This sounds like the title of a collection of poems by Wendy Cope. Well it isn’t. Nor is it a metaphor for anything; it’s just what it says. Julia Blackburn, Steve and myself had tea with Penelope to discuss a course on Memoir Writing Ways With Words is running in France. Penelope and Julia will talk about their own memoir writing and encourage and help others who want to write theirs. Lots of people do. Laurie Lee said that a day unrecorded was a day lost. It’s as if it hadn’t happened. Probably people feel like that about their whole lives: unless they leave some memoir within a generation it will be as if their life hadn’t happened.
I think memoir writing should be encouraged. We do lose lives and domestic history if no-one records them. Even a shopping list from our grandparents would be fascinating. “What’s Dolly Blue, humbugs, Liquorice Allsorts, tripe, barmcakes?” my children would probably ask. “It cost 1/11d – what does that mean?”
Laurie Lee writes too of the difficulties of choosing what to record from your past. There is so much to write about. How do you select? Every day could be a book, yet it might get tedious for a reader. Even devoted family members can feel, “I’ve got a life to lead too. Get on with it granny!”
So memoir writers have to be strict with themselves and pick out what will make interesting reading.
“Can you ever be totally truthful?” Laurie Lee wonders and decides it is impossible. All you can say is that this is how life seemed to you at the time. To someone else who was there it might appear very different. Writing about family, particularly parents, can be challenging. Julia Blackburn’s book about her parents, ‘The Three of Us’, has just been published. There have been many reviews and interviews. All full of praise for her honesty, generosity and non-judgemental approach to parents who appear wild, irresponsible, feckless. When her mother was dying she said to Julia, “I expect you will write about me now.” Her mother’s and father’s sides of the story would have been different but that’s the nature of memoirs. All material for interesting discussions in France.
Penelope has written about her childhood in ‘Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived’; she has used her grandmother’s house and its contents to hook stories of her past in ‘A House Unlocked’. This July at the festival at Dartington Hall she will look back on her long writing life – a talk that will be like a memoir. Work, interests, houses, belongings are all good topics for memoirs.
Taking tea in Penelope’s lovely, sunny, book and picture-lined living room we mused over these points and how they will be tackled in France in September.
As befits a lady of letters Penelope had an interesting list of books that all memoirists should read.
So I shall read, think and look forward to hearing Penelope and Julia speak at Dartington. And even more to having 5 days in France with them both in September.
I might even start to write my Ways With Words memoirs – instead of just a blog.
Note these dates:
Ways With Words at Dartington Hall, Devon -
Saturday 12 July, 10am Penelope Lively will talk about 40 years in books, aspects of a writing life.
Thursday 17 July, 5pm Julia Blackburn will talk about her book, ‘The Three of Us’.
Memoir Writing Course, Perigord, France, 8-12 September 2008
Tutors: Penelope Lively and Julia Blackburn
Click here for further details