Two ways to write a memoir
Allow you to introduce you to my friend, actress, writer and storyteller, Bernadette Nason
I first met Berni about 30 years ago when we were living in Dubai and have stayed in touch ever since. Back then she was working as a Personal Assistant to the manager of a successful hotel. Today, she has reinvented herself as an actress, storyteller and writer and lives in Austin, Texas.
This month has seen the publication of her second memoir, Stealing Baby Jesus, just in time for Christmas. Her previous memoir, Tea in Tripoli, was based on the period of her life, before Dubai, when she had the kind of ‘you’d never believe it’ experience made for publication. Two memoirs and yet they are each written very differently.
Tea in Tripoli is written just like a novel, with lashings of what I call SPICE (Specifics, Place, Incident, Character, Emotion), which makes it a pacey, entertaining and funny read. Berni excels at writing honestly and authentically about the things that have happened to her and is skilled at identifying which of the ‘Incidents’ she has experienced to string together into a full-length memoir of a short period in time.
Stealing Baby Jesus, however, is a tightly crafted piece of work, inspired not only by the countless times she has acted in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but also by memorable Christmases throughout her life. This time, Christmas stories have been strung together chronologically, keeping to the festive theme while also taking the reader on a journey through her life. It’s a clever device, neatly executed. I’m not going to tell you what the story that became the title is all about because that would spoil the surprise.
While Berni has, so far, written two memoirs in two different ways, I have spent time analysing a number of memoirs and discovered there are several other methods too. Go to Expat Bookshop and download yourself a free copy of my Inside Secrets guide to find out more.
There is no doubt that being a storyteller and actress has lent Berni with an eye for a story and an ear for what makes a story into a page turner with a protagonist we care about.
This month, I interview her as part of my In Conversation series about how and why she decided to write her books and how acting and storytelling have helped her to craft compelling words. As you know, the current pandemic has put paid to the chance of work for actors and storytellers and this made the writing and publication of Stealing Baby Jesus even more pressing. In the eight months since the world went into Lockdown, Berni has written, edited and published her book, which is quite an achievement.
I hope you join us both In Conversation on Thursday 12th November at 14:00 UK time and come prepared to ask questions of your own.
There may be a pandemic on, but that does not mean that I am unable to provide any learning opportunities. Just scoot on over to my Virtual Events page and you’ll find regular Speedwrite Live sessions, Book Writing Circles and my popular In Conversation interviews. In November I am delighted to have two fabulous ones lined up…
In Conversation with Berni Nason
Thursday 12th November at 2pm UK time
When the pandemic put paid to her acting and storytelling assignments Brit in Texas, Berni, decided to write her second memoir, Stealing Baby Jesus. Find out how she did it so quickly, where she looks for ideas and how her experience of acting and storytelling help the writer of memoir.
Register to listen to my questions and ask your your own here.
In Conversation with Olga Mecking
Thursday 26th November at 2pm UK time
If you have missed the news lately then you may have missed the extensive coverage my friend, Olga, has been experiencing as the result of publishing her book, Niksen, The Dutch Art of Doing Nothing. Not only did publishers fight over it but foreign language rights have been sold across the globe. So, how did a Polish expat, with English as a thirdl language get so lucky? Learn tips and tricks from the writer I (not so secretly) have nicknamed The Rottweiler.
Register to listen to my questions and ask your own here.
And, God willing, my popular, successful residential course will take place next August. Hurry, if you want to grab yourself a place.
Start Writing Your Life Stories with me at The Watermill at Posara
Sadly, the pandemic prevented my 2020 course from going ahead in Tuscany, but I’m all booked in and positive that 14-21 August 2021 will be fine. Most of the students rebooked for this week, but a couple of places remain. Don’t miss out. It’s usually full. If you want to learn how to write with SPICE and enjoy the best of Tuscan scenery and hospitality then this simply cannot be beaten. For more information and to reserve your place visit https://watermill.net.
Don’t miss my Virtual Events page to sign up for more great stuff and catch up on past In Conversation videos.
In flimsy limbo...
This month the Monthly Inspirer is in limbo. I've been moving house and country and I think that's a valid excuse, don't you?
It's been a moving experience in so many ways. Not only have the last four weeks been made out of cardboard, but many things have also been impermanent, flimsy and weaker when damp.
I took a month away from my desk in order to handle the sorting, culling, selling and giving away. Life as we knew it disappeared into hundreds of boxes and were sent out of the windows of our three storey apartment over a shop and packed into a container via a special escalator. The metaphor of things 'going out the window' seems appropriate. We had to say goodbye to beloved places, friends and rituals and doing so rendered me flimsy, worn and damp from tears.
Five days ago, Ian and I took the overnight ferry from the Hoek of Holland to Harwich in a terrible storm that had us sleepless, rocking and rolling (not in a good way) until dawn. We'd booked the best cabin on the boat for the first time, complete with massive porthole that would be lashed with spray every couple of minutes. The facemask and the keys on the bed will remind us in years to come that we relocated during a pandemic. It is perhaps no surprise that we were still reeling and swaying 24 hours after reaching England and the bliss of stopping for two weeks' quarantine.
It's been a moving time, a testing time, a time when my personal 'connecting bit' has encouraged me to connect with those who matter most and say a 'good goodbye'. A time when my personal 'inspiring bits' have hit me full in the heart with wonder and appreciation at the love we found in the Netherlands and hard in the gut as I recognised the beauty, community and belonging that I left behind. My 'learning bit' has been, as ever, that 'partir c'est mourir un peu', as written by Edmond Haraucourt in his poem, Le Rondel de L'adieu – to leave is to die a little. But, as we know, 'it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all', as Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote so accurately. It's bittersweet, this moving lark. We feel deeply moved emotionally as we move physically.
Meanwhile, as I write this all our possessions are in a container somewhere. We are in limbo, still feeling fragile like cardboard, but we can look ahead, past the spray, beyond the roiling seas of discombobulation, towards calm, and peace and wide horizons.
Forgive me. This month's Inspirer is, like me, in limbo.
See you next month on dry land.
Trust your gut
There are so many rules about writing. The way to spell a word. How to punctuate dialogue. How you need a verb in a sentence. Not like this. And you how you shouldn’t start a sentenced with ‘and’. But you can, and you can start one with ‘but’ too.
Rules are there for a reason and for many they are incredibly helpful. But sometimes you ‘just know’ when something is right even though facts or common sense tell you otherwise. You know, some decisions refuse to allow you to consider them carefully. Take my decision to marry Ian as an example…
We had only been going out together for six months when he got a job offer in Dubai and left England. For the next year we only got together three times for a handful of holidays after which we got engaged. Six months later Ian flew in the day before our wedding and we left together the day after for what would become 32 years together, mostly oversease. Back then my better judgement told me that we hardly knew each other and were slightly crazy but my instinct told me it was the right decision. I tried hard to weigh up the pros and cons, to analyse my decision and to work out whether we were doing the right thing, but my mind refused to go there. I ‘just knew’. It would not take any amount of reflection. If you are someone who knows me well, I am well-known for analysing the life out of every decision I take. Usually. But not this time.
Our decision to run The Lindsay de Feliz Award for a New Writer of Expat Memoir was a bit like that. When Lindsay was found murdered last December, Jack, Jane and I were devastated. The author of What About Your Saucepans and Life After My Saucepans had been a dream to work with and her fans loved her for her optimism and vulnerability. In a flash I knew we had to create an award in her memory. We would ask Summertime authors and our team of freelancers to donate towards a bursary that would publish another first expat memoir for another writer. Entries closed at the end of July.
Judging the Lindsay de Feliz Award for a New Writer of Expat Memoir has shown, again, the role that gut instinct has to play in our decisions. Our winner was an outsider. As the team and I read the entries, scoring them on elements such as plot, place, characterisation and whether we were compelled to read on on or not, we added up our scores. The numbers were close. We had a heated discussion, Man Booker style, and selected our final five. Those five would be sent to our panel of expatriate authors: Robin Pascoe; Mariam Ottimofiore; Ilana Benady and Grace Olivo. The numbers had told us who should go forward but, as I said, they had been close. Something did not sit easy with me. One of the entries was bugging me. That night thoughts of the compelling plot, the vivid characters, the universal theme buffeted me awake. I ‘just knew’ one missing entry needed to be sent to the panel. And so I made an executive decision and added her to the list. Our final five became six.
A clear winner
Over this last weekend the results arrived in my inbox. This time the numbers were clear. There were three front-runners and one of them was way ahead of the race. The winner was my ‘gut feel’. Sarah Koblow, author of Count Only Sunny Hours, has won the Lindsay de Feliz Award for Expat Memoir and will be published by us at Summertime Publishing in 2021.
Sometimes you can’t just put your finger on why something feels right but it does. Sarah began her professional life as a social worker and is a trained emotional logic coach. She has lived in America, Bahrain, Qatar, France and the Netherlands and now makes her home in the Lake District in the UK. Her life in a sprawling, complex family of seven sisters was affected by secrets and her later life overseas with a young family coloured by loss, illness and addiction. Yet Sarah is a survivor with a positive attitude and faith that has beaten all the odds and led her to reconciliation. One of our panelists described her work as, “Really well-written, natural, vivid and insightful. A combination of light-hearted observation and sombre subject matter is handled effortlessly. I would definitely read this book.”
Count Only Sunny Hours is universal in appeal. We are thrilled that Sarah will get to share her story with the world and Jack and I are honoured to be publishing it.
Sometimes it pays to go with your gut.
Another highly commended...
We would also like to highly commend Claire Hauxwell for her entry. It impressed us so much that we are giving her a spontaneous bursary of £1000 towards publication.
Jo Parfitt's Monthly Inspirer