Posts Tagged personal essays
I’ve had this question from Julia.
I would like to write a nonfictional account of my experience as a caregiver of my 80-year-old mum during lockdown. I’ve never done any creative writing. Where do I start? A diary, a memoir? I’ve been through a lot of struggle and want to put that on paper. Maybe someday I will publish it to share my experience with people facing the same difficulties.
First, Julia, capture the raw material. Start with a diary. Write it as often as possible, before you make any decisions about what to do with it.
How to write the diary
You might be self-conscious to begin with. You might worry about who will read it and what they’ll get from it. Forget that for now.
You won’t publish this diary. It’s notes that you will eventually use to create a book. So for now, it’s you and your thoughts, talking privately to a page or a recording app – whatever is comfortable.
Keep it simple. Just write what you did today. Then write whether that was usual or unusual, and how. If it’s usual, for how long has it been usual? Write how that made you feel, what was difficult and what was a pleasure, and why. Write what you think tomorrow will be like. Or next week. Write your hopes and pleasures and fears.
Do this every day, or as often as you can.
Don’t worry about repeating yourself. Don’t try to edit as you go. You’re not trying to write the proper book yet. That’s a separate job for later. Just capture vivid moments, hours, days, weeks, in all their honesty. But you probably won’t repeat yourself as much as you think. Even if the events are largely the same, your thoughts and insight will evolve. You will also become better at sharing deeply.
When you’re comfortable with this, start to include other material that will be meaningful for a reader. Context that lets us know who you are, where you’re coming from, how this is changing your life and changing you. At some point, write what you were doing five years ago, 10 years ago, one year ago. Anything that feels significant.
This will be an emotional document. You might regret things you wrote in earlier pages. If so, do not delete them.
This is an essential part of your growth. It is the truth of the situation you seek to share. You’re not trying to be a perfect person; you’re aiming to be an honest human who is sometimes angry or self-indulgent or wrong or foolish. So if you find yourself disappointed about earlier writings, examine that disappointment, and what you would now do or think differently. Recognise also that you are likely to change your mind again.
Start planning the book
After a while, you’ll notice patterns and themes. Continue to write your daily accounts, but start a separate textfile or notebook. You’re now ready to think about the big picture. How you’ll use your diaries to create a book that can connect with others.
Certain material in the diary won’t be relevant. Also, you’ll need to add. But remember, a memoir isn’t your whole life; it’s usually the story of a specific struggle. You might have many memoirs in you. What is the focus of this one?
We are made of many memoirs
At the same time, this focus might be more complex and far-reaching than you initially thought – this situation might force you to grapple with other problems and issues. Or you might want to include material about other significant people – perhaps your mother herself. Write notes to experiment with these ideas. See what seems a natural fit.
Also, look for what makes your story unique. Although you are writing about a situation that others also find themselves in, yours will have a unique impact on you, and you will have a unique way of handling it.
Other aspects to consider
Two more links on gathering material and shaping it for others to read. My radio show with Peter Snell. Also this post about the writing of Not Quite Lost (a much happier subject, but it started with private diaries).
More on choosing what to focus on, the idea that our lives contain many stories – how fiction writers adapt to memoir.
If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
It’s certainly been a new kind of writing experience, because, of course, I didn’t have the freedom to invent. (Why? It’s non-fiction. More here.) This set some interesting boundaries for revision.
The pieces that were easiest to edit were the amusing mishaps – mostly involving idiotic use of cars. Also easy were the fragments about people and places that were intriguing and mysterious. But other pieces gave me more difficulty, refused to spring into shape for a long time. They fell flat for my wise and ruthless beta-readers. ‘You lost my attention here,’ said one of them. But… but….. but… I thought. There’s something in that story.
When a piece in a novel isn’t working but my gut tells me I want it in the book, I change the circumstances, add pressures in the characters’ lives or give the event to another set of people. Clearly I couldn’t do that in Not Quite Lost. It must stick to the truth. You can change details of people to prevent them being identified, but you can’t change events. You’re stuck with them.
So what do you do?
I’ve edited memoirs and I recognised the situation. If an incident seemed to lack significance but the writer insisted on keeping it, we dug deeper. Why did it matter? There was a subsurface process, a thing that had to be uncovered and examined. These rewritten rejects often became the most surprising and beguiling parts of the story. In short-form memoir, they go by another name – the personal essay. I had failed to recognise that some of the pieces in Not Quite Lost were personal essays as well as travel tales.
This week I heard Ann Patchett being interviewed on Radio 4’s Book Club about her novel Bel Canto. One of the points discussed is how each character is like an onion, losing a layer each day until they’re down to the core.
And in the good tradition of ending explorations and arriving where we started, knowing it for the first time, we come full circle to fiction.
My diversion into narrative non-fiction has, at times, felt like writing pieces of a novel. It’s also given me a sharper view of a quality I value in literary fiction. ‘Literary’ is a slippery thing to define, and I enjoy playing with fresh interpretations. So my current favourite definition is that a literary novel is, in some ways, like a personal essay for the characters, peeling away a skin at a time.
Anyway, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is now available. And it looks like this.