january 2014, life lesson, recommended reading, wise words, writing a book, writing from the heart

Nuala O’Faolain on the art of writing a memoir.

I hadn’t heard of the Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain until last November when I happened to grab her audio book Almost There by chance at the library. I’ve always wanted to write about so many personal things, more so than I share here, but have had numerable reservations about the whole thing. She addressed so many of the specific concerns I had about the writing, and she convinced me it is worth doing, if not for someone else, than for yourself. I’m beyond grateful that I was nudged in this book’s direction on the shelf a few months back. What a way life has about answering our unspoken questions. The cherry on top? After hours of listening to her read in her beautiful Irish accent, I feel my accent skills might just be improving.

Memoir is, surely, a genre that leaves a lot of blood on the tracks. Unless it is completely solipsistic, it involves reporting on other people who have real lives. And the autobiographer knows in advance that there is going to be an afterlife, when the people within the book read it. It is therefore, of all seemingly candid forms, the one most likely to be shaped by diplomatic necessities. If I were the biographer of an autobiographer, I’d be very interested to discover what they felt they had to clear out of the way before telling their story. 

Novels are complete when they are finished, but the memoir changes its own conclusion by virtue of being written…. I was not at all the same person , when I handed the manuscript over to the publisher, as I’d been when I began. A memoir may always be retrospective, but the past is not where its action takes place.

The words it chooses to describe relationships are another development in those relationships… that I do not understand other people as they understand themselves… I am one person and other people are themselves, and not what I have decided they are. I see the beginning of some kind of learning about how to be a member of the social world in these realizations connected with writing a memoir. And that sliver of clarity was part of a wider clarifying of the muddle in my head.  

…And then my friend said three words to me and the three words were words that changed my whole view of what I’d done. They were words that made me want to look after what I’d written as if it were part of me, like a child. She had leaned across and and said three words that couldn’t be more ordinary, but they had stopped me apologizing for what I had written and made me want to get the best life I could for it. And the three words were “Stand by it!”–and then when I’ve said the words, there’s been a gasp of understanding. They’re words of real power.  

It took decades to learn how to talk myself into believing, every time I went out to do a job, that I would not fail… 

I found journalism hard, like a relationship that is always hampered by misunderstandings… I was always made uneasy by the three-way relationship between the journalist, the situation written about, and the reader who believes that what he’s reading is somehow a neutral account of the situation. Perhaps a need for greater truthfulness built up within me. I know it was a liberation to turn to relative honesty of memoir and then, fiction. 

A lot of journalists I’ve known have been working on other kinds of writing and it’s assumed that this is because working with words is their field, but I think it’s because even the best journalism is emotionally unsatisfying. The conventions of journalism are oppressive to the honest self.  

…and writers are the nearest thing to the human community has to spokespeople. 
We’re in this together, this getting through our lives, as the fact that we are word-users shows.  

Where I wrote, that was where I made my best effort to be a thinking person, able to get older every day without being pulled down by apprehension, looking forward, or regret, looking back. 

Writing has brought me up from underground. I’ve been my own Orpheus. 

I am trying to find where to watch Nuala the documentary, but have failed miserably in finding a copy? Anyone happen to know where I might stream/buy it? 

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2 thoughts on “Nuala O’Faolain on the art of writing a memoir.

  1. Excellent post and words. I understand the inspiration. Please keep writing about your words. See how powerful they can be? They reach out to a middle aged lady sat in Yorkshire reading of your hopes and dreams. Wishing that you find them.

    Like

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