There was a time when only movie stars and the super rich produced memoirs but these days the art of memoir writing has captured the imagination of a wider public. While publishers once had to print thousands of books to justify the cost of starting up the printing press, digital printing now makes it possible to produce a short run of books, so it’s possible for people to write a memoir and distribute it to their circle of family and friends. What hasn’t changed is that memoirs, as personal histories, provide a unique perspective on the world.
Some memoirs tell how extraordinary things happened to ordinary people. The bestselling nonfiction books of 2014 in the US were I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban, and Finding Me by Michelle Knight, the woman who spent ten years in captivity in Cleveland.
It’s no surprise though that novelists and journalists tend to be the most prolific memoirists, because they already write for a living. Think for example of Nuala O’Faolain, John McGahern and Edna O’Brien, writers who have produced some of the most-loved memoirs in recent decades.
Non-professional writers seem determined to get in on the act and the surge in popularity of memoir-writing classes in Ireland and beyond is a sign of the interest that people have in jotting their way into the history books. The contrast between times of poverty and times of plenty can be illuminating if one has lived through both. The generation now in their 70s grew up during the 1940s and 1950s, a time of real hardship and deprivation in Ireland, but also an era of great change, and the observation of gradual change can make compelling reading. Sometimes it’s the things that we might regard as ordinary and mundane that make the best reading.
American memoirist William Zissner has a lovely piece of advice for anyone thinking of doing a memoir: “Speak freely and think small.” He encourages people to tell their own stories without worrying too much about the consequences of offending anyone (though of course the laws of libel apply to published memoirs). “If your sister has a problem with your memoir, let her write her own memoir,” says Zissner mischievously. The concept of thinking small sounds very zen, but it’s hugely useful for a memoirist. It’s the small things that may mean the most. It’s the small things that others writers may overlook. It’s these small nuggets of information drawn from personal experience that readers won’t be able to find anywhere else.
Another option for non-writers is to hire a professional writer “Most sports stars or entertainers use a professional writer, a ghostwriter, to help them write their memoirs,” says Rónán Lynch, who runs the writing service No Ordinary Life. “If you’ve never written anything before, it’s quite a challenge to sit down and write a book, and especially a book about yourself!”
The idea of ghostwriting, he says, is to allow people to speak in their natural voice, which the writer then translates onto the page. Lynch brings a large set of questions designed to assist people to prompt memories and structure stories. “I’ll ask someone, for example, if they had a family pet when they were young, and something that simple can unlock all kinds of wonderful stories from childhood that they’ve long since forgotten.”
He conducts several hours of interview in person, and then edits and arranges the text. “Some say that ghostwriters are the invisible artists behind the work,” he says. “We are just the conduit for people to get their memories onto the page. We help to turn the story into a narrative that’s entertaining for the reader and true to the subject.”
He says that requests for memoirs vary widely. “Some people are happy to save a few thousand words of their thoughts, but others want to produce full-length books that they would be proud to place in a local library or bookshop.” He adds that some people want to tell their own story, or the story of their business, but some people commission him to produce work for their own parents. “It’s a way for people to hold on to family memories that would otherwise be lost.”
(c) Lorraine Morris