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On 4th February I had the privilege of chatting to a trio of new memoirists.
Here’s the low dow
For this In Conversation Masterclass I decided to do something different and invited three memoirists for a group discussion of the craft. I was joined by Margaret Ghielmetti, author of Brave(ish): A memoir of a Recovering Perfectionist (which I reviewed here), Doreen M. Cumberford, author of Life in the Camel Lane, and Jo Weaver, author of 100 Days in Spain: Diary of a Lockdown. Though their books varied wildly in subject and scope, their journeys to publication shared many of the same challenges that any author can learn from. Here are a few of them.
1 – We don’t always know what we want to write
All three of my guests found themselves stumbling into the memoir format. Jo’s book developed out of a blog she wrote to relieve stress during lockdown that soon earned her an unexpected audience of two thousand readers. This success led her to combine her pieces in one volume in time for Christmas. “I thought [that] we’d never see this again and soon everything’s going back to normal,” she chuckles, admitting that she assumed the blog would be irrelevant by January. Of course, quite the opposite happened and, far from being an ephemeral project, her book has remained relevant far beyond the holiday season.
Margaret, on the other hand, only realised that she was really writing a memoir in the middle of developing a solo show using old trip reports she used to send to her parents. On realising this, she took a course called “Memoir in a Year” at StoryStudio Chicago to sharpen her skills for this new form, after which she hired the writing coach. Once she saw the shape her story was taking, she put everything into developing its potential, even though she had not originally intended to write a memoir.
Meanwhile, Doreen, well…
2 – Your book doesn’t have to fit a pre-packaged label
Instead, it’s possible to make your own. Minutes into our conversation, Doreen delighted the group by coining a phrase, ‘Learnoir’ to describe her own work. Eager to situate her story in the environment around her and the people she interviewed, she was keen to make her own form of memoir where one was not already available. “It’s based on stories, events, and lessons learned,” she explains, “because although it is a memoir with a lot of insights, it’s also [got] a lot of life lessons that are baked into it.”
In the spirit of this neologism, it’s worth sharing a word that can describe Jo’s book as well, since blogs that are transformed into books are often called ‘Blooks’. Later on Doreen whipped up another phrase, ‘slowmading’ to describe her style of nomadic living as she and her husband house and pet sit around the world and writing. So if you don’t think your book quite fits a pre-existing genre, remember that you are a creator, and you can always make your own!
3 – Your book doesn’t have to do everything to be good
For a book to have legs it has to do some of the following: inspire, support, inform, entertain, or manage a mixture of them. However that does not mean you have to do all four, and so the group reflected on where they put the emphasis in their own work.
Jo didn’t set out to inspire her audience. Lockdown was a little too bleak for that, and she was annoyed at the political dishonesty she saw internationally when watching Spanish, Czech, and British coverage of the pandemic on the news. That said, she considers herself a natural joker, and the blog format soon made it apparent that her readers enjoyed the more inspirational aspects of her writing. This is the benefit of serial publishing, since blogs allow you to stay in touch with your readers and receive feedback on what they really want, so her writing naturally adjusted to accommodate their tastes.
Doreen, meanwhile, was quite the opposite. “I was very motivated to inspire because I’m a natural inspirer,” she tells us. “I’m a coach at heart and really love to help people move through transition and use travel as a tool – not an end result – to have a more wonderful life.” She notes the many misconceptions people have about Saudi Arabia, a country that she lived in for fifteen years, and also expresses a desire to show what it’s really like. She cites an anecdote about how Saudi women constantly asked “how often I had sex and where, because all they knew was what they saw from TV drama in America, so they just think we’re bunny rabbits or something in America.”
As Mark Twain famously said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” and it’s clear that Margaret is also determined to carry on that line of thinking. “My book started out not as a memoir,” she emphasises, “but with my feeling [after the 2016 election] that we were being told as US citizens that ‘The Other is Bad’ – and I’ve lived on four different continents and visited fifty countries and my experience is actually that the other is not bad.”
How do you convince a polarised world to listen to that message? “I came to writing the book from a very strong storytelling sort of mentality,” she explains, adding that her experience with live audiences has taught her that they best appreciate “when I make myself vulnerable and I use my sense of humour, which is pretty low key.” This vulnerability is the key to every memoir, as it allows the reader to recognise some loneliness or darkness in their lives that another has also experienced. It is here that we find our shared humanity as we feel the beat of another person’s heart.
4 – Writing is hard work
When it comes to writing, every author has their horror stories, and every published writer a tale of how they got through it. Jo was both blessed and cursed by the requirement that she write and publish something every day, but she managed this by using her non-writing time to think about her upcoming post. “Whilst I was writing, walking miles to the supermarket every day, [etc], I was thinking about the blogs so that when I sat down I could just do it.”
Margaret’s method was more dangerous, and I don’t dare write it down here. (Though I can tell you to listen in around the 13:30 mark!) Once she had this motivation, however, she was dogged in her determination, and mentions a useful piece of advice a friend offered about how a writer should treat themselves at the keyboard like one of their favourite dogs, “Say ‘sit’, and stay.”
5 – But editing is harder
One of the problems Jo faced on returning to her blog posts was how much repetition she found between them. Certain topics recurred again and again throughout her hundred days that had to be edited out for the new book format. “You have to write what people want to read, not what you want to write,” is her advice. In this vein, a friend suggested inventing events to spice things up, but Jo wanted keep faith with her readers, regardless of the challenges this caused.
The challenge of editing is one all of my guests could agree on.
“My book was written over a period of about ten years,” Doreen tells us, adding that over one hundred and ten thousand words were left on the cutting room floor. In future she is determined to pare down her writing from the get-go, to “be very specific, and deliver one or two or three messages, not fifteen!” (She neglects to mention until prompted that Life in the Camel Lane won third place in the CIPA (Colorado Independent Publishing Awards) in recognition of its editing process.)
“Thank god for editors, right?” Margaret laughs when I ask about her coach. She and Jo both point out how they find it easy to edit other people’s work, but those skills become much more difficult when it’s your own baby on the chopping block. With three people working with her as developmental editors to help her find the arc and themes of her work, her main editor played a phenomenal role not just in advising on the memoir but on looking after her as a writer. “I would not have wanted to do this book without her,” Margaret admits:
“She was such an incredible cheerleader. When I was losing heart, she would say to me, ‘I get it, you’re on the ground, I’m in the treetop. I can see it coming together. Keep going.’ When I was writing about my parents and all I did was cry for days on end, she would say ‘Stop writing about your parents for a while.’ She was fantastic on an emotional level as much as anything.”
6 – You have to be sensitive to the people in your life
Humans are social creatures, and so any story about ourselves is necessarily also about the people we who surround us. The decision to be honest about our lives will inevitably include our version of events concerning other people. We have to be careful how we handle that responsibility. Margaret ensured her husband read every word she wrote about him before she sent any of it anywhere, but with people a little further away that can become a little tricky. As deadlines loomed, she had to remove some passages after friends asked her not to talk about certain delicate topics in countries where they still lived. A few funny stories were thereby lost to avoid causing trouble. Doreen’s interviewing and Jo’s domestic narratives raised the same delicate questions, and they remain an important caveat for any memoirist to keep in mind as they write their story.
I want to thank Jo, Doreen, and Margaret for talking with me. The complete video of our conversation can be found here, and their websites are:
This post has been collated by our intern, Charlie Wellings, who is helping us to produce more content to inspire your writing.
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