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Getting Personal with Emma Hannigan

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Non-Fiction Guides | Writing Memoir

Emma Hannigan

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When Vanessa asked me to do a piece on writing memoirs I have to admit to being momentarily stumped!

I have no formal training in writing and don’t feel I am in a position to give tips to anybody! So all I can tell you is how I’ve operated from the beginning.

From the first moment I began writing I decided to just be myself. Of course we all long to be the next Cathy Kelly or Marian Keyes. Who wouldn’t want to write like all our literary heroines right?

Pretty quickly I came to the realisation that it’s not possible to mimic another person.

We’ve all seen those documentaries with Scary-Mary-Madzers who spend a small fortune on plastic surgery to look like their favourite Hollywood star. Does it ever work? Are we all impressed if a person changes their face in an attempt to look like another? I’m guessing most of us would say no.

Writing is no different in my mind. We should all be true to ourselves and write from the heart using our own voice.


When I began writing my memoir Talk to the Headscarf I had to change gear so to speak. I still consider myself a ‘newbie’ and every day I learn about the craft of writing. Before writing Talk to the Headscarf any knowledge I’d scraped together related to fiction.

Nonfiction, although a different genre, turned out to be a natural progression for me.

With my first two novels I wrote about things I’ve experienced. Designer Genes mirrored my discovery of being gene positive for Brca 1, while Miss Conceived dipped into the wonderful world of pregnancy and motherhood.

I was prompted to write my memoir by my agent Sheila Crowley of Curtis Brown. I don’t give much thought to my own life – why would I it’s just the norm for me! But the letters that poured my way after my appearance on The Late Late Show and Ireland AM among others told me differently. People were pouring their hearts out to me and sharing their experiences, in wake of my appearances.

Sheila saw it clearly too. She felt that by writing my story down, talking candidly and honestly about my battle with cancer, I could help others.

I pondered the idea and came to the conclusion that at worst I would get it all off my chest and at best I might indeed reach out to someone.

The clincher for me was the overwhelming feelings I experienced when I was diagnosed with cancer the first time. I longed to read a book by a ‘normal person.’ Not a doctor or a medical expert. My own doctors and medical team are quite simply angels on earth – but they’re at a different level. They’ve trained for many years to be who they are and their knowledge is vast – thank God.

What I needed at that time of tremendous vulnerability was to be told by someone like me that everything was going to be ok.

So I set to work writing Talk to the Headscarf with that exact notion in mind.

I had the title in my head before the book had even begun. It’s tongue in cheek, because most people who loose their hair and choose to wear a headscarf will agree that many others don’t see the person they used to know – only the headscarf/wig/bald head.

So I guess my main focus with writing my memoir was to dispel as many myths about cancer as I could. Suffice it to say I was on a mission!

I tend to write the way I speak. Anyone who knows me will vouch for that. After Talk to the Headscarf was released I had friends calling me and telling me that while they read the book they felt like I’d been in the room chatting to them.

For me that was a massive compliment. From the offset I wanted to engage with the reader. I wanted each person who picked up the book to see inside my world, I hope I’ve achieved that.

So what tips can I give?

Write from your soul. Not even your heart – your soul. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else otherwise at some point it’ll all become too difficult.

A piece of advice my dad gave me many years ago stuck with me – ‘don’t tell lies unless you have a fantastic memory.’

I wasn’t planning on lying of course, but often it can be difficult to be very open, especially when you’re writing about a time in your life that’s painful or difficult.

But do you know what I’ve learned? Nobody’s life is easy. The grass isn’t greener on the other side. We all have dark moments in life whether it’s through matters of the heart, health, financial or otherwise. We all just do our best.

So I discovered that bearing my soul afforded me great freedom in the end. I know I left myself open to personal criticism by writing about myself – but fiction writing is just as personal in my view. I knew before a single word I had created was published that not everybody would like my work. That’s a chance all authors have to take when releasing a book. What I’m trying to say is try not to worry about what other people are going to say when they read your story. You’ll never make all the people happy all of the time, so be yourself and hope for the best!

I used diaries to help me with timings. I even asked the hospital for a look at my medical records and made a list which I menacingly saved in my computer as ‘Emma’s health play list!’

I sifted through boxes of old photographs at my parent’s house along with all the ones my husband and I have collected over the last fourteen years we’ve been together.

It’s amazing how a snap shot or a little note to ones self can jog a whole myriad of buried memories.

I chatted to close family and friends too, asking them to rack their brains for stories I may have forgotten.

Most importantly I asked my nearest and dearest if they were ok with being mentioned in the book. I think that’s really vital. Just because I chose to tell my story, I didn’t ever feel I had the right to include another person without their blessing.

I hope I didn’t offend anyone in the process and most of all it’s my sincerely wish that my story has done what I set out to do, and that is to reach out and let people know they’re not alone.

The goal I had in my head while writing my memoir was to leave the reader feeling one or all of these three words.

Hope, inspiration and light.

One feeling that can never be dulled by even the worst critic is my pride. I’m so proud to be a published author. It’s quite simply a dream come true. If you feel you would like to write a book – go for it. Writing has changed my life for the better. I know it’s really difficult to get published and the market is unbearably tough at the moment, but if you believe in yourself and give it your heart and soul who knows the dream could become a reality for you too.

I will never take for granted the wonderful sense of euphoria I get every time I see a book on a shelf with my name on the front cover! It’s a privilege and an honour.

So if you’re teetering on the edge wondering whether or not you should write a book – park your ass in a seat and get going!

Wishing you all love light and hope,

Emma x

About the author

(c) Emma Hannigan June 2011

Emma Hannigan lives in Bray with her husband, son, daughter and cat.  Her fiction novels, Designer GenesMiss Conceived andThe Pink Ladies Club were published with Poolbeg press while her memoir, Talk to the Head Scarf, was published with Hachette Ireland.   Emma also maintains a diary on her website Emmahannigan.com.  

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