When I enrolled on a one-week memoir-writing course last March, I had not seriously considered writing about my own life. What I had in mind was giving myself space to think creatively and with luck finding inspiration for my next novel. I also felt in need of some relaxation in a peaceful, nurturing environment, after what had been a challenging start to the year.
Five months on and to my great surprise, I am well into writing a memoir. The course, at Cortijo Romero in the Alpujarras, was led by Rosie Jackson, a poet, writer and experienced teacher. Her facilitation, along with the contributions of ten interesting and talented fellow students fired me with enough enthusiasm to explore the idea further. Taking time to reflect on our lives and write short pieces – scenes from our childhood or later episodes that proved to be turning points – had triggered a process in all of us, a search for meaning and connection, as memories, some of them long buried, began to surface.
I set about reading the memoirs of other writers, including Rosie’s own, The Glass Mother. I had already read Maggie Gee’s My Animal Life and more recently, Bella Bathurst’s Sound, which described her experience of going deaf at twenty-eight. (On the course, I had written for the first time about my own early loss of hearing and been touched by the other participants’ empathy and interest.) I read Jeanette Winterson’s Why be Happy when you could be Normal? and Rose Tremain’s Rosie, learning from all of these.
Twelve years ago, I had written a kind of travel memoir about my move to Spain and my impressions of the country. Single to Granada was never published but returning to it now, I found parts of it served well as an entry into a fuller and deeper interpretation of my life. It gave me a theme – migration – that connected naturally with my family history.
Writing about my life has been an eye-opening process, prompting a period of self-examination and deep personal reflection. The mind plays strange games, frequently surprising me with long-forgotten incidents from my past while others elude me. With the memories come newly awakened emotions: guilt, anger, sadness, regret, as well as gratitude for the times of happiness and good fortune. I had not expected this profound interior journey as a side-effect. Trying to make sense of my life, I’ve found myself exploring different ways of accounting for it. How much is determined by genetics, how much by childhood influences? Some might scoff, but could astrology, the configuration of the stars at my birth have played any part? So much that has happened in my life seems down to pure chance.
Although I’m finding my story more interesting than I expected, the motivation to publish remains tenuous. Who would want to read about me? I’m not famous; my life has perhaps been more colourful than many but hardly exotic or of great significance. And I’m a very private person. How can I possibly expose myself in such a public way, reveal secrets I’ve guarded for decades? Looking back, I’m not always pleased by what I see. Writing a memoir is not like writing a novel. In a memoir I am the protagonist, there is no disguising myself as a fictional creation. To be worth anything, it has to be honest. True, I can choose what to reveal and what to stay silent about, but hide too much and the danger is that what I produce will be so bland and boring that no reader will engage with it.
It also feels wrong – vain and self-indulgent – to be looking inward at my own inconsequential life when there are so many causes to fight for. My own migration, embarked on by choice with little risk and no hardship, pales in significance besides the tragic stories of today’s desperate migrants and refugees. In my novels I have addressed what seemed to me important topics – through a story, because that is often the best way to emotionally engage an audience, but with underlying themes that add depth and have some kind of moral relevance. A memoir would serve no such purpose. However, until inspiration for a new novel carries me off in a different direction, I’m happy to continue with this exploration, leaving aside for the time being the big questions of why I’m writing it, who it’s for and whether to publish.