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June 5, 2017

Anyone can write a memoir…

That’s a bold statement, isn’t it?

But have you ever thought of writing a memoir?

Is it possible that you don’t think your life has been interesting enough to write about it?

I think many people feel that way, and I would challenge that. In my encounters with the great variety of individuals I meet in my job as a freelance teacher, I’ve learned that nearly everyone has some kind of interesting story to tell. And if that’s the case, then in theory everyone has the potential to write a memoir.

But what actually is a memoir? This is quite difficult to define because there are so very many different sorts of non-fictional autobiographical writing. For now, then, I am defining a memoir as “a record of events written by someone who has personal and intimate knowledge of them” (Oxford Online Dictionary). So, you might well ask, what does that encompass? Well, I would say that it’s more or less anything that you yourself have personally experienced!

As a point of interest, I belong to a Facebook group called We Love Memoirs and I was amazed when I joined to see how many different types, topics and subjects there are. It seems that whatever people have experienced themselves is valid material for a memoir. In the last couple of years, I’ve read memoirs ranging from recollections of being an au pair in France in the 1970s to one about surviving an abusive marriage. I’ve also read numerous travelogues and books about moving to another country. These all count as memoirs. because they are all based on people’s real life experience. But how was I inspired to write my own memoirs and why did I do it?

My most popular memoir, Watery Ways, is published by Sunpenny Publishing under its Boathooks Books imprint, but the first one I wrote, African Ways, was inspired by Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. I read it in 2005 after I’d been living in the Netherlands for a few years and as I read I was reminded of the wonderful rural people I’d known and loved while living in South Africa during the 1980s and 1990s.

It occurred to me that rural people are similar wherever you go, whether in France, England or in Africa. I’d had a special introduction to South Africa on a farm in what is now KwaZulu Natal, and when I finished Peter Mayle’s book, I realised I wanted to write about the people I knew there and what it was like to move from the mod cons of the UK to a rather primitive rural environment. This was my reason to start writing, and since African Ways, I’ve written three other memoirs, of which Watery Ways is the second. Each of these memoirs covers specific periods in my life. They are not autobiographies, but they are autobiographical in that they are about my personal experiences.

The fact is that people are interested in other people’s experiences if they are different from their own. I’ve seen memoirs about being a nurse, being a teacher, and being a soldier – all of which have been very popular judging by the reviews on Amazon. The point isn’t so much what you write about, but how you tell the story, that makes a memoir interesting to read.

A memoir is not just a dry record of facts; it is a narrative. If you imagine standing at the coffee machine at work with someone who has just come back from a wonderful holiday and they tell you about their trip in such a way that you are spellbound by their story, that’s effectively what a memoir should do.

How do we go about this then? Well if we accept the premise that everyone has a story to tell, but they don’t know how to tell it, I can fully recommend beginning your memoir writing career as a blog.

I started writing my recollections of South Africa and its people on Blogger with a weekly post. I invited people I was already blogging with to read it and so African Ways was born. What I did was to upload a new chapter more or less every week, and my readers would comment on the post. Sometimes, they’d give me feedback too, but mostly, I could gauge whether they liked the story or not by how many comments I received. This was great as it kept me going, and when I reached the last post and the last chapter, I knew they’d enjoyed it all by the sadness with which they received the announcement that I’d come to the end.

I should mention that I’d never written a book before and didn’t know if I could. and I have to say the blog really helped my momentum. Just receiving that input every time I posted a chapter was immensely encouraging, so I can recommend it as a starting point. I don’t know now if I would have finished it had I not had that incentive to keep going.

The other helpful part was knowing the story in advance. I don’t really know if I have the imagination and creativity to write complete fantasy, but that’s not to say memoir writers are not creative. It’s true that all the memories and stories are already in place, but the memoir writer has to make it interesting to read and not just a ‘then we did this and then we did that’ narrative. And to do that you need to work on your powers of observation and description, and also to realise that your readers don’t know what you know.

Just for example, Watery Ways is about how I learn to live on an old barge in Rotterdam. When I first moved onto the barge, I really had no clue about how many uses a bucket might have, for example, or the best way to fill it from the harbour. This was a skill I had to learn, and so I describe it in my book. It was a simple thing, but the point is, if it was new to me, it will be new to other people too and if you can convey your own interest, passion and enthusiasm for such simple things in your writing, you will have an audience for your experiences, whatever they are.

One of the techniques you can employ too is using dialogue. Now none of us remembers whole conversations, but we often remember snippets that are amusing, or moving, or meaningful in some way and if you can include pieces of these conversations in your memoir, you can give it life and liveliness. It really helps. One memoir I read a while ago was written with complete chapters of dialogue, and this was the author’s technique for telling her story. One of mine was written in themes, using the past tense; the second two were both in the present tense. Other memoirs include recipes as chapter dividers or quotes from literature, which just goes to show that you can be creative in the way you tell your very real and true story.

As I mentioned before, memoirs are not necessarily autobiographies, and quite often they focus on individual experiences such as a sailing adventure, a mountain climbing trip or a special hiking holiday to somewhere exotic. They might be about music, or even about writing; they could be about living with an illness or overcoming an emotional trauma. The subject is entirely up to the individual and what his or her special experience might be.

So if you have a story to tell, either your own or maybe about someone in your family, take the plunge and start writing. It might be the moment you discover you can complete an entertaining and creatively satisfying book without ever having to worry about the plot and characters. As long as you structure it well on a good theme, then everything else is there!

If you’d like to take a peek at my memoirs, here’s the link to my Amazon page where they are listed:




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  1. Thanks for following Val – this is an excellent description of what a memoir is and how it works. The beauty of the story is you know how it begins and ends and what happened in the middle!

    • Thanks Lucinda! And yes, knowing the story gives you so many other possibilities to play with too. Looking forward to September 🙂

  2. This is great, Val! And while you resolutely state that anyone can write a memoir…they can NOT write one as good as yours.

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