‘I’ve got a book in me too.’
For a writer it must be the most depressing sentence in the English, Irish, or any language; the casual conversation with a relative stranger that ends in the same repeated bald assertion.
An assertion followed by a string of claims about how interesting their life was in the Navy/the City of London/ the insurance business or the police. If they confessed to having been part of the sex trade it might be different but not necessarily.
I doubt if heart surgeons are similarly harangued in casual conversation – ‘I’d be just as good as you at aortic valve surgery,’ – but the belief that one’s life story is compelling to others because you think it so remains a common writing fallacy.
Most of us, myself included, live out ordinary lives that carry little interest, or discernible difference, to the mass of others in our own society; the predictable path set by class and educational opportunity, careers, jobs, the compromises of marriage, the petty betrayals of life, the passing failures and successes of the mortal road.
The calm onward Western trod of our lives, devoid of war, famine or plague, for the last six decades, has not halted a deluge of bad memoir. The UK publishing trade is forever junked up with endless thin ‘Oxbridge’ writerly accounts of middle-class angst that are primarily fit for torching.
Unless you’re famous for other reasons like Barack Obama why would anyone bother to want to know about your life unless they can learn from the difference?
So what is that vital difference that can turn a life into a memoir worth writing about and more importantly reading?
Like all real writing there can and never will be a prescriptive formula but there are a few basic ground rules.
According to Julian Fellows, the writer/creator of Downton Abbey, pain is so much more interesting than pleasure.
Aside from all the millions who watched the show for its dissection of the cruelties of the English class system, Fellows’ literary judgement is universally true. We may be envious but the happy life, the happy marriage, of others holds little traction on our imagination. Art, film, and literature are generally predicated on revealing the darker side of our existence, the murderous hidden Girl on a Train truths behind the facade of suburban normality.
The second rule is harder to define but easier to recognise on the page – many have eyes but cannot see. I would say one definition of a writer is someone who shares the same experience as others but sees or encodes those events with a deeper, sometimes profoundly different significance.
Karl Ove Knausgard, the Norwegian writer, cold-heartedly transmogrified the banality of his teenage boyhood angst over girls, pimples and the hunt for illicit party alcohol, plus an estranged alcoholic father, into a 3500 page My Struggle six volume autobiographical global bestseller. Knausgard’s excruciating examination of the minutiae of his own life, his inner emotional turmoil, was a cultural revelation in socially repressed Norwegian society. (I confess I gave up after the first 200 pages). But this open, seemingly unguarded, disclosure of the particularity of a life, one common to many Norwegians, was an unprecedented literary revolution in Scandinavia.
But before we all start jotting down our next trip to Tesco in the literary calendar its worth pointing out that Knausgard was a very accomplished prize winning novelist, nominated for the 2004 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, half a decade before My Struggle was published. As an established writer Knausgard, in his self belief, saw the potential wonder and significance to others of his own act of personal catharsis despite the pain it inflicted on his family members and brutally went ahead with the writing. There is, by necessity, a sliver of ice in every writer’s heart.
Every act of writing is an act of editing – what to leave out or where even to begin. And that mantra is even truer in memoir. The best advice I ever read was in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig: If you are going to write about the universe it’s best to start with the third brick up on the left.
Hangers on, politicians and their ghost writers, always want to sell us their version of being in the ‘Big Room’ when the Big Thing happened. And how it exciting it all was. But even if you were in the White House on the night of the raid that killed Bin Laden, it would not look much different from a sales conference.
The physical description of the room is useful but it’s the words, the characters, their fears inside, and their treacherous equivocations with each other, that carry and tell the story. The felt experience of being there. You build the whole picture by starting with that third brick somewhere.
And it is the same with memoir. If I am going to devote 20 Euros and a few hours of my life to learning about yours, I want to know what it’s like to be that other person, to live inside your skin. To be another human.
The fourth rule is trickier still – you need to have something to say.
My own memoir My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die, began at the bedside of a dying man in the company of the mná caointe , the wailing women, as they keened and cradled this man, Sonny, my father, into death.
In a small bare bedroom, on an island off the coast of Mayo, no bigger than a prison cell but crammed with ten watchers, they sang out the Rosary, repeating and repeating, verse after verse, as the sound boomed off the ceiling, louder and louder, until it filled every orifice. In that instant I saw both the burden and revelation that was to become My Father’s Wake. That this death, Sonny’s death, was not to be some private closed off Anglo-Saxon embarrassment, but an open rite, a death sharing, within an Irish clan. And that what I was seeing was a far older, far wiser way of dealing with death that through the rite of the Irish Wake stretched back beyond the fall of Troy.
My task, not as a son or a family member, but as a writer was to help with that remembering.
(C) Kevin Toolis
About My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die
Death is a whisper in the Anglo-Saxon world. But on a remote island, off the coast of County Mayo, death has a louder voice. Along with reports of incoming Atlantic storms, the local radio station runs a thrice-daily roll-call of the recently departed. The islanders have no fear of death. They go in great numbers, often with young children, to wake with their dead. They keep vigil through the night with the corpse and share in the sorrow of the bereaved. They bear the burden of the coffin on their shoulders and dig the grave with their own hands. The living and the dead remain bound together in the Irish Wake – the oldest rite of humanity.
For twenty years writer and filmmaker Kevin Toolis hunted death in famine, war and plague across the world before finding the answer to his quest on the island of his forebears. In this beautifully written and highly original memoir, he gives an intimate, eye-witness account of the death and wake of his father, and explores the wider history of the Irish Wake. With an uplifting, positive message at its heart, My Father’s Wake celebrates the spiritual depth of the Irish Wake and shows how we too can find a better way to deal with our mortality, by living and loving in the acceptance of death.
Order your online copy here .