As part of Spread the Word’s new season of events, we’ll be running two online writing courses, one of which will be led by Miranda Doyle. ‘Writing a Life’ will start on 25 October and run for six weeks. The course will focus explicitly on life writing and the memoir and will explore ways in which writers can tell their stories. We spoke to Miranda to find out more…
Hi Miranda! The course that you’ll be running is one of the many things that have come from our Life Writing Prize, which was launched in 2016. You’re one of the mentors for the 2018 Prize – how did you feel about being getting involved with the Prize and what impact do you think it’s having on the literary landscape?
It was a huge honour to be asked by the Life Writing Prize to be a mentor. I have valued massively my own mentors’ support, their encouragement and their criticism. So it is brilliant to be able to have this opportunity to do that for someone else, and I am really excited to be working with Laura Morgan. This week we will establish her goals and then together make sure she has the kind of support she needs to write.
In spite of its increasing popularity, a lot of people get confused about the term ‘life writing’. What does this term mean for you and are you surprised by the increasing demand for this particular genre?
The term ‘Life Writing’ has a looseness to it that the words Fiction, Biography, Memoir do not. I have had writers in my class who want to write autofiction, celebrity interviews, family biography, blogs, but the term also covers personal essays, testimonials, and diaries too. I think, for me, what holds all of these different genres together is how the narrator, the ‘I’ holds and tells the story, how much of themselves they give and how much they hold back. I agree it is surprising to have this increasing demand. However, when Will Self tells the Guardian that ‘The Novel is absolutely Doomed’ and confesses he is writing his own memoir, perhaps what has changed are publishers. While for those of us who write, there is less interest in the fads and drifts of industry. Instead I hope we will always continue to write the stories that we wanted to tell.
You’re an extremely talented life writer yourself – your debut novel ‘A Book of Untruths’ was released in 2017 which John Burnside described as a ‘meditation on time, memory and identity that raises questions that would not seem out of place in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory of Augustine’s Confessions.’ Extraordinary (and well deserved) praise indeed. Can you tell me more about what inspired the book and the writing process?
I had taken the MA in Life Writing at Goldsmiths (and loved it) then taught Autobiography: Self and Truth to philosophy undergraduate students at Anglia Ruskin University. All of the texts I inherited for the module had a problem with truth, so in those lectures I explored how autobiography intersects with different kinds of life deceit. Then into the midst of it my Mum started her own truth telling, deconstructing the autobiographical tale that my late father had liked to tell about himself. My memories became lies. Though I was supposed to be writing a novel I was no longer interested in making anything up. And instead found myself at night throwing out a lie – an enjoyable prism through which to look at my own life mess. A way of making some creative capital out of chaos. All of us, as writers, need to do that. However bad things get, don’t retreat to bed, write it down. Tell yourself as the plane decides on an emergency landing in Kathmandu that at the very least you’ll be able to use this ghastly experience for the page.
Is it fair to say that life writing / the memoir can be an emotional challenge because it requires the writer to go inwards, work from memory and experiences, rather than imagination? Or in your opinion, is the gulf between fiction and non-fiction smaller than we think?
What’s amazing about life writing is how all the sensory detail still loiters in our heads. Rather than painting onto a blank canvas writing from life is like sculpting wood – finding the story from the material already in our hands. However you’re right the gulf is smaller. All that makes a good story in fiction, from deft characterisation to snappy dialogue, is also what makes good life writing. The difference is that a life writer is promising to be entirely truthful, whereas a novelist is promising to make it all up. On both sides of that line we will inevitably fall down. However, as long as our intention is to be honest, and we keep a respect for our readers foremost, then life stories open up literature to tales that have been long overlooked.
As well as writing, you teach Memoir and Life Writing at the Faber Academy, have lectured on Autobiography for the Philosophy and European Literature degree at Anglia Ruskin University and will be running the ‘Writing a Life’ online course later this year. What can participants expect?
Most of all I hope fellow writers will feel supported and that together we can find solutions to make it possible to tell on the page what needs told. Through reading others and being aware of the difficulties we may be having, particularly with trying to structure a rambling over full life, we will learn strategies for ourselves. Also how important it is to employ the tools of fiction in order to allow our characters to live and to give them voice.
That sounds really exciting. For those who are brand-new to the genre, can you name your top five life-writing reads and why you’ve picked them?
Keggie Carew – Dadland for its lovely balance between memoir and the biography of Keggie’s father, a brilliantly individual character and hero of both the French and Burmese wars.
Olivia Laing – The Lonely City for her melding of the work and lives of different artists with the solitude of living in a city, particularly New York.
Deborah Levy – Things I Don’t Want to Know is a response to Orwell’s essay: ‘Why I Write’ and a beautiful story of how childhood leaks on long after it is over.
Kathryn Hughes – Victorians Undone is an exploration of the body by the biographer Hughes, who feels that the physicality of biographical characters goes unaccountably missing: Henry James, for instance, described George Eliot as: ‘magnificently ugly – deliciously hideous.’
And finally Miranda – we’ll be launching the Life Writing Prize again later this year. Exciting times! Can you give us a top tip for life writers out there who may be interested in submitting?
If you’re not on a life writing course, replicate some of the advantages of taking one: find a reader that you trust, and seek critical supportive feedback. On the side read, read, read.
A strong narrative voice will be important so free yourself up from all that tedious self criticism that so many of us are plagued by; allow yourself to speak.