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© Thames Valley Writers’ Circle
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Michael Oke gave a very good talk about memoir writing at a circle meeting a few years ago. He has his own business helping people to write their memoirs and produces the finished articles to a very high standard. He once appeared on Dragons’ Den with his proposition - no offers. Later, one of the dragons, James Caan, used his service for his own memoir. Even without help from the Dragons, Michael’s business is still thriving. Having now personally assisted with over 300 books, he is recognised as a leading authority on the writing of private life stories. He handed out a page of tips at his talk to us which at the time, several of our memoir writers found helpful. Hopefully, some of our newer members will find his tips below helpful too.

Writing a memoir

Twenty Tips for Writing Your Life Story

This is your life story, so write it the way you want. There's no right or wrong way to write about your life - so just let it flow. The greatest difficulty is getting started, so at the outset write about anything that inspires you - it does not matter whether it's about your grandparents, your first day at school, or even about when you retired, just put pen to paper. Be natural. You are not looking to write a best-seller, just a private record for friends, family, and yourself. Don't try to be clever, just be yourself. If you call your father Dad, then write 'Dad' and not 'my father'. Then, in 30-, 40- or 50-years’ time, when people read this they will know about you, not just the facts, but about your character, personality, sense of humour etc. Be honest. Tell it as it was – no-one is perfect, and if you try to suggest that you are, it won't ring true. For instance, the times you were caned at school for an unjust reason are what spring to mind, but what about the times when you should have been caned and got away with it? Don't be too modest. Modesty is the greatest obstacle to interesting writing. If you don't mention the fact that you won the West Ham Municipal School egg and spoon race in 1931 (despite 'Piggy Wells' cheating by sticking his egg to the spoon), then that fact will be lost to the world forever. You can still remember it, so therefore it's important. Attention to detail. The brain is amazing, and you will remember some incredible details. For example, the character and mannerisms of your parents. Try to visualise the details then describe them fully. For example, did your Dad smoke a pipe; if so, what was his routine? Did he have a special pipe? When did he smoke it? What brand of tobacco did he use? If you pictured him smoking his pipe now, what would he be wearing and where would he be sitting/standing etc? Often, the smaller the detail, the more interesting it is. Draw on your emotions. We cringe, feel embarrassed, outraged, smug etc, even now, years later, over some small incident years ago. Use these sensations. Use all your senses. Colours – the current generation tends to think of the past in black and white, as on Pathé News. However, there was nothing dull about that brilliant polka dot dress you wore for your 7th birthday. Sounds – remember the sounds during an air raid? Then there was the hooter for work each morning – what do these sounds mean to you? Continue in this way for smells, textures and taste, for example, dried egg, Parish's Food etc. Don't assume. You know that Bill is your brother-in-law, but unless he is described as such in your story, future generations will not know the relationship. Don't give up. Ask yourself, if this book was written by dearest Aunt Nelly, or perhaps by Granny, would you want to read it? The answer is a resounding 'yes'. Others will want to read about you, people special to you and about attitudes and ways of life long since gone. However, the best reason for writing is for yourself. You are unique. You will enjoy writing and others will be glad that you made the effort. If you can write a letter, you can write a book. So, go on – indulge yourself. Photos can help. Photographs trigger memories for those writing their life story. Know how you work. You know how you work best; it might be 10 o'clock every morning with a cup of tea, or it might be sitting in bed at 1 am. Decide on your preferred method of recording your life story. You can use whatever you want - a pencil, a special pen, typewriter or word processor – it doesn't matter. The important thing is what you write, so just get it down. Be prepared. Leave all the materials in an accessible place, so that when you get the urge to write, it's not dampened because you are not ready. I advise using two pads – one for writing down all the details, the other for scribbling ideas on. You're bound to have ideas when you are in full-flow, and if you jot down a word or two on the note pad, it will stop you forgetting it. Cover all eventualities. Leave a pen and writing pad by the bed. The odds are that you will be just nodding off when you think of an idea. You might even want to leave a notebook in your handbag or in the car. Be organised. I've found that loose-leaf paper is best. This way, if you think about some extra detail, you can slip it into the relevant section without having to make a mess of everything else. Research it well. There are many means open to you – photographs, books (especially The Chronicle of the 20th Century), museums, old letters, pictures – often just looking around your house will spark off memories. Remember special events. Important occasions often bring memories flooding back. For example, Empire Day (24th May), birthdays, achievements, milestones – first day at work etc, VE Day, the Coronation. Remember special people. Write a list of the important people to be included. You will be disappointed if you forget to mention those special people in your life. Jotting down a family tree will help for members of your family – but what about your friends? You might want to try and name: National Service chums, people you were evacuated with, the children in your class at school, the names of teachers, work colleagues at each job. When you think of each person, the odds are that you will remember an amazing amount of detail ... get it down on paper. Don't worry unduly about grammar. You might want to rewrite your story later, or perhaps get it typed. All this can come afterwards – the important thing is to get those memories down on paper. Break it down into realistic sections. A whole book is daunting, but writing about being in Miss Moody's class, or a typical Sunday lunch at home is not.
EMAILS
© Thames Valley Writers’ Circle
Created with Xara Designer Pro X
Michael Oke gave a very good talk about memoir writing at a circle meeting a few years ago. He has his own business helping people to write their memoirs and produces the finished articles to a very high standard. He once appeared on Dragons’ Den with his proposition - no offers. Later, one of the dragons, James Caan, used his service for his own memoir. Even without help from the Dragons, Michael’s business is still thriving. Having now personally assisted with over 300 books, he is recognised as a leading authority on the writing of private life stories. He handed out a page of tips at his talk to us which at the time, several of our memoir writers found helpful. Hopefully, some of our newer members will find his tips below helpful too.

Writing a memoir

Twenty Tips for Writing Your Life Story

This is your life story, so write it the way you want. There's no right or wrong way to write about your life - so just let it flow. The greatest difficulty is getting started, so at the outset write about anything that inspires you - it does not matter whether it's about your grandparents, your first day at school, or even about when you retired, just put pen to paper. Be natural. You are not looking to write a best-seller, just a private record for friends, family, and yourself. Don't try to be clever, just be yourself. If you call your father Dad, then write 'Dad' and not 'my father'. Then, in 30-, 40- or 50-years’ time, when people read this they will know about you, not just the facts, but about your character, personality, sense of humour etc. Be honest. Tell it as it was – no-one is perfect, and if you try to suggest that you are, it won't ring true. For instance, the times you were caned at school for an unjust reason are what spring to mind, but what about the times when you should have been caned and got away with it? Don't be too modest. Modesty is the greatest obstacle to interesting writing. If you don't mention the fact that you won the West Ham Municipal School egg and spoon race in 1931 (despite 'Piggy Wells' cheating by sticking his egg to the spoon), then that fact will be lost to the world forever. You can still remember it, so therefore it's important. Attention to detail. The brain is amazing, and you will remember some incredible details. For example, the character and mannerisms of your parents. Try to visualise the details then describe them fully. For example, did your Dad smoke a pipe; if so, what was his routine? Did he have a special pipe? When did he smoke it? What brand of tobacco did he use? If you pictured him smoking his pipe now, what would he be wearing and where would he be sitting/standing etc? Often, the smaller the detail, the more interesting it is. Draw on your emotions. We cringe, feel embarrassed, outraged, smug etc, even now, years later, over some small incident years ago. Use these sensations. Use all your senses. Colours – the current generation tends to think of the past in black and white, as on Pathé News. However, there was nothing dull about that brilliant polka dot dress you wore for your 7th birthday. Sounds – remember the sounds during an air raid? Then there was the hooter for work each morning – what do these sounds mean to you? Continue in this way for smells, textures and taste, for example, dried egg, Parish's Food etc. Don't assume. You know that Bill is your brother-in-law, but unless he is described as such in your story, future generations will not know the relationship. Don't give up. Ask yourself, if this book was written by dearest Aunt Nelly, or perhaps by Granny, would you want to read it? The answer is a resounding 'yes'. Others will want to read about you, people special to you and about attitudes and ways of life long since gone. However, the best reason for writing is for yourself. You are unique. You will enjoy writing and others will be glad that you made the effort. If you can write a letter, you can write a book. So, go on – indulge yourself. Photos can help. Photographs trigger memories for those writing their life story. Know how you work. You know how you work best; it might be 10 o'clock every morning with a cup of tea, or it might be sitting in bed at 1 am. Decide on your preferred method of recording your life story. You can use whatever you want - a pencil, a special pen, typewriter or word processor – it doesn't matter. The important thing is what you write, so just get it down. Be prepared. Leave all the materials in an accessible place, so that when you get the urge to write, it's not dampened because you are not ready. I advise using two pads – one for writing down all the details, the other for scribbling ideas on. You're bound to have ideas when you are in full-flow, and if you jot down a word or two on the note pad, it will stop you forgetting it. Cover all eventualities. Leave a pen and writing pad by the bed. The odds are that you will be just nodding off when you think of an idea. You might even want to leave a notebook in your handbag or in the car. Be organised. I've found that loose-leaf paper is best. This way, if you think about some extra detail, you can slip it into the relevant section without having to make a mess of everything else. Research it well. There are many means open to you – photographs, books (especially The Chronicle of the 20th Century), museums, old letters, pictures – often just looking around your house will spark off memories. Remember special events. Important occasions often bring memories flooding back. For example, Empire Day (24th May), birthdays, achievements, milestones – first day at work etc, VE Day, the Coronation. Remember special people. Write a list of the important people to be included. You will be disappointed if you forget to mention those special people in your life. Jotting down a family tree will help for members of your family – but what about your friends? You might want to try and name: National Service chums, people you were evacuated with, the children in your class at school, the names of teachers, work colleagues at each job. When you think of each person, the odds are that you will remember an amazing amount of detail ... get it down on paper. Don't worry unduly about grammar. You might want to rewrite your story later, or perhaps get it typed. All this can come afterwards – the important thing is to get those memories down on paper. Break it down into realistic sections. A whole book is daunting, but writing about being in Miss Moody's class, or a typical Sunday lunch at home is not.
Memoirs
Memoirs