Writers On Writing / Acknowledging the universal in memoir, with Kate Holden


“All memoirs have to move from some kind of diary-version, which is really for your own self, to being a public version which acknowledges the universal.” Kate Holden spoke to us on writing memoir.


How should prospective memoirists navigate a world that demands them to disclose more and more personal information in the interests of capital and data-mining?

That’s such an interesting – and modern – question. I never had to think like that when I published back in 2005, though I did worry about disclosing things that might potentially get me in trouble with the law. My instinct is that readers love memoir partly because memoir is about taking real-life events and making them, through art, into something that is the opposite of the pedantic, metric-obsessed, stealthy surveillance paradigm they’re otherwise prey to. Dates and figures don’t always feature in memoir, while emotions and relationships often do. That said, data-mining is now also about personality and preferences. I guess you can either shrug, and figure that the computers already know most of what there is to know about you; you can try to jam their algorithms with surprising new input; or you can focus on reaching through to other humans, remember that most of them are genuinely interested in you and your story, not in selling you something. But perhaps I’m naïve.

How can a memoirist ensure their work feels relevant to their reader?

All memoirs have to move from some kind of diary-version, which is really for your own self, to being a public version which acknowledges the universal. Getting bogged down in self-pity is delicious if you’re the only one to read it. Trying to stay aloft and keep perspective, perhaps with humour, is going to win you readers’ sympathies and appreciation, while perhaps also teaching you something about what’s really happened in your life. Basically, don’t indulge yourself, and try to imagine what you’d want to share with a person who’s just had a similar experience to yours, and is looking for company.

What are you currently working on?

I’m in the last edits of a massive nonfiction book called The Winter Road: A Killing in Croppa Creek, which will be coming out in May. It’s about a murder and environmental crime, not a memoir, and to be honest, it’s a relief to concentrate on other humans’ frailties for a change!

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Kate Holden is the author of In My Skin: A memoir and The Romantic: Italian nights and days, both best-selling non-fiction memoirs published by Text, and writes a longstanding column for the Age. She has thought a great deal about memoir and some of her essays and interviews on the subject are at kate-holden.com.

Join Kate Holden for her online course, Online: Writing Memoir, from 10 to 16 March. Enrol here>>

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