Review by Anne Stormont
Rating: 5 stars
As I say elsewhere in this edition of WWJ, memory isn’t always reliable or objective, but, when writing memoir, reliability and objectiveness are not prerequisites. Indeed they are not even desirable. A memoir should be a meditation, a deep consideration of what mattered and why.
About twenty years ago, one of the first books I read on how to write on was Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. I loved it. I found the short, sharp writing exercises prescribed by the author to be both enjoyable and useful. Writing was presented as a muscle that requires frequent exercising. The approach was very much a ‘just do it’ one. Working through the book, I felt for the first time that I might be able to write stuff that others might actually want to read.
Natalie Goldberg is a poet, writer and teacher of writing. Old Friend From Far Away is about how to write memoir – and oh, so much more. The author has written three volumes of her own memoirs, so she is well placed to offer advice on that basis alone.
Anyone contemplating doing memoir writing would do well to read this guide. It’s crammed full of exercises and suggestions. It’s also got lots of examples of how others have tackled the form. And it’s reassuring too. Memoir is a subjective form of writing. It’s not a scientific or forensic examination of a life. It is rather a reflective response to that life by the one who has lived it.
Indeed, Natalie Goldberg makes it clear at the start that memoir is not a ‘chronological pronouncement of the facts of your life’. A memoir presents subjective accounts of selected episodes. These accounts are not necessarily organised linearly and are not necessarily wholly accurate. But they are an attempt to make some sense of a life lived and to speculate on its meaning.
The book’s chapters vary in length – just like those in life. Some are only three lines long. The longest are three pages. They are all memoir writing prompts and Goldberg encourages anyone writing memoir to approach it sideways. She advises ‘using the deepest kind of thinking to sort through the layers: you want reflection to discover what the real connections are. A bit of brooding, pondering, contemplating but not in a lost manner. I am asking you to make all this dynamic. Pen to paper gives muscle to your deliberations.’
Exercises include: ‘Tell me what your biggest mistake has been; Tell me about someone’s hands; What do you no longer have; What have you waited a long time for.’ All are accompanied by the command ‘Go. Ten minutes.’ All get you thinking sideways about events in your past. There are other types, such as one on weather. The suggestion here is that, for example, while writing about your brother, include how it was raining the day you realised he was always going to be better in school than you; or in writing about your grandfather, describe the big flakes of snow that were falling the last time you saw him.
The book ends with a very useful list of guidelines and suggestions which summarises all that’s gone before. And there is a list of recommended memoirs to read.
All in all, whatever your preferred genre, this is one of the best writing guides around. Even if memoir writing isn’t your thing, I can just about guarantee it will get you writing something, – and that can’t be bad, can it?
Old Friend From Far Away is published by Simon and Schuster.
Anne Stormont is a writer and teacher. She can be a subversive old bat but maintains a kind heart. As well as writing for this fine organ, she writes fiction for adults – mainly of the female-of-a-certain-age persuasion – and for children. She blogs at http://annestormont.wordpress.com – where you can find out lots more about her.