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Writing Memoir: Telling stories that aren’t yours by Kate Gunn

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Kate Gunn

Kate Gunn

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I started blogging over eight years ago. I shared stories about my life, my children and the frustrations and joys of motherhood. It became natural for me to put pieces of myself out in to the world. Like therapy, only cheaper. My tagline was ‘blogging my way to sanity’ and sometimes it wasn’t far from the truth.

What I didn’t know was that it was setting me up for something much bigger.

In 2014 after an international move abroad that was a last ditch effort to save a flagging marriage, my husband and I separated. The pain was immediate and complete. I needed help. I scoured the internet and bookshops for information and personal stories. Someone to tell me how to do this. Someone to say that we would be ok. I never found it. So four years down the track I decided to be that person. To write our story and share it to those who needed it.

I was going to write a memoir.

Telling stories.

The greatest and most immediate problem with writing anything memoir based is that to tell your own story you have to tell other people’s stories too. And as this story was going to be about amicable separation, I had to get the other party that was involved on board first. (The irony of writing a book on amicable separation only for the book to be what caused the fallout. I wasn’t going to be that person!)

So we sat in a coffee shop together and I floated the hypthetical idea. I expected either a long and difficult discussion or an immediate no. I got neither. ‘Ok’ he replied. ‘As long as I get final say on the final draft’.

So I started to write.

The words came easily. I had the format. I had the story. And I had the ability to tell it. But would anyone want to listen?

Pitching in the dark.

I had no contacts or leads, but once I had a structure and a couple of chapters completed, I began to research publishers. It wasn’t long before I began to get responses. Orpen Press had an immediate interest, and after a number of meetings and emails they agreed to take me on.

This meant I had to step things up. With a short deadline and a full life I began writing in earnest. Every morning I would rise at 6am while the children were still sleeping, make myself a coffee and open my laptop. The silent darkness was the perfect companion, and day-by-day, story-by-story, my book began to take shape. Within three months I had submitted the final draft. Here’s what I learned along the way.

Tips for writing memoir

  1. Find your voice.

An obvious but essential one. All that time spent blogging about my personal life stood me in good stead. I had used many voices over the years, but by the time it came to write my book I had found my groove and settled into this one. It came so naturally to me that I didn’t ever realise it was a voice. It was just me.

  1. Write without borders

When you are writing memoir, or about people and events in your own life, it’s easy to get stuck. Frozen in ‘what ifs’. What will he say about that? Does she want me to talk about this? Is this true or did I imagine it?

The answer?

Just write. Put all the stories, memories and thoughts down in one rough, ragged piece. You can decide to leave parts out later, or check in with people involved at another stage. The first draft is about pouring your heart and mind out onto the page.

In the end I edited some parts down, took other bits out and removed a couple of lines when requested, but I was glad I had the whole truth and nothing but the truth in front of me when I was doing that.

  1. Stories

During the writing process I took part in Ivy Bannister’s ‘Writing Memoir’ course at the Irish Writers Centre. She advised us to make headings of every little story we had, then weave the stories together. This was a key tip for me and made the writing process so much more fluid and structured. Each story was a building block to your final goal.

  1. The Devil is in the Detail

When you are writing your own story details can be so familiar to you that you forget other people don’t know them all too. Intimate details of surroundings, thoughts that ran through your head, conversations that swerved your life onto another track – detailing these things is the magic that keeps the story alive. Lists of facts simply won’t do.

  1. Memories

Sometimes piecing together stories and memories can be difficult. Who was actually in the room that day? Did she really say that? What happened the next day? Going back through emails, letters and photographs, talking to others who were involved, checking news reports – all of these things can help jog a memory and get the train back on the track when it has stalled.

  1. Honesty and Editing

Some writers put craft above all else. Publish and be damned. Personally I think if you are writing memoir and it could impact an important relationship in your life, then it’s best to allow them the chance to have their say before it goes out into the big bad world.

Chapter by chapter I sent my work for Untying the Knot on to my ex-husband. It was excrutiating waiting for each and every response. Would he hate it? Dispute details? Could it re-start long sleeping arguments? In the end there was little fallout, but it was difficult all the same. Stirring up the muddy depths of pain and conflict was never going to be easy. It brought past emotions to the surface and caused a couple of small wobbles. But far better to go through it step-by-step together than for the finished book to land on his doorstep and a flood of arguments to arise.

  1. Enjoy it

It was a cathartic process writing my story. I had pushed an awful lot of memories away in my bid to survive the worst weeks of the breakup, and it was interesting to revisit and re-feel all that had happened. Writing Untying the Knot helped me make sense of a lot of things and made me hugely grateful for others. It showed me other people’s perspectives and ultimately caused me to come out stronger, but more compassionate. If it can help others to do the same then it’s job done.

(c) Kate Gunn

About Untying the Knot:

When you are going through separation or divorce it can often feel like there is no way through the pain and conflict. No small light twinkling at the end of the tunnel. Will it always feel this bad? How will you heal the hurt of your children? Will this damage them for life? How will you cope with increased costs and reduced money? Where will you live? Will you ever find peace and happiness again? Part personal story, part expert guide, Untying the Knot takes you through the process of separation as both parents and friends. From the very first days of unfathomable heartache, through telling the children, what to do with the family home and dealing with conflicts, to finding yourself, coming out the other side and much more. Written by Kate Gunn, with excerpts from ex-husband Kristian, Untying the Knot also provides dedicated expert advice from the likes of Emma Kenny, resident psychologist for ITV s This Morning; Stella O Malley, psychotherapist and author of Cotton Wool Kids and Bully-Proof Kids; Sara Byrne, clinical psychologist; and Deirdre Burke, barrister, solicitor and family law mediator. If you re looking for a helping hand to lead you through the darkness, this is it.

Untying the Knot: How to Consciously Uncouple in the Real World by Kate Gunn is published by Orpen Press, price €14.99, and is available now from all good bookshops and online at www.orpenpress.com

About the author

Kate Gunn is a well-known blogger and features writer in both the UK and Irish parenting realms. She has written regularly for the Irish Independent and Easy Parenting magazine, as well as featuring on Irish, UK and US parenting sites such as eumom, everymum, the M Word, Netmums, ScaryMommy and many more. Kate has also appeared on BBC radio, RTE s Today with Seán O Rourke, RTE s Today with Maura and Daithi, and numerous regional radio shows.

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