Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Silencing the Inner Voice

I've been struggling for a while with my memoir. As I planned my chapters and carried out my research, a little voice kept whispering in my ear. "What will your family think?" it asked. "Maybe they won't want to speak to you again," it continued. "It was a long time ago. Why dig up old bones?"

Writing about events that took place more than forty years ago has one big disadvantage: it doesn't take into consideration the fact that people change. The person I knew forty years ago might be far removed from the person they are now. Yesterday's Mr Ogre might be today's Mr Nice, and vice versa.   

"Why write a memoir that has the power to hurt a lot of people?" that voice kept asking. "Just so you can tell your version of the truth?"

That little voice stopped me from writing. It paralyzed me and made me think of a million excuses for not moving ahead.

In the end, I realised there's only one way I can silence that voice.

I'm now working on a novel based on my childhood.   

As for that voice, it's as quiet as quiet can be.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Virgins in my bookcase

It’s taken almost six months for me to remove the plastic wrap from my copy of Ian McEwan’s Solar. Such is my confidence in Ian’s talent that I’ll basically buy anything written by him without bothering to peek between the covers first. One of these days, he’ll publish an extended shopping list, and poor unsuspecting fans like me will rush out and buy a copy without so much as a glance at the blurbs.

I have more virgin books taking up space on my book shelves than I care to admit. For example, three of Milan Kundera’s works – they were on special offer, along with a copy of a Weight Watchers cookery book – stare at me like accusing triplets whenever I swivel around in my computer chair to look at my bookcase. I think I will have to relocate them away from eye-level.

I did try out a couple of recipes from the cookery book, but I cheated by adding extra cheese to one of the dishes, which rather defeated the purpose of cooking a low-calorie meal in the first place. I will gladly give it away to a good home.

Some of my virgin books were presents from friends and family who didn’t know that I already had a copy of their carefully-selected gift. I could never part with a book that has been chosen specially for me.

I also have a large number of books that were read so long ago that their storylines now escape me – born-again virgins, you could say.

If I’m to read all my books, both new and forgotten, before my eyes and my brain give up on me,
I will have to retire now.

Back to Solar.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Carrying my grandmother in my marrow

My grandmother

My writing has forced me to think about my family members at length. Yesterday, I couldn't get my grandmother out of my head. 

Visitation is one of my favourite poems. It's about a family preparing a grandmother for her own funeral. It gives me a warm feeling to think that my grandmother is being carried lightly in my marrow.

Visitation by Rosie King

We dress you in purple silk,
pearls in gold shells at your ears.

We sing to you, pray
to be led beside the still waters.

At nightfall, as we leave you,
rain pours over black umbrellas.

One grandchild, tall as her mother,
stands on the steps holding lilies,

her own face
wet with rain,

her own way of looking
into the night: free ...

you're free now,
she murmurs;

lightly, in the marrow,
she carries you.

Friday, 25 February 2011

My version of the truth

Many years ago, during a trip back to my native Scotland, I decided to visit some of the houses I’d lived in as a child. One of my sisters decided it would be fun to accompany me on my trip down memory lane, so I bundled my infant son  into the back of a hire car and headed off down the road, my sister with an old creased map in her hand, and me with a lot of old memories swirling in my head.

Half an hour later, I was looking out the car window at a cold, grey farm cottage. The broken windows and the peeling paint on the front door told me that it had been abandoned many years before. I half closed my eyes and tried to conjure up an image of what it had looked like when there were six people crammed into that one-bedroom house. The years slowly slipped away, and I was transported back in time, to when I was five years old.

We got out of the car, walked across to one of the windows and looked into the gloomy interior.

“Do you remember that horrible purple jumpsuit I used to have?” I said to my sister. “I remember swinging on it from a clothes hook in the coat cupboard. I had to stop when I almost tore the hood off.”

“The purple jumpsuit wasn’t yours, it was mine!” she said, in an unusually possessive tone. “And I was the one who used to swing from it.”

“I think you’re mistaken. It was mine.”

“I’m not mistaken,” she said, forcing a smile.

“Look! The old tree’s still there,” I said, pointing to a sycamore at the side of the house in an attempt to change the subject. “Do you remember when I fell out of it and gouged a huge hole in my leg?”

“Are you sure that wasn’t David?” she said, referring to my brother.

“No it was definitely me,” I said, as I rolled up my trouser leg to show her the old scar on my shin.

“You didn’t get that from the tree; you got it falling off a bike,” she said.

The excitement that I’d felt as we were driving up to the house began seeping out of my body; it trickled down to my shoes and then disappeared into the dark earth beneath my feet.

We drove to our second house in silence.

When we got out to inspect the newly renovated bungalow that looked nothing like the old house we’d lived in, I felt the cold wind tugging at my inadequate jacket. We stood there in silence for a few minutes, neither of us attempting to translate our memories into words for fear that the other would write them off as false.

That was twenty years ago. Now, as I attempt to write a memoir about my childhood in rural Scotland, I’m forced to re-examine my memories of those early years. I’ve often asked myself what I should do about those competing stories.

After much soul searching and talking with other people about their childhood memories, I now know that each person’s truth is unique. We all think differently and have our own version of the truth.

I can only be true to my version.  

Friday, 18 February 2011

My motivation or lack thereof

I'm now devoting four hours a day to my memoir, which means I've had to rearrange my daily social schedule. No more loitering in front of the TV watching reruns of I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, or  looking at endless Facebook photographs of some stranger who leads an infinitely more exciting life than I ever will, or trying in vain to complete a Times Cryptic Crossword on my own.

I've spent the best part of this afternoon re-reading the Holy Grail of Memoirs, which lists several major reasons why people are motivated to write a memoir:
  • To gain a deeper understanding of yourself and your life
  • To heal the past and create hope for the future
  • To create a legacy for your family
  • To expose injustice or abuse
  • To settle emotional scores -- from anger and revenge to acceptance and forgiveness
  • To present a point of view about a controversial issue
  • To share with the world your unique experiences with travel, education, illness and recovery, family, or a spiritual quest
I'm not going to say which of those reasons specifically apply to my memoir (that will only spoil the surprise), but I think there's probably a little bit of everything swirling through the memories in my head. Well, maybe not the settling of emotional scores. That's not for me. I'll leave that to the far-reaching powers of my voodoo dolls.

Back to work now!

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

First things first

I am the first-born daughter of a first-born daughter of a first-born daughter. My first memory is of a neighbour's naked roof under repair -- the rafters rose out of the top of the walls like a giant angular ribcage. I was three years old. My first day at school was tearful. My first kiss was a disaster.

Sadly, I've forgotten the first book I ever read, or the first story I ever wrote. But I know all too well that feeling I get when I first open a new book, smell the pages and read the first few sentences of the first chapter. There is nothing quite like the excitement I feel at the thought of being able to enter someone else's world for a while and see it through their eyes.

I wanted to use my first post to talk about the memoir that is currently being written in my head, but I now know I can only write about what I've already written, not what I'm about to write.

It's time to take the first step. Wish me luck!