12 March 2021
Keeping a sense of discovery is vital, says the acclaimed author and memoirist
The first time I wrote a memoir I had no idea I was doing it.
Running for the Hills is a story of a childhood on a Welsh mountain; I wanted to write about freedom, beauty and wonder, and about the courage and passion of my parents, and to work out if and how those forces had pulled them apart. It was a surprise to see it marketed as a memoir, which I had assumed was the province of the great and famous.
My first piece of advice, then, is not to be hung up on genre. How your book is displayed, ranked or sold is not the writer’s problem. The world might call it a memoir – your concern is to write something beautiful, supple, full of life-force. We’re not in the pipe-and-slippers business (even if we’re lucky enough to be in that physical space – how I long for mine).
Having decided you want to tell a story from your life, or a story of your life, what do you need to keep in mind? Dylan Thomas said something along the lines of, ‘I love hearing about other people’s childhoods, but they’d better be pretty quick or I’ll be telling them about mine!’ The great temptation, in setting out to explain something of yourself, is to start with your parents – and how do you explain them without starting with their parents? Chronology, your friend in so many kinds of writing – travel, nature, place – can be a yoke in memoir.
Think about breaking it; take us in on the action. You can always move back and forth in time. You might find that the real subject of your story is not you at all (writing ‘I’ is so much less fun than ‘she’, ‘they’, ‘he’ or ‘it’, after all). The real subject of Running for the Hills was my mother: it took the length of the book to portray her, and she is always seen in action. Starting with her mother, though fascinating for me, would not necessarily have served the reader.
As in all kinds of writing in which the writer is a subject, the most influential distinction you will make is probably between stories you need to tell and stories readers need to hear. There is a simple test to apply here. Am I telling them something I already know? It sounds silly – of course you know what you’re writing about, don’t you? – but stand back a little. Are you recycling? Is there a nostalgia-golden or misery-grey filter over the lens? Are you using ‘would’ a lot – ‘We would do this, we would do that…’? Beware, that way pipe and slippers lie.
Or are you getting it down fresh, as if in the present or the very recent past? Is it alive? Are you experiencing new thoughts and feelings about it, even as you tell it? If so, you’re in business. A sense that a writer is discovering alongside you is the most wonderful thing, as a reader. It might be that they know their subject very well indeed, but the joy of writing about it, or them, lights the writer up. The joy of making, of arranging, of putting it down, of finding fresh ways of seeing or saying it – that’s what we want, and we can feel it immediately, crackling off the page.
My latest book also appears to be a memoir, but I do not think of it that way. Heavy Light is the story of a breakdown: how it happened, what it was like, and what I have found out about it during my recovery. I tried to approach it as reportage, almost as travel. Here is a little-known country, madness. Let’s see how vividly and tellingly I can take the reader there. I tried to use every device available in order to vary the effect of my voice speaking. Description, where the writer steps back and the world comes forward; voices and characters; texture, mixing what happened with what we know or believe about what happens in breakdown; switching perspective, scene and form – lots of interviews and portraits of people who saw or were affected by what happened. I am too close to it to be able to judge it plainly, but I’m pretty sure it’s not boring – the rule Dylan Thomas implies when he says ‘be pretty quick’!
If you are writing memoir, great good luck to you. Write to find out, write for joy, and everything else will take care of itself, you’ll see…
Heavy Light: A Journey Through Madness, Mania and Healing by Horatio Clare is published by Chatto & Windus
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