I went to a memoir writing workshop once. It was in an arts festival in a rural village on the west coast of Ireland. It was a long time ago now; long enough to have forgotten most of it. Long enough for nuggets that remain to be of significant value. One of which I will be eternally grateful for.
The leaflet advertising the workshop showed a picture of the host lady. She had dreadlocks on one side of her head. The other side was shaved. I thought that she looked very bohemian and therefore was probably some kind of memoir-writing-guru. The David Beckham of memoir writing. Not because she was highly-attractive and had buns-of-steel. Well I didn’t actually see, but I presume she didn’t because she was older than David Beckham is. Anyway, I discovered that this bohemian-memoir-writing-guru-lady had never actually written a memoir. She had just studied ‘the art of memoir writing’ in a fancy college and had written a book about ‘how to write memoirs’. I managed to contain my cynicism at this irony in favour of giving the bohemian lady a chance.
I arrived early. I sat on a long, victorian, mahogany table opposite a lady with short, spiky, white hair, deep blue eyes and the posture of a queen. I wanted to ask her did she carry books on her head when she was younger. I didn’t muster the courage. She was a very confident lady, but not domineering, from what I could tell. As I sat down opposite her she greeted me in a friendly but extremely confident manner. Her eye contact was mesmerising. I felt like Frodo Baggins. She had me in her gaze and there was very little I could do to escape it. I have no idea how long it took, but when I did manage to free myself, I realised that I had been staring at the old mahogany table looking for a suitable object that would warrant my prolonged diverted downward gaze. I couldn’t find one. I mean, usually I am as confident as the next guy when meeting new people, but there was something about this lady’s gaze. It made me feel like I was wearing a pair of grey school-shorts, with long socks that protruded out of a pair of black, polished ankle boots. I offered my seat to an older lady who arrived late and would have had to walk all the way to the end of the long table for a seat. I didn’t want her to have to walk all that way. Nor did I want to look for inanimate objects for the remainder of the workshop.
“Hi, I’m Ed. I’m a garbage collector from New York and I speak Gailege” said one of the students in a warm, husky, New York voice that I could have listened to for days on end. Ed was my favourite fellow-student. He loved to tell stories. In the short time while we were waiting for everyone to arrive he must have told eight good stories about “trash-cans” and “the time he went to a Sinn Fein meeting in NYC” and other semi-Irish tales. I almost didn’t want the workshop to start. I just wanted to listen to Ed tell stories. Bohemian-workshop-guru-lady somehow managed to get things started while Ed took a deep breath between story eight and nine.
I took lots of notes. The only piece of paper I could find before rushing out the door was a small brown paper bag. I could see people looking at me writing on the bag during the workshop, wondering whether I was unable to afford a notebook or if I was some kind of memoir-writing-wizard. Some people had lovely notebooks. The ones with leather covers and a little elasticy strap on the back that wraps around the front cover to keep it closed. I just had a bag. They may also have been considering if my preferred paper choice was a very efficient way to travel to a memoir workshop bearing in mind I could carry my pen home in my notes. I’m not exactly sure what they were thinking. I just know Ed-the-garbage-man and a few others gave my paper bag the odd strange glance.
There was an open time where people could ask questions. I was surprised to hear that Confident-with-the-posture-of-a-Queen-lady
wanted to write about her marriage that ended in divorce after three years. I got lost in thought because I imagined that the husband would have been trapped in the marriage forever due to her captivating powers. Maybe a small human dropped a ring into a furnace in order to gain his freedom. I can’t be sure. Other elderly ladies expressed their concern during this open time that they may fade-away without passing their stories onto the next generation. It was through their questions that the nugget for which I will be eternally grateful came.
‘Story’ is an essential, yet dying part of our culture. We (in the west at least) don’t seem to have time to sit around a camp-fire and
listen to our forefathers re-tell stories that have impacted their lives and subsequently our very own existence. “I don’t really want to hear it and if I’ve heard it once, I definitely don’t have time to hear it again – the X-box isn’t going to play itself you know”. As these dear, elderly ladies recalled the events that had profoundly impacted them and sought advice in how to convey those stories to their grandchildren, I discovered the beauty and necessity of memoir writing. As a wise person once said, “The essence of writing’s value to humanity is this: the art can convey thought from one human to another”. It is that simple. It is that important. We need ‘story’ in our lives. ‘Story’ is the air we breathe. That’s why Hollywood takes in millions and J.K.Rowling is ‘rolling’ in it (sorry!) by telling stories about teenagers with round glasses and potions. They know us Westerners need ‘story’ in our lives, but are sadly lacking. However, rather than ask our grandparents what life was like before iPads and electric-toothbrushes, we default to live our lives vicariously through the depressing lives of the madey-upey characters in Eastenders, Home & Away or go pay a spotty teenage kid serving popcorn to watch a fabricated story of some kind.
Maybe that is why my heart beats a little faster when I read the words “based on a true story” as I take my first fistful of pop-corn and adjust my 3-D glasses. I can’t be sure. Either way, this is my vow; I am going to ask every old person I know, and some I don’t, to tell me their stories. Lots of them. Multiple times. Until my soul has its fill. Until I’m old enough to sit my own grandchildren on my knee.