Friday, March 11, 2016

The making of the memoiries


A smallholding in Dorset - home before Africa

Memoirs have become an incredibly popular genre of book in recent years, haven't they?  I don't know when it started, but for me, the first memoir I read, which was Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence got me hooked on reading about people's lives in foreign countries. I loved it, and it was without doubt what inspired me to write about my life in South Africa. I think I even mentioned it in the first pages. 

Jus recently, though, I started thinking about this whole travel/living abroad writing area and what makes some of us feel impelled to publish our adventures, and I've decided it's probably rooted in our in-built spirit of adventure (see Jo Carroll as a prime example).

Like many of those who have set off for foreign parts, my (erstwhile) husband and I took ourselves off to South Africa when we were in our twenties. We both had a great drive for adventure and were in no way  daunted by having two small children to take along with us. Back in 1981, we were stony broke in England and we were fed up with being cold as well. The decision to up sticks and head off to the 'bottom end' of the world was thus an easy one when the temperature in our Dorset flat was as cold inside as it was out - and that was well below zero.

A dirt road in Africa...following the dust trails


The funny thing is we never thought that going to Africa might not be a sensible thing to do; nor did we wonder how we would survive with no job offer, no home and precious little money. Such was our determination to get up and go that we did just that: got up and went. And it was the best thing I have personally ever agreed to do in my life.

I loved Africa; I adored its wildness and the sense of adventure that just being there evoked. Now, I wonder if even then I was mentally writing a memoir; I absorbed and observed so much, capturing a multitude of details in my mind's eye. I honestly think I stored every experience so I could take each one out and re-live it again later on.

That sense of adventure took us to many remote places by all sorts of means. We travelled in and with what we had, which sometimes meant old and decrepit VW beetles (although these were actually ideal for climbing up muddy, mountain dirt roads). One year, we spent a holiday in the Namib desert using a small VW Golf, crammed to the roof with camping gear while the children were sandwiched between heaps of bedding and supplies. During that trip we scaled roads and mountain passes that were intended for four-wheel-drive-only vehicles. But we didn't care; we  bounced over rocks and riverbeds as if our little city car was a Land Rover, following in the dust trails of the real off-roaders. There was not much left of our tyres when we returned to civilisation, I can tell you. In fact we had to scrap the whole car shortly afterwards - the poor thing was wrecked - but the memories of the experiences have never died.

Out in the bush

Every day in Africa was an event and I loved getting up to the promise of a new day full of sunshine and anticipation. What this meant was that when I left to return to Europe, I already had a memoir waiting to be written. I'd never kept a diary, but all the stories were in my head and all the impressions, feelings and emotions were in my heart. The ultimate result was my first book, African Ways.

But that drive for new experiences and a vivid, different kind of life did not leave me, even when I arrived back in a cold, wet, colourless (to me) Holland. I couldn't bear the idea of living a standard life in a standard apartment in a standard suburb in the city. The only way to make sense of the change was to embark on a new adventure, so that's what I did.

As those of you who read this blog know, following divorce and a return spell in SA, I rented the beautiful Dutch barge, the Hoop. Then I bought the Vereeniging, which I set about converting into a home. Again, my writer's instincts began recording everything that made this new life so special to me. I kept a journal for a while, but most of the content of what became my second and third memoirs, Watery Ways and Harbour Ways, came from events, images, conversations and the many humorous incidents that occurred as I learnt (literally) the ropes of my new life.

The Hoop

But then the bug started to itch again and the desire for something new to look forward to started plaguing me. Before I knew what I was really doing, I'd bought another rusty old boat, but this time in Belgium. This was a new challenge, a new country and a new culture. Koos and I roamed the country by boat or by car every weekend for three marvellous, memorable years, enjoying every moment. The imprint of our experiences there took a few years to mature, as they did with my earlier books, but eventually they had to come out in a fourth memoir, Walloon Ways.

I've been very lucky, I know that, but if I analyse things, nothing I've done has been particularly wild, brave or dangerous - I'll leave that to Jo! It's just been a case of going with the flow, not resisting change and living life with a certain sense of wonder - often about what's going to happen next...

Jokes aside, what this all amounts to is my conclusion that having a spirit of adventure is almost a prerequisite when it comes to a certain type of non fiction writing. There are many different types of memoir, but you could say that mine - the living in a foreign land type - are the product of  my own desire to make every day worth remembering and to always be willing to try something new. I don't always succeed these days (advancing years and all that), but I do believe this attitude has helped me make the most of the experiences I have had.

So with that I'll raise a glass to you all this weekend and say cheers! Long may the adventurous soul in me survive - even if I don't... :)




26 comments:

  1. I don't set out to have clos encounters with tigers and crocodiles, Val ... But I do know exactly what you mean by that glorious curiosity about new places.

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    1. Ah Jo, maybe it's because of your marvellous curiosity that you don't actively avoid the tigers and the crocodiles!

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  2. Hi Val - I suspect you'll survive .. there are many more 'ways' to write up. It's brilliant you could bring your love of language to the fore ... for your books. I don't quite do 'big' like you two do .. but I toddle along satisfying my curiosity ... I did write letters home back in the 80s - long ones with lots of detail - I was always looking things up ...

    Cheers Hilary

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    1. Hilary, you have curiosity in spades. That's what I love about your blog! I learn so much from you about places I know but didn't really 'know' if you get my drift :)

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  3. Wonderful, so interesting and such a contrast. cheers and long may you venture and have adventures.

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    1. Thank you, Jane. I hope so too! These days the adventures are a bit more responsible, but we still love exploring.

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  4. You and Jo are in a class of your own. I'd never attempt the stuff you both get up to - though I love reading about it afterwards.

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    1. Carol, thank you..that's quite an accolade. Actually, I think Jo takes it to a different level altogether, but I still love exploring new places and I hope we can continue to do so both locally and abroad until...well...we just can't.

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  5. And cheers to you, Val! I quite envy you your adventures, your life in different countries with very different people in many ways, I suspect. Having said that, I treasure the security of a life spent in the one country, and the one profession. I think you were brave to take your children into that. I think I couldn't have done that. Too timid, I guess! But I love reading about your adventures.

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  6. By the way, what do you understand Vereeniging to mean? I know no Dutch, but some German, and recognized the word. But I can't find the word in Google Translate, only Vereniging, meaning club, association, that kind of thing.

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    1. Roger, thank you for this and your previous comment. I sometimes think it was a bit irresponsible to do what we did with two little ones, but am very glad we did it all the same. One thing I can be certain of was that we never put them in any real danger. As for Vereeniging, the word does mean 'association', but its meaning here is more like 'unionism' or 'to be united'. The spelling on my barge is the old way of spelling it. The double 'e' was dropped some years ago in Holland, but it is still used in South Africa, which was why it resonated so much with me - that and the fact it is the name of a town I was personally fond of.

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  7. A spirit of adventure plus a good eye for observation of a situation. You always make a situation readable whether it be funny or not, which is your writing talent coming through. Long may it continue - Cheers! Xxx

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    1. Thank you, dear Fran. We have been bloggy friends for so long, I think you almost know me as well as anyone now, so I am especially touched by what you say! I'm hoping we can put friendship that into real life before long xxx

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    2. We should make 2016 the year it happens! Xxxx

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  8. You were born with an adventurous spirit and a way with words and I love reading about your adventures. Once we have lived a rather "different" life it is hard to go back to the so called normal one, isn't it. I have such itchy feet and am never happier than when Guido and I set off on some new adventure. x

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    1. Ah, Tonia, that is so true! I am itching for the next one too! Thank you, dear!

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  9. And long may you survive, Val! You make the world a brighter, more fascinating, better place by being in it. Lovely blog as always. Your adventurous spirit is an inspiration and has gifted readers with hours of wonderful reading. Thank you!

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    1. Thank you, lovely! Life is a gift and life is for living - every moment of it. I hope that's what people will read in any event. I must email you!

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  10. I’m in awe, Val. I have to echo what Carol said...and I love reading about it too :-)

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    1. Thank you, Cathy. I should add that I've always been a bit impulsive, which helps in having adventures. You don't stop to think about why you shouldn't do it!

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  11. Oh Val you didn't need to go that far from the UK to wreck your car.
    We visited Longleat Safari Park and left it with a defective front suspension caused by a Lion, plus no wipers , loss of trim and a door mirror all due to visiting the Monkey Enclosure.

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    1. Oh my word, Mel! What a disaster! Will you write a blog about it? It must be worth a story after all that!

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  12. And I've loved reading about it all - I think the travel memoir is one of my favourite genres, and find myself reading more and more non-fiction these days. All the things I will never do, perhaps!

    For anyone reading these comments who hasn't read them, I'd like to add that I've read all Val's books and loved every one ~ you should too! My very favourite is African Ways, which is one of the most magical books I've ever read. :)

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    1. Ah TT, you've made me sniff now. Thank you so much. South Africa is a magical country in so many ways. I would love to take you there!

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  13. What amazing memories you must have. I have spent so very little time in Africa and was thinking today I'd like to return....

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    1. Ah Jennie, yes. My memories are very special.

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