I love to hear stories that people tell about their lives. Perhaps this is why, over the last ten years, I’ve focused much of my teaching and mentoring around life writing. This gives people the chance to write about real experience and real lives, whether it’s a complete life story, a travel memoir, an exploration of family history or just a take on the here and now. What have you seen? What did you witness? What discoveries have you made? Being a tutor on courses which tackle such themes puts me in a privileged position, to hear about other people’s lives.
The mention of ‘Life Writing’ can evoke a blank stare if you drop it into conversation. ‘What’s that? Isn’t all writing from life? Never heard of “death writing”! Ha!’ (They think they’ve got you there.) But I’m with biographer Michael Holroyd, in spirit at least, who says that we need to invent a better term than ‘non-fiction’ to describe writing about real lives: ‘non-fiction’ suggests a pile of assorted rubble, and one that doesn’t qualify as the true writer’s art, which therefore by definition has to be fiction. I sometimes describe my writing as ‘creative non-fiction’ which produces a few puzzled stares, but at least buys me time to think how I can explain the different aspects of my work.
Life writing may be a broad term, and it doesn't cover everything included within the heinous 'non-fiction' label, but it contains the treasure that is human experience. But perhaps the very fact of coining this term, and allowing it to be generously inclusive, has helped to generate fascinating new ways of writing up memoir and personal experience. Such books may be based on factual material, (the stuff of non-fiction) but which have this thread of personal experience, and stories of real people, at their core (the essence of life writing). Recent publishing successes of this kind include Robert Macfarlane’s brilliant books about the natural world, Louis de Wahl’s quest to find his ancestors in the best-selling The Hare with the Amber Eyes, and Julie Myerson’s heart-rending The Lost Child. All contain a personal journey, yet each also contains a wealth of knowledge, about nature or history or family life and psychology.
Publishing successes such as these often have their roots in the centuries-old practice of writing diaries, notebooks, letters, and memoirs. They spring from the habit of jotting down scraps of thought, wisps of ideas, shards of emotion and raindrops of memory. Trying to capture your dreams, observations, feelings, and impressions, while they are fresh in your mind, can give you the material which may one day form part of a longer life-writing project. But when you do this, you may have no such end in sight at the time. My diary of a visit to Russia in 1992 took fifteen years to evolve into a full-blown book called The Soul of Russia. Dating diaries, during my midlife single phase, transmogrified into a co-written guide called Love Begins at 40. And these kind of notes are often written from the sheer need to get it all down on paper! We can’t expect a book to come out of every scribble, but sometimes it does. It’s a mysterious, long-term process which may eventually lead to a result, in writing terms, but, more likely will leave us with a kind of life-writing scrap book. And this has its own value.
So I encourage anyone and everyone to try their hand at life-writing. You’re probably doing it already, in your own way. But coming on a course can help to structure the process, and give you new ways to approach it. Above all, it can be fun!