Memoir musings 2: both sides now

Dear Reader, a warning (or invitation, depending) that this entry deals with more musing on the process of writing a memoir. Come back later if this is not your thing.

The (at the moment) final chapter of How to Avoid a Happy Life is entitled ‘Find Yourself and Your New Partner Being Chased Down the Street by a Phalanx of Reporters’. It has been the section most difficult to write, and after kind, expansive, and direct feedback from my marvellous mentor Howard Norman, it turns out I’m not nearly done with it yet.

The reason this chapter was difficult to write is not because, or not only because, it deals with my partner’s 2015 very public mental breakdown, which led to the chasing described in the title. Although reflecting on the events that led to the above, and everything that happened subsequently, was less than edifying, the difficulty for me as a writer is simply that there is Too Much Information.

How do you decide what to leave in and out in a memoir? In fiction it is easy (relatively): anything that does not serve your narrative trajectory is out. But in a memoir, there is a fine balance between explaining too much and leaving your reader baffled.

By way of example, at the beginning of 2015, I was working in a committee of the Legislative Council of Western Australia, the context of which is important to understand for the impact of subsequent events. In the first draft, I have tried to summarise the salient features of committees and the Council thus:

Committee meetings are, generally, considered sacred. As creatures of Parliament, committees operate under the Standing Orders of the chambers, have the same powers and privileges as the Parliament itself, with considerably more secrecy attached to their proceedings. If anybody, staff or member alike, broke committee confidentiality, they could be subject to the exercise of the powers of the House, which included fines and imprisonment for contempt.

Unlike some Westminster parliaments, which have required themselves to observe procedural fairness or removed their ability to imprison for contempt all together, the Western Australian parliament in 2015 had not legislated its powers away. It had imprisoned someone as recently as 1995. Then, the Usher of the Black Rod had been sent to arrest former public servant Brian Easton after he refused to apologise to the Council after his involvement in a political scandal, the consequences of which resulted in a Royal Commission, the charging of a former Premier for perjury, and the suicide of Easton’s ex-wife. Unlike the Legislative Assembly, which was generally prepared to keep its powers in reserve, the Legislative Council was regarded as being far jumpier about upholding its privileges.

So, being called out of a committee meeting was so out of the ordinary that even before I was at the door, I was wondering if somebody had died.

I suspect you started yawning somewhere between the first and second paragraphs. How much is necessary to give adequate information on what comes next?

Howard Norman has given me the following task: if the information in the expository parts is not integral or indispensable, cut, or at minimum, streamline.

The other, trickier part is to slow the velocity and tension in what I’m writing, but to still keep pace. Because there is so much sheer chronology to fit in, I have gone hammer-and-tongs in this chapter. There is much by way of immediacy, but this is at the risk of emotional depth. As Howard said, a memoir isn’t Wikipedia.

One of the ways Howard has suggested doing this is reflecting on the contrast between the sheer public nature of what happened and how it was, experiencing it privately. Include in it not only what happened, but how you survived it.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Black Rod 2013