The flamboyant dancer and eccentric Isadora Duncan, when asked to write her autobiography, almost lost her nerve at the suggestion. 'I confess that when it was first proposed to me I had a terror of writing this book. Not that my life had not been more interesting than any novel and more adventurous than any cinema and, if really well written, would not be an epoch-making recital, but there's the rub—the writing of it!' (Duncan, 1968:7). She admits that even given her interesting life (she obviously held few doubts about the height of its significance), something else is required, by which she meant the skill of transferring that sense of significance and excitement to her readers.
Your life may well be stocked with exceptional happenings, exotic voyages, famous or infamous friends, but if you spend the bulk of your time, as most of us do, within the realms of the ordinary, is anyone going to be interested in what you write? Asking this question is understandable but far from drawing a negative response the answer is: yes, they will. And they will because if you write in a way that will make people want to read and go on reading, it doesn't matter how interesting or dull you judge your experience. You will yourself discover where the interest lies, which is the point of personal narrative; you will have engaged your reader and yourself.
The idea of this chapter is to help you write something that people will read, not because your name is the epoch-making Isadora Duncan but because you have written it in a way that provokes and satisfies attention as John Berger's writing does. In personal narrative what counts is the writing, not the writer.
If you succeed in discovering the right words—'relating it well'—you might then face the next set of questions that stumped Isadora: 'How can we write the truth about ourselves? Do we even know it?' But you have at least one advantage. No one is asking you for your whole life story from birth up to yesterday. Memoir writing is not the same thing as writing a complete autobiography. Memoir asks you to specialise and select, not to give the whole of the truth (even if that were possible), but to attend to one particular memory or set of incidents. As we shall see, there are many ways of doing this.
Even if you do decide to tell your life story, you will not be able to achieve it without focus, by which I mean close-up, rather than only wide-angle, shots. Ideally you need both, but without close detail and a sense of perspective your readers will feel less convinced that it is worth their while to look through the particular lens you have set up. I stress the idea of a camera deliberately. A wide-angle shot looks like this:
I was born in 1968 and at the age of four attended a small primary school on the outskirts of Norwich, the largest town in East Anglia. My father is an architect and for two years was employed on rebuilding work to the cathedral. My sister worked in a bakery in the main street. My best friend lived outside the town at a pig farm near Taverham. When I was nine, my mother attended a WEA class on industrial archaeology.
Close-up shots prevent the slide from one piece of information to another by selecting a point of interest and holding it, thus:
I am standing in the middle of a sweep of green. I stare at a point near the spire where a ladder perches and a tiny figure is climbing from rung to rung. Come on!' a voice calls, 'you'll be late, hurry up,' but I go on looking. The figure I can see, high up in the wind, is my father.
Something as simple as a voice calling—a small enough detail in itself—can add tension and generate involvement, but only if the focus has been adjusted down to that scale. Impact depends as much on minor effects as on broad strokes of background information, and this will be true whether or not the information is interesting, exotic, or concerns outrageous events and well-known people. Even where the events are outrageous, the small details count, as we shall see.
The skill in all memoir writing is finding a way of setting up the camera so that you can control the resulting shot, the one with appeal and maximum interest value. You do not have to worry too much about inventing the details since these are there already in your memory. You need to develop an accurate retrieval system, but the fact is that, as soon as you begin to aim your attention in one specific direction, you find you begin to remember more than you thought. You might begin with an actual photograph of a place or person of particular interest to you. At the back of your mind, what you thought of as nothing but a faint trickle or irrelevant source is in fact the whole reservoir; the more you attempt, the more you can recover.
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