From memory to memoir…..

I worked with Carry Gorney on her memoir and am delighted that she has agreed to provide some thoughts about her experience for this blog:

Send me a parcel with a hundred lovely things

Send me a parcel with a hundred lovely things

“I come from a family with heads still in the Weimar republic. My own consciousness eventually leads me to the community arts movement of the 70s. I wanted to produce a far reaching memoir, knitting together my family story and my own.

My Mum’s ending is my memoir’s beginning, My own world spirals out of control as we both descend into the chaos of her failing body. We cling to familiar patterns of coffee and knitting needles which clickety-clack through my book as the story unfolds.”

Journal prompt: Is there anyone close to you whose decline has overshadowed the richness of your relationship with them? Write some short pieces about some of the experiences you shared and see if your collages bring them back to you as they were.

Work in progress:

“Sometimes I write about an episode a character, an incident with enthusiasm.

Sometimes I just lift my fingers and something arrives on the page which hardly needs editing; vivid, funny, alive ..

Sometimes I step back into a time long before me; blurred and monochrome yet strangely familiar. I have to grit my teeth and forge ahead with stories that belonged to others. I put dark and dismal passages on to paper. For every personal anecdote, there has to be a historical context, back and forth, between memory and the history book. I lay on the sofa eating chocolates eyes closed, resisting, yet eventually returning to chronicle the elusive before I am allowed to grasp hope, dreams and new beginnings.”

Journal prompt: Research some historical information about your chosen story and write about the connection between history and your personal experience.

Write the bits you can:

“Writing it was making a collage, small pieces, sepia images, letters in brown flimsy envelopes; ‘opened by censor’ stamped on the back. Eventually the fragments came together into paragraphs, chapters and sections, that spanned half a century.”

Thea and John Ernest 1941

Thea and John Ernest 1941

“My life and its procession of characters emerged as if carved out of a block of marble, the structure appeared, eventually the detail, the colours, the smells, the feel of wool between fingers …a whole book was there. It has an orange and grey cover, it’s no longer in my head….it’s out there…you can read it.”

Thank you, Carry.

Send me a Parcel with a Hundred Lovely Things by Carry Gorney is available here and on Amazon

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Janus: looking back, looking forward……..

Janus_coin

Janus

January seems to be a time for looking back to last year, and looking forward into this one. Janus, the Roman god depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions, symbolises this as we move through his namesake month. He’s also the god of transitions and links past with future. In fact there’s much more to him than I’d realised, but for now I’m looking at his ability to look back and forwards as we transition from one year to another.

One of the fascinating  projects I was involved with in 2014  was working with Carry Gorney on her memoir, Send me a parcel with 100 lovely things (to read more about this book click here). This book interweaves her parents’  journey from Germany to Yorkshire (including her father’s letters from the Isle of Man internment camp) with her own journey from Yorkshire into a wider world. I was her writing coach and editor throughout the process and was thrilled to receive a copy of the real, physical book in early January. It’s satisfying to see something through from the tentative start to completion.

Journal Prompt: Look back over 2014, notice your activities, the projects that you were engaged in. Did some come to completion? How do you feel about them? Are there some which you wish to leave in 2014? Which ones are you bringing forward into 2015?

January Ice

January Ice

It’s conventional to make New Year’s Resolutions at the beginning of January for the coming year. But why not do this at other times? I now invite you to make Re-commitments to unfinished, abandoned or forgotten practices or projects. Do this without guilt or sense of failure for having let things lapse, but rather with pleasure and satisfaction at being able to bring them into focus again. What do you want to continue or bring to completion this year?

Journal prompt: Imagine that the year is already half over. It’s the end of June and you are looking back at the activities and projects of the year to date. Have some come to completion? What do you want to continue to develop? Which ones are still waiting?

 

 

And when did you last see your father?

The village cricket team

The village cricket team c.1951

My father would have been 88 this week except he died 27 years ago. He’s been dead for more of my lifetime than he was alive. I still write about him.

There are many published memoirs about the death and life of a parent but Blake Morrison’s 1993 book And when did you last see your father?  was one of the first. It alternates chapters about his father in life and chapters about his decline and death from cancer. All written in the present tense.  On BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub recently Morrison was asked who his imagined reader was when he was writing it. “Myself”, he said,  and added that writing the book was a kind of therapy, that what he was unable to speak about, he was able to write about. Some people can write about things before they can speak about them, especially traumatic or complex things.  Another guest on the programme said, “Reading it was great therapy”.

In Moments of BeingVirginia Woolf writes that her mother, who died when she was 13, obsessed her until she was 44:

“Then one day walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse; in a great, apparently involuntary rush……….I wrote the book very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.

…”I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.” p81.

Both Woolf and Morrison understand how writing can be powerfully therapeutic, a way of transforming difficult, painful and inexplicable feelings and experiences into part of the coherent narrative of a life.

One of the challenges of writing about a deceased parent is, as Morrison puts it, how you ‘lift the lid’, how you portray with honesty and with love the complexity of the person and your relationship, how not to ‘beatify the dead’. How do you give yourself permission to show ambivalence and know that it’s ok to show ambivalence? How do you show the mutual frustrations that are present at times in any relationship, especially when there is no longer hope of resolution or understanding?

And when did you last see your father? Frederick Yeames

And when did you last see your father? Frederick Yeames

Journal Prompt:  And when did you last see your father? opens with a vivid childhood memory of going on a family holiday, written in the present tense. We sense that this is a typical view of his father. What typical childhood memories do you have? Write about one in the present tense, situate your parent in context.

Sometimes, as in actor Alan Cumming’s memoir, Not my father’s son, about his violent father, there is no ambivalence but it can be just as difficult to find the words.

What are your favourite memoirs about parents? Please share them in a comment.

What is your experience of writing about your parents? Have you found it therapeutic?

 

 

 

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