‘You’ve got to be better by next Friday. It’s your big day.’
‘What big day? I don’t understand.’
‘Have you forgotten? You’re getting married Persian style.’
This is written as a filler between two key sections. Roya didn’t bring me anything to drink but I needed to show that she could be kind when she wanted to be. Minu was very unhappy being in Iran and wasn’t fine at all. The actual truth in this little section is the reference to the Persian wedding.
These mini inventions are included to help balance the book which is grim in parts. Life writing is messy and often lacks a narrative arc. We think back on how we were treated by certain people, and their deeds become overshadowed by our emotional reactions to them.
We end up with too much material, and if we really must include Aunt Fanny’s cat, but have a long debate about whether it was ginger or tabby, the reader loses the plot. What we don’t want to do is fill our memoir with invention and exaggeration like James Frey, in A Million Little Pieces.
So, how far can you go?
- Create accurate enough dialogue which flows without vanishing into the realms of fantasy. ‘Oh my darling, you are like rosehip syrup on biscotti.’ Apologies to anyone who might have said this to their sweetheart.
- We can add a little fluff to the facts providing we are not making up something ridiculous. I was held hostage by my husband’s family in Iran. That might seem outrageous, but it’s true. If you weren’t captured by the Taliban or invited to dinner with Kim Jon Un, then don’t include that in your memoir!
- Always, always use the raw data for your narrative even if that means adding some trimmings to it to make it more compelling. If you can’t do that, then write a novel based on your experiences.
Whilst my memoir is mainly true, I’ve added this as an introduction to the book to cover myself and protect the people involved.
Chasing Peacocks is a novel based on the author’s lived experience with her Persian boyfriend whom she married three times in separate ceremonies to comply with their respective laws.
They meet prior to the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 which forced the incumbent Shah to abandon the “Peacock Throne” thus ending the 2,500 year long Pahlavi dynasty. The events and time line are accurate, the characters’ names have been changed, but some events have been merged for the sake of length.
If you have any questions about memoir writing, I would be happy to take them. Maybe we could set up a session on Zoom to share ideas? Let me know if that appeals.
In the meantime, stay alert, and keep writing.