Living to tell the tale: a fiction writer’s adventures in memoir
I was standing in the doorway of the tiny office where I’d spent one hour a week, over the past six months, relearning how to think. By unravelling and rebuilding my thinking patterns, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) had helped me understand and manage reoccurring bouts of depression. It had changed my life.
My therapist, a petite mental health professional called Diane, stopped me at the door before I left her office. ‘You should write about this, Tara,’ she said.’ You should write about your experience of depression. I’d read it and I know plenty of others who would. Lots of people would find it helpful.’
I drove away, mind ticking, cogs turning. I had no idea how to write about depression. I certainly didn’t know how to write memoir. I’d spent a lifetime immersed in fiction and had already written two novels. Fiction was second nature to me, but memoir was something I’d begun to read and enjoy as an adult. It didn’t run through my veins the way fiction did. I had lots of memories to mine, but I didn’t know how or where to begin. But if Diane thought my story would be helpful for other people, then maybe I should give it serious thought.
I began by reading lots of other memoirs, endless articles and how-to books, and eventually realised that they were all saying the same thing: memoir is story, i.e., an account of a character who goes on a journey and overcomes obstacles (or otherwise). That character is you. And you use the tools of fiction to write about you. I had those tools already, but I had more to learn.
A memoir is a thematically-linked story from your life, but it’s not your whole life because that would be your autobiography. I knew I had to include what caused my depression, what the experience was like, how it affected my family and my work, and how I learned to manage it. I learned I didn’t need to include my favourite food (chips), our first family pet (a budgie called Peter) or my waist size (classified). Had I been writing a memoir about food, a memoir about the experience of having pets, or a memoir about having ‘big bones’, then I would include these. Maybe I’ll write these in future, who knows? Understanding the importance of thematic cohesion meant I had a sharp editing tool in my head as I wrote.
Unlike fiction, where I could write thousands of words before anything started to take shape, I knew what shape the memoir would take early on in the process. It was to have a simple structure that would reflect the deep understanding we all have of storytelling: beginning, middle and end. Part one recounted the relevant bits of my life up till the breakdown. Part two was about my experience of depression based on journals I kept at the time. Part three was about understanding how those ‘relevant bits of my life’ had led to my breakdown, how I learned to manage depression through CBT, and how my life changed as a result.
With fiction, I can be mischievous, challenging and, as a tutor once said of my work, outrageous (it was intended as a compliment). With the memoir, I made a deliberate attempt not to make life hard for the reader, who might actually be living with depression and want to understand something about the illness, and possibly themselves. I wrote in what I’ve called ‘iterative snippets’ – very short chapters that could be consumed easily and painlessly on their own, or could be read consecutively for a longer, more concentrated read. For the same reason, humour was important: obviously the book isn’t laugh-a-minute, but it’s not the literary equivalent of hitting yourself repeatedly with a rolled-up newspaper. It has dark sections, but it’s funny and ultimately uplifting. It’s not a punishing read.
I realised that memoir writing comes with moral obligations and ethical considerations I didn’t need to think about with fiction. I had a responsibility to protect the people who played a part in my story – after all, they didn’t ask to be featured, and yet some had a starring role. The how-to books tell you to ask for their permission, but I didn’t. I changed names, dates, genders and places to protect the guilty, and I omitted the names of family and friends to protect the innocent. Ahead of publication, I sent a pdf of the book to family members to make sure they were comfortable with what I wrote. No one complained.
The memoirist also has an obligation to write the truth. And this was one of the strangely paradoxical things about the process. For a long time, I told no one I had depression, that I’d had a major depressive episode or that I thought about suicide often. I am naturally introverted and fairly private, and yet in this book, I tell everybody everything. I was – and still am – fine with it. I suppose it’s a combination of commitment to the craft and Diane’s words back before I began: ‘Lots of people would find it helpful.’ I truly hope they do.
(c) Tara West
About The Upside of Down:
Two weeks after the launch of her first novel, Tara West confessed to her husband that she wanted to kill herself. And yet she was living a life most people only dream of ̶ a well-paid job in advertising, a published novel, a loving husband, great hair…
In this warm and unexpectedly funny memoir, Tara invites readers into and out of her battle with depression.
We follow her life from child and young adult in a tough housing estate to successful professional writer and mother, uncovering how her vicious inner critic was formed and how it drove her to succeed on the one hand, and consider suicide on the other.
Providing fresh insights into the illness, its impact on loved ones and the nature of recovery, this poignant memoir is moving, insightful, and ultimately, uplifting.
Order your copy online here.