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Useful Tips for Writing a Memoir by Lucia Gannon

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

Lucia Gannon

Once I decided to write a memoir, I undertook to read as many of the great writers’ memoirs as possible.  I read with a writer’s eye, learning something from each one, whether it was structure, voice, dialogue or story-telling.  When I had read far more than I needed to, I procrastinated even further by typing the phrase, “online memoir writing courses” into Google-anything to put off typing the first line of the first draft onto a blank screen.  Minutes later, I was inspired to sign up for a twelve-week memoir-writing course with Irene Graham, founder of the “Creative Writer’s Workshop” and the “Memoir Writing Club.”  This was one of my best decisions as Irene, a knowledgeable and skilful teacher, became an encouraging and enthusiastic companion.  With her help I embarked on my task with increased confidence and determination.

One of my first tasks was to create a timeline.  I created one that spanned from early childhood to the present day.  I preferred to use the year rather than my age as that jogged my memory for other significant events at that time.  I kept re-drafting this timeline until a logical start point and end point emerged.    As mine was a memoir of my work as a GP, it became clear from the timeline that I should start from when I opened my own surgery in Killenaule and that it should continue until the present day.  I drafted the chapters I wanted to write and entered the anecdotes I hoped to include in each one.  I did this on an Excel sheet that could be easily altered as the book came to life.  This helped me to stay focused, to include all important events and reassured me that I was not going to run out of material.

I consolidated my writing habit, committing to a minimum of two hours daily, whether I felt like it or not.  As I was still working full-time, this sometimes involved getting up earlier than usual but I am not a natural early riser so most days, I structured my day so that I would have completed my two hours by ten o’clock and then carried on with my usual work.

I wrote my first drafts as if nobody was ever going to read them. This was a tip I got from Anne Lamott’s book on writing, “Bird by Bird,” where she explains that even successful writers write “shitty first drafts”.  This gave me permission to put all sorts of nonsense on the page, which I later enjoyed editing and deleting.

I recorded my word counts and the time I spent writing each day.  This helped me stay motivated when I had to delete large chunks of writing.  I convinced myself to enjoy deleting as much as creating, viewing it as an important task that was fundamental to the process.  When I first told my family and friends that I was writing a memoir, I got a mixed reaction.  Some were very enthusiastic, others were sceptical, others feared that I might be writing something that they would find distasteful.  I did not ask peoples’ permission to include them, as I was unsure how much of the initial drafts would be reproduced in the final version but once the manuscript was ready for editing, I let people know that they were included and offered those who I thought might be anxious about this, a  chance to view the information written about them or the option of changing their name or details.  No one felt the need to review it, so, as a result, all family and friends are real people.   My children read some of the early versions of the first chapters and despite my offering at all stages to let them review what I had written, they declined to read any more until the book was published.   I reassured family and friends that I was the main focus of the book.  That it was mainly my thoughts, my feelings, my reactions to events, that I was recounting and that I would not be sharing any information about them that was not already well-known.

As mine was a medical memoir, for the purposes of confidentiality, it was necessary to change the names and many of the details of the patients I included.  Most of the patients are composites, constructed to carry the story and demonstrate how the doctor-patient interaction works. Once I had a reasonable draft of a chapter, I read it aloud to my husband, who offered an encouraging and non-critical ear.  As I do not have a great memory for detail, I frequently photographed country scenes, flowers and plants and used these to jog my memory.  I filed the photographs under the relevant month of the year which made it easier for me to retrieve the information when necessary.

When on a writing break, I usually plugged in my earphones and listened to music as I tramped the fields, letting my attention wander into places that my conscious mind did not want to go.  This was often a very productive time as long-forgotten events, interactions and lessons learned became accessible to me.

I had to reassure many people that I was not writing because of a traumatic past or that I was not using my writing as therapy, because I was unhappy.  I was writing because I felt happy and privileged to be leading such a rewarding life and simply wanted to add my story to the other stories in the world.   Everyone has a story, whether we write it down or not and I have tried to tell mine as accurately and honestly as possible.    It was a very rewarding and enriching journey and many times throughout the process, I said to my husband that even if the finished book was never published, I would never regret one minute of the time or effort I invested in the  writing.

(c) Lucia Gannon

About All in a Doctor’s Day:

The local doctor occupies a privileged position in society. Pillars of the community and privy to the most intimate details of people’s lives, we often imbue them with superhuman qualities and expect them to have all the answers. Rarely do we get to see the person behind the ever-calm, professional exterior and experience how they handle the weight of responsibility that comes with the role.

Step into the surgery of Dr. Lucia Gannon. Arriving in the small village of Killenaule, Co. Tipperary 20 years ago – husband Liam (also a GP) and children in tow – Gannon was a blow-in determined to build a practice that would provide solace for the sick, worried and confused.

Journey with her as she builds a life in this tight-knit community, and discover what it means to be the one people bring their problems to – problems that are not always medical, but which still require discretion, kindness and the willingness to provide a listening ear to those on the tricky journey of life.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Dr Lucia Gannon qualified as a GP in 1990. She has special interests in mental health, infant nutrition and medical education. She is an Assistant Programme Director with the South East GP Training Scheme and a GP Clinical Tutor for University of Limerick Graduate Entry Medical School (GEMS), and works with her husband at Killenaule Surgery, Thurles, Co.Tipperary.

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