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


Memoir musings 1: defamation for dummies

Dear Reader, if reflections on writing are not your bag, stay tuned for another installment of the memoir, coming soon. Also, TW below: suicidal ideation.

Writing a memoir is not for the faint of heart. People often joke about putting things in their memoirs, or of what they’ll write when they retire etc, but the strange combination of detachment and unflinching honesty which is required to write a memoir requires fortitude and therapy in roughly equal amounts.

To taste the sea, all one needs is one gulp.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

My mentor Howard Norman asked me why I had applied to him for help. I’ve published more than a dozen novels and understand, obviously, the discipline required to write (and to deal with the vagaries of publishing, which is a whole other matter). I understand, I hope, structure and pace and developing characters. But writing fiction, even if autobiographically inspired, is a different beast to a memoir. A memoir is not a history, and, as Howard Norman reminded me, it requires many of the same elements of fiction writing. But the intersection with Others, and the need to understand and describe your own responses and reactions, are two things not required by fiction, and which I need to get a handle on.

I have a tendency toward the dense and the summary, for example, which means that I need to go back and develop further. For example, I began one of my chapters with ‘I celebrated my sixteenth birthday by deciding it was time to kill myself’. I give a brief overview of the factors that led to this, but it needs more than a flippant faux-dramatic sentence. Similarly I mention finishing my PhD at the same time as another event happening: apparently I need to explain a bit about my compulsion to study and how I have managed it among the unfolding chaos. Howard says: slow down. Explain.

Which brings me to the Other People problem. I have not included very much about my daughter’s growing up with a father developing Alzheimer’s, as well as having been otherwise difficult, because I don’t want to describe her experience. But in memoir, it is important to give the full picture of your main characters. I need to explain how I thought she was coping with things. So it’s tricky.

And then there’s defamation. There are some things I know I will not be able to publish, but I need to write my perspective of what happened and edit later. Legal Aid gives a handy guide to defamation in Western Australia which I have by my computer:

If someone causes harm to your reputation by publishing material about you that changes the way people feel about you, you may have been harmed in a legal sense. Not all offensive, embarrassing or upsetting remarks cause harm to your reputation.

Defamation is when words have been spoken or written which:

  • harm your reputation in the eyes of ordinary people in the community,
  • harm your reputation in your trade or profession (for example, lead you to get less work), or
  • are likely to result in you being shunned, avoided, made fun of, or despised.

A claim for defamation is a complex, time consuming and expensive legal matter.

The law in Western Australia encourages people to resolve disputes about defamation without going to court. Even if defamation is proven, it does not mean the court will award you much or anything in damages.

Fortunately for memoir-istas everywhere there’s also this: Things like gossip or embarrassing stories are unpleasant, but do not amount to defamation unless they cause the required harm to your reputation.

So, I need to test to make sure that I don’t include that kind of material. (Luckily you can’t defame the dead, so some of it will be fine!)

The process of writing continues to be a joy, a puzzle, a privilege. I am grateful to have this time to be doing it, and if you’re considering doing it to, investing in a mentor might just be the thing you need.

Note to self: Must mention the PhD!