Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The English Writing Festival: can anyone write a memoir?

This last Sunday, and for the third time since April 2016, we held a mini festival at the American Book Center in Den Haag dedicated to writing in English. It always amazes me how many people of different nationalities attend this event and do so because they like or want to write in English.

This April's event included attendees from India, China, French-speaking Africa, South Africa and eastern Europe, and the subject? Well, one after my own heart of course: memoir writing.


The panel of speakers
 I was not speaking at the event myself, but I acted as organiser, host and time keeper and thoroughly enjoyed listening to the experiences and tips that the terrific panel of speakers contributed to the afternoon. The main question being dealt with was 'can anyone write a memoir?'


Jo Parfitt answering questions
We started off with Jo Parfitt, who is a writing coach, editor and publisher. Jo gives workshops on non-fiction writing and with the main question in mind, she presented some valuable tips for those embarking on writing their life stories. She had fifteen points altogether, but those that struck me most were the questions: will your story a. inspire, b. support, c. inform and d. entertain? These are critical elements for a good memoir and it made me examine my own in this light. I shall certainly keep them consciously in mind for any future memoirs I may write, whether travelogues or life stories.

She also stressed the need for demonstrating your vulnerability when writing, a pertinent point if memoir writers hope to gain the empathy of their readers. For me this translates into self-deprecating humour; others might use candid honesty about fears and failings, but whatever technique we use, being vulnerable is an important aspect of memoir writing. Jo's presentation was a great start to the afternoon as she talked about the how to approach a memoir, as well as what to include (or not) and I have a feeling many of the participants will follow up her books and courses later on. Click here for her website and publishing and editing services.



Our next speaker was Carolyn Vines, whose memoir, Black and Abroad tells of her experiences and challenges in moving from the deep south in the US to the land of windmills and clogs. She spoke with eloquence on why not only can everyone (in principle) write their own life story, but should do so. By sharing the pain, feelings and experiences of traumatic, difficult and (conversely) inspiring periods in one's own life, we can find healing, hope and a positive way forward. However, she stressed, as did Jo, that not everything we do and feel should be included in the memoir; only that which is relevant to the story in question. This was the most important point for me: know your story, and be sure you have a focus.  As a life coach too, she suggested that writing is not the only medium with which to relate our stories; both art and photography can be valid media as well.

Carolyn answering the audience's questions
following her talk
After a short break with refreshments and some good interaction between speakers and participants, we started again with a talk by Niamh Ni Bhroin, whose memoir The Singing Warrior is published by Springtime Books and covers Niamh's transition from abused child and wife to a free, vibrant and independent woman following a meeting with a Masai warrior.




Niamh's talk began with a reading from the opening chapters of her book. It was a dramatic extract revealing the first emotional and physical abuse she suffered as a child and she used this to explain how important it is to be open and honest in revealing feelings and pain when writing such a personal memoir. For me, her use of dialogue and the visual descriptions were an arresting way to begin her story and emphasised the need for developing character, depth and even humour in what must have been a litany of horrific events. The dialogue involved the reader immediately in her experiences and showed us all how, whether completely authentic or not, it is such an important device in a personal memoir. There were, of course, questions from the audience regarding authenticity, but all the speakers agreed that a memoir is a personal truth and that is what matters more than complete accuracy of detail.

The last speaker of the day was Darya Danesh, a Canadian who has also transplanted herself by moving to the Netherlands. The link to her blog where she writes about her life in her new country is here.


Darya's cheerful personality showing through

Darya is in the process of collating thoughts, extracts and articles, and above all, a focus for writing her memoir. Her presentation showed us all how difficult it is to take that first step towards writing rather than thinking, reading and recording; in other words, procrastinating. Since this is a stage nearly all writers surely go through, it was a great way to move into the question and answer session which completed the afternoon. The panel of speakers, which included Olga Mecking, a former speaker on creative non-fiction, and myself, all shared our experiences on how to get started. Suggestions included making decisions on the story, writing blog stories focused on the eventual memoir, beginning with a trigger sentence, and taking part in a writing challenge (e.g. NaNoWriMo). It was an incredibly useful session and despite my own experience as a memoir writer, I learnt a great deal from listening to all the speakers and members of the audience.

Finally, at the end of the afternoon, we held a draw and three of the participants won a memoir to take home with them, a fitting close to an inspiring and rich event.

Other links readers might like to follow for the speakers are below:

The American Book Center events page with short biographies of each speaker
Carolyn Vines' Life Coach page
An interview with Niamh Ni Bhroin on the I am Expat page.
An overview webpage for Jo Parfitt

Now, of course I am looking forward to the next English Writing Festival!


12 comments:

  1. Sounds like a great day Val and so interesting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was, Anne. Quite inspiring and I learnt a lot!

      Delete
  2. Many, many thanks for all this, Val. (For what it's worth the most useful advice I was given, as a travel writer - don't write about things you can see on the telly. So forget about the Sydney Opera House, write instead about the man with the gun in Lucknow!)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good one, Jo! Yes, thank you! That is a good tip :)

      Delete
  3. What an interesting post, I haven't heard of this type of event, it sounds like you had a good day, and its given you lots to think about too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Maria. It's a lot of work to organise, and we do it twice a year now, but it's always well received.

      Delete
    2. I imagine a lot of friendships have been made too.

      Delete
  4. What a great event! And such interesting topics! Imagine it was a boat load of fun!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was great, Steph. It takes me a lot of time to put it together, but the events are popular!

      Delete
  5. Thanks so much for the synopsis! As a friend of, and now partner with Jo on a few projects, it is always inspiring to hear her and others motivate and inspire others to write. I wouldn't have started my journey of writing if it had not been for Ms. Jo. My blog www.notesonaboardingpass.wordpress.com and now having become an author...memoir is next hopefully...has been possible with the support and encouragement of others. Great job in facilitating something so important! Terry Anne

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Anne! it was a good day and very inspiring for me too!

      Delete
  6. What a good idea! And thanks for the detail - writing memoirs is something so many people love to do and it's great to encourage them to do it well.

    ReplyDelete