What is it about the genre that attracts you to memoir?
To answer this question, I’m going to commit the unpardonable by quoting (or misquoting) from myself – from Writing True Stories: ‘Let me confess the true extent of my passion to know what life is like for other people. The question has been with me since I was a teenager: What is it like for you to be in the world? I feel the hunger to know when I travel on a train, or sit in a café, or stand in a queue at the supermarket. I want to go up to each person and ask him or her, what is it like for you to be here in this world with only a set of stories to guide you? How do you do it? How do I do it?
Writing a memoir is a way of exploring that question. It is a genre wide and deep enough to explore any of the questions murmuring or shouting under a life, flexible enough to evoke both the beauty and the terror of being here. Memoir is a vessel that changes according to what is put in it, sometimes formal and elegant, sometimes laid-back and laconic. In writing a memoir you are returning to the well of literature, the place where you are trying to make words say what it is like to be here in the mystery of existing at all.’
Can you give us an example of the pitfalls that trap some memoirists when writing?
One of the main pitfalls comes from the fact that, in memoir, the writer is both the narrator and the central protagonist. Sometimes, especially when writing emotionally difficult or unresolved experiences, the protagonist takes over the writing and can make a real mess. I think it’s important to remind yourself that while you are writing you are the narrator, not the protagonist, not a hurt or abandoned daughter, lover, sister, friend, but simply, the narrator.
What advice would you give to someone who is at the very start of writing a memoir?
I would tell them not to plan too much, but simply to head off into specific memories to see what was there. Let the beautiful, complex, poetic structures of memory begin to work on the page before you let your intellect start its bossy arranging and organising. And I’d also tell them to get hold of Writing True Stories...
What are some of your favourite pieces of memoir writing?
The ‘favourite memoir’ question always makes my brain stop working – it is too big a question ! But looking over at my bookshelf behind me right now, I’ll offer a few of my former memoir students’ wonderful memoirs: The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie, Missing Christopher by Jayne Newling, Motherling by Jen Hutchson, Only by Caroline Baum, and Honey Blood by Kirsty Everett (due out in July). There’s plenty more, over fifty commercially published, but that’s a start.
Patti Miller is the author of nine books: the best-selling Writing Your Life, The Last One Who Remembers, Child, The Memoir Book and Writing True Stories (all published by A&U), Whatever the Gods Do, (Random House), the award-winning The Mind of a Thief (now a VCE text), Ransacking Paris, both published by UQP, and last year, Writing True Stories from A&U, and The Joy of High Places, NewSouth 2019. She has also had numerous articles/personal essays published in national newspapers and literary magazines. She began ‘Life Stories Workshops’ at Varuna in 1991 and is Australia’s best-known memoir teacher, offering memoir courses around Australia and in Paris. More than 50 of her students have been commercially published. See lifestories.com.au.
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