Everyone has a story to tell: ideas for life-writing with Linda Brown – 24 November 2021

It may have been chilly outside but there was a warm welcome, at the Mercure Hotel, from our very own Linda Brown, our Life Writing workshop provider.

We felt in safe hands as she provided us with definitions of the various forms of life writing – biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, life writing and creative non-fiction – along with examples of each, all of which corresponded neatly with speaker Carol McKay’s recent comments.

Linda then focused on six Scottish celebrities whose publications she found engaging and which demonstrated the key elements of success in this genre: explorations of their early lives (positive and negative experiences), and the impact on their adult selves, the sense of getting to know the person, plus the importance of levity, even in the face of dark times.

But what ‘subjects’ might we consider using should we decide to try life writing, either in article form or in a full-length book? The answer is – anything! Travel, jobs, sports, hobbies, illness, animals, bereavement – nothing is off limits. Linda’s own extensive list of topics about which she has written over the years exemplified this admirably.

Next, Linda opened the floor to members who shared examples of books which had made strong impressions on them, the suitability of accessing this genre via audio books, for a fully immersive experience, and a discussion on the nature of ‘misery memoirs’.

Nothing helps prospective writers more than hearing from the words of an expert in the field, and Linda’s chosen exemplar came from the opening of Janice Galloway’s This is Not Me.  A strong start is essential; the narrator’s voice must be unique and clear; all the senses should be employed and even in a serious piece, humour can lighten, in contrast to the theme. Creating a clear sense of time and place setting, is crucial but can be done with subtle references to things such as music, fashion, television, or current affairs.

Other key ingredients are authenticity (honest, intimate details), relevance (things which will resonate with readers), and dialogue (recreation of what might have been said).

Just as in the creation of fiction, conflict and character are of prime importance. Careful positioning of dramatic situations will encourage readers to turn pages, just as will an observable change in the main character, because of emotional or physical obstacles. It is the arc that will intrigue. Other characters, however, must not languish as two dimensional; make them believable too.

The first half was rounded off with Writing Prompt 1: eight ideas to stimulate our memories and seven minutes to compose a response. After our brief intermission, brave souls volunteered the scribbles on a variety of subjects. Nigel, Tony, Maggie B, Marion, and me, offered experiences that were poignant, humorous, alarming, astounding, and terrifying in turn.

Warnings are always useful to writers, and Linda highlighted the need to be aware that memory can be ‘fickle’, and recollections of the same incident will vary. Names may have to be changed and writers must consider the implications of ‘spilling the beans’. Once spilt, mopping up can be messy. Ultimately, tell ‘your truth’.

Time for Writing Prompt 2, and how to use nostalgia, as a way in to long-forgotten memories. Members chose from the list including songs, tv themes or programmes, clothes, cars, ‘treasures’ or foods, to generate ideas. Maggie M, Matt, Maggi, Fiona, and Janice provided a wonderfully eclectic selection of memories which included missing out on QUEEN at Wembley, the joys of a £250 car with cannabis fumes for free, a dodgy delivery of soiled underwear, a dance which revealed more than rhythm on the dancefloor, and eating poky hats (ice cream cones!) in a Brownie uniform to the strains of the CORONATION STREET theme tune!

If you have questions about any of the above, sorry, my lips are sealed!

Linda signed off with an excellent piece of encouragement – ‘Write your Stories – No Excuses’. If Justin Bieber did it aged sixteen, and Herman Wouk did it aged one hundred, you’ve no excuse.

Thanks for a great night, Linda.

Carolyn O’Hara

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