What is a memoir? Memoir comes – unsurprisingly – from the French memoire, which ultimately has its roots in Latin words for memory and mindful. It is the telling of one’s own story, the recounting of memories.
I fell into memoir accidentally. When we returned to the UK we moved to a new city where I knew no-one. My husband was at work (he’s a doctor: this means many long hours), both children were at school and I had no paid employment so, to kill the six hours on my own each day, I started to write about our experiences in Zambia. Others would have watched Jeremy Kyle or Homes under the Hammer: I needed something to keep the little grey cells moving.
Back then the memories were fresh and vibrant: now they are ageing. Some stories are etched on my mind and I cannot let a drop of them go: not the colours, not the smells, not the life-threatening nature of the events. Others are more vague: I remember the punchline, but not the joke.
Memoir comes in many forms. There was a ‘craze’ a few years ago for misery memoir. These had the general structure of an awful childhood, which metamorphosed into a successful adult life. They went out of fashion as the market was saturated with such stories, although there is a lot to be said for a book where good overcomes evil (see the Harry Potter franchise, for example!) The Christmas bestseller lists are usually dominated by the memoirs of the rich and famous. Some are clearly ghost-written, but the well-known name sells books. The publishing industry has a lot of say over what is successful and the trends the market may take.
It was when I started writing my memoir that I realised how much I enjoyed reading stories about other people – real people, rather than the delights of fictional characters that feel real. One piece of advice I was given to improve my writing was to read lots of books in the same genre. I realised I was already doing this! And so I have enjoyed all of Carol Drinkwater’s Olive Farm books, and Chris Stewart’s Driving over lemons series, and (after a successful family holiday on a narrowboat) One Man and his Narrowboat by Steve Haywood. I caught the whole of Wild by Cheryl Strayed when it was broadcast as Book of the Week on Radio 4 and am looking forward to the upcoming film version. I like nosing into other people’s lives! I like knowing that they can overcome adversity, in whatever form it may be.
And how accurate are they? Do they tell all the ins and outs, all the details? Of course not! When I was about 7 years old I amused my parents with my argument that the bible couldn’t be 100% truth when it didn’t tell everything about Jesus, for example when he went to the loo. (Read it: nowhere does it say that he relieved himself!) As my trivial example illustrates, every detail would clog up the story. It wouldn’t let the real tale shine, it wouldn’t let the purpose of the story be paramount.
Yet the memoirs are accurate enough to be real: to be logical and entrancing. They may not show every event but they give an overarching picture of the person’s feelings and lifestory. As a writer, I know that it cannot be totally accurate, as it is impossible to remember every word of a conversation; but it is possible to recreate the gist of it, and thus to expression emotions and reactions.
My dictionary defines memoir principally as a written record set down as material for history or biography. As a definition it is true, if a little staid and stiff. Personally I like it’s second definition: a biographical sketch.
That’s what I’m creating: a biographical sketch. A picture my life – or a portion of it – that reflects my feelings and surroundings. Accuracy? Who needs that, when there’s a good story to tell?
In the Shade of the Mulberry Tree is available to purchase now, and Beware the Falling Avocados is coming… soon…