Most of us begin our writing journeys via diaries/journals. Those juvenilia are worth their weight in gold particularly when it comes to opening the storehouse of memory, mining personal experience, documenting family history. Socrates himself once said “An unexamined life is a life not worth living.” Recording events through the prism of intimate knowledge is a powerful description of the relationship between writer and the various lives lived. I say lives because we have all lived different lives at different stages and memoir allows us to revisit and re-inhabit these lives, however intensely or briefly.
There’s a feeling that because a story is personal, it’s easy to write, that nothing from the imagination is required. Isaac Bashevis Singer maintains that the true story of a person’s life can never be written. It is beyond the power of literature and that the full tale of any life would be both utterly boring and utterly unbelievable. In this regard, The Fish Memoir Competition, 2014, made a very telling distinction between fact and fiction. “Everyone must have a memoir, not an autobiography. Too many rules. Too much adherence to fact, to structure, to convention. A memoir gives licence – to interpret, to create, to fabricate, to make sense of a life, or part of that life.”
This school of thought is just one of many. Not sticking to the facts at all times as a recommended method is in line with American author Susan Cheever’s view that “the memoir is the novel of the 21st century, an amazing form that we haven’t even begun to tap.” It’s clear that the memoir is a coat of many colours with the ability to be historically accurate as well as taking on the transformative mantle of fiction.
Graham Greene once made the observation: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in”). This quote is very apt in terms of ‘The Bend for Home,’ (Harvest Books), Dermot Healy’s acclaimed 2000 autobiography. A grown man returns to the home-place to care for his ailing mother. She gives him a diary that he wrote as a fifteen year old. He is amazed at what emerges on the pages, how it is a foreshadowing of the writer he was to become. More importantly, however, he realises how his perceptions and memories of that time had changed over the years. Through this memoir/autobiography, Healy retraces his life, meeting again the young boy who was born in Finea, Co Westmeath before moving to Cavan. Healy, who passed away in 2014, has been described as a ‘Celtic Hemingway.’ This book has been reviewed as being ‘billowing and expansive.’ Healy’s memoir is an imaginative exploration of how memory alters with the passing of time, a more complex thematic arch than a straight forward telling of events. ‘The Bend for Home,’ would certainly contain fictional elements. A novelist as deft as Healy undoubtedly was would be alert and receptive to those elements. Sometimes, fact simply will not suffice to tell the story accurately.
When Nuala 0’Faolain’s collection of journalism articles/memoir ‘Are You Somebody?’ came out in 1996 (New Island), the work caused a sensation. 0’Faolain’s introduction to her published articles was in fact a memoir, an autobiographical memoir. She said in that introduction that she was often asked if she ‘was somebody?’ as she seemed vaguely familiar to lots of people. Answering that question gave her pause for thought, questioning where she was in life. More importantly, who she was.
As it happens, in her memoir, she returned to her early thirties self, entering a ‘bad period’ of her life, living in London on her own. 0’Faolain made the point that she had no problem writing her personal opinion columns and having her say, her public voice as it were. However, it was difficult finding a voice for her private self. I feel that this perfectly sums up the dilemma of how the public and the private persona of a writer can be at variance when it comes to writing styles and genres. In the event, 0’Faolain shone the spotlight directly into the four corners of her life, never hiding from the ‘glare’ of her own story.
In memoir, nowhere is the writer more in the private domain. Being centre stage doesn’t necessarily mean being narcissistic or blowing your own trumpets. Yet, a certain distance must be maintained also. The ‘I’ of the writer must also be the ‘I’ of a character that readers care about and as a fictional character is fleshed out, so too must the factual one of the memoirist. This means being mindful of sensual writing, the voice, physical appearance, motivational basis for action, relationships with other characters, the importance of place/setting, the ability to perceive atmosphere and mood. All the ingredients that make for good fiction.
Taking Your Memoir to Market
Memoir as a series of essays/prose pieces. Most of the memoir pieces in ‘A Fascination with Fabric’ (Arlen House) were published in Ireland’s Own, a weekly magazine that reaches over 50,000 readers, at home and abroad. Because I am also a poet and write a lot of memory poems, I’ve included in the collection work from Glenn Patterson’s Literary Miscellany in The Ulster Tatler. Ireland’s Own is a tremendous support for writers. It’s annual fiction awards attracts writers like Martin Malone, Geraldine Mills and Vincent 0’Donnell (once a protégé of Graham Greene as it happens!).
Blogging: This form of ‘internet diary’ is very popular and attracts a ‘live’ readership on a daily basis. Not to be under-estimated and a great way of developing ‘voice’.
Awards/Competitions: The Fish Memoir Prize is a prestigious one and held annually.
Non-Fiction Publishers: Regular visits to library/newsagents’ shelves will keep you informed of the publishers who are interested in memoir and non fiction work.
(c) Eileen Casey
Eileen Casey is a poet, fiction writer and journalist. Her work is widely published in literary journals and anthologies. Solo Exhibition ‘Reading Fire, Writing Flame,’ (poetry and encaustic art) was awarded by Offaly Arts and featured in Poetry Ireland Review, The Irish Arts Review. Outlets include: Sunday Miscellany, Verbal Arts, The Irish Times, The Ulster Tatler, Ireland of the Welcomes, Senior Times, Ireland’s Own, Poetry Ireland Newsletter, Writing Magazine (UK), Pighog Press (UK),Jelly Bucket (USA),among others. Collections include poetry (New Island), fiction (Arlen House) and prose/memoir (Arlen House).
A Hennessy Literary Award Winner (Emerging Fiction), she is also a recipient of a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Poetry Fellowship. A Creative Writing Facilitator, she is also a postgraduate student from The Oscar Wilde Centre, The School of English, Trinity College, Dublin. Arts Council Bursaries were received in 2010/2011.