Everyone’s Life Has its Stories: Memoir and Life Writing with Carol McKay – 10 November 2021

Front row seat – tick. Excellent position to hear and see Carol – tick. Great view of PowerPoint slides – tick. Notepad and pen at the ready – tick. Write screeds of notes – tick. Be unable later to decipher all my scribbles – errrr…tick. Undecipherable notes? Story of my life.

But here goes my blog on writer and creative writing tutor, Carol McKay’s evening.

Carol’s own life story begins Drumchapel, Glasgow on Christmas Day 1955. An excellent school, university, a degree in librarianship, marriage, children, three years living in Monaco (thanks to her husband’s job) a free-lance journalism course and an MLitt Creative Writing degree all followed.

Her prolific writing career began with an article, celebrating the 75th anniversary of Citroen, published in Auto-Car and Motor magazine circa 1992. She has gone on to have short stories and poems published in a plethora of magazines, more recently Gutter, New Writing Scotland, Wee Dreich. Amazingly, her short story accepted for NWS had 15 previous rejections. Perseverance pays, Carol says.

Working as a creative writing tutor for the Open University connected Carol with OU student Eileen Munro – a woman with a heart-breaking story to tell. Carol helped Eileen write and craft her memoir As I Lay Me Down to Sleep (published 2008) – about her abusive childhood with alcoholic parents. Eileen’s memoir evolves into a warm human story which Carol ensured had a positive ending. However, this type of story falls into the genre ‘misery memoir’ and there’s a big market for this category. Indeed, 60,000 copies were sold.

Carol read the book’s prologue which immediately gave us a sense of time and place, ‘the metered television flickered’ and ‘the coal fire spits’ as well as a hint of the mother’s cold, unfeeling character.

In 2010, Carol was awarded the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship. As winner, she attended a month-long writing retreat, at Hotel Chevillon at Grez-Sur-Loing (south of Paris), the writers and artists’ colony frequented long ago by Robert Louis Stevenson and the Glasgow Boys (group of Scottish artists circa 1890s). The idyllic peace and beauty of these surroundings – ‘swallows swooping’, ‘the window cleaner whistle of a songbird’, ‘the river gloops’ – were captured in Carol’s first impressions – a wonderfully descriptive and atmospheric example of life writing.

Shortly after her time at Grez-Sur-Loing, Carol suffered major health issues. Within a few months she was diagnosed with a rare, auto-immune condition, requiring lifelong treatment – Addison’s Disease. Determined to find out as much as she could about her illness she reached out to fellow sufferers on Facebook. This led to her gathering the true stories of 16 people writing with a positive, upbeat slant about their experiences of living with and coming to terms with Addison’s. After some light editing, Carol collated these into the self -published eBook – Second Chances: true stories of living with Addison’s Disease.

E-publishing is ideal for niche market subjects – only 3 out of 10,000 people have Addison’s Disease, so the book has a limited market/ readership.

Carol posed the question ‘What is life writing?’ and discussed the different genres -biography – academic and intellectual account of someone’s life

auto-biography – a self-written biography

Carol believes today these genres are considered as being old fashioned.

memoir – a factual narrative based on a person’s experiences

life-writing – a record of personal feelings and experiences

creative non-fiction- creative writing techniques used in factual writing

Carol advises writers adopt fiction techniques to immerse their readers in the world of their story.

Those techniques are: character, point of view, place/setting, show don’t tell, tense.

Remember, life-writers don’t just write about themselves. They also write about the other people in their lives.

To emphasise her points, Carol read short extracts from three very different works and asked for our thoughts.

Martin Luther by Lyndal Roper – dry, factual, academic – definitely a serious biography.

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee – poetic, descriptive, immersed the reader into the scene – a vivid memoir.

The Days of Duchess Anne by Rosalind K Marshall (based on the author’s PhD research/paper) – factual but the author has added her own expressiveness, bringing the subjects to life and making a more pleasurable read.  Carol described this book as having ‘blurred lines’ – a historical, factual account using creative writing techniques.

Should we use dialogue in our memoir/life writing? Let’s face it, who can remember verbatim conversations from long ago? The answer is, it is acceptable to ‘invent’ valid conversations to enhance life-writing. Memory is notoriously fickle and as was pointed out from a member (Betty, I think) – our mind refreshes all the time and when we remember a memory, we are actually recalling the last time we remembered the memory. Aye… food for thought (scratches head)!

We moved on to consider – what takes us to our happy place?  What could be our Celebration (theme for club non-fiction competition)? Carol provided some ideas and suggestions on how to brainstorm a memory. Visualise the scene, think of who you were with, remember the five senses, be specific and what happened? And don’t forget to include jeopardy – topics that really hook and intrigue us tend to have ups and down or a cliff-hanger.

Carol recommends mind-mapping and always use the ‘5Ws and H’ –

I keep six honest serving-men:
(They taught me all I knew)
Their names are What and Where and When
And How and Why and Who.

quote from Rudyard Kipling ‘The Elephant’s Child.

Our evening came to a close with a short Q&A – Carol ably answering questions on Kindle Publishing, sensitivity readers, problems of using real people’s names.

Thank you, Carol McKay for an informative and inspiring evening.

But, before we packed our notebooks away, re-masked and said our goodbyes, Carol had one last really sound and important recommendation-

Enjoy your writing. Recording memories, is in itself, an act of celebration.

So, as Kool and the Gang once sang – Celebrate good times, come on!

Linda Brown

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