This month I’ve been Feeding on life writing. Life writing is the umbrella term for the recording of memories and experiences, whether our own or someone else’s. It applies to many genres and practices, including autobiography, biography and memoir.
The peculiar relationship between truth and fiction is something that’s always fascinated me as a writer. And nowhere is this relationship more apparent than in writing about ‘real life’. So, when I heard that BBC writer and producer Paul Dodgson was delivering a workshop in Penzance on ‘Writing Life’, I jumped at the chance to get a good Feed in.
I discovered surprising parallels between the discipline of life writing and the kind of brand writing we do for our clients. And I came away armed with lessons and techniques to apply to my everyday writing. Here are a few of the things I learnt…
‘Bright’, ‘rabbit’, birthday’…‘ghee butter’. I pulled four words from the bag and laid them on the table in front of me. I had five minutes to create a piece of writing using all of them. The only rules: to switch off my internal editor and just keep writing.
The first couple of sentences come slowly, but as my hand moves across the page, the words start to flow more freely, thoughts gain momentum. The aim here is not to produce a finely crafted piece of writing, but to loosen up your thinking, flex your writing muscles and oil your creative machinery. It’s surprising what happens when you let yourself go. An unexpected turn of phrase will leap up at you off the page. Or you’ll stumble upon a familiar subject from a refreshingly unfamiliar angle.
It’s these little breakthroughs that can plant the seed for something bigger. It’s a technique Paul has used for a long time. Some of the plays that he went on to broadcast on Radio 4 came from the germ of an idea created this way. Give it a try. You might be surprised at where it takes you.
Escape the stranglehold of ‘the facts’
This is the big one. Especially when we’re writing about our lives or other people’s lives, we can feel an overwhelming compunction to ‘stick to the facts’. All too often this can result in reams of dry lists of dates and times and places. Somewhere underneath all of these facts, the lived experience – the smells, textures, colours and emotions – get buried and snuffed out. Facts have got their place, and I’m not denying their importance, but if you want your readers to care about them, you need to make them connect. Whether you’re writing a memoir or a company’s origin story, if you want to engage your readers on an personal level, you need to hook them in emotionally.
Think about an episode from your life: moving house, starting a new job, meeting or leaving a lover. Chances are you can remember roughly the year that it happened. You could write out a list of events in the order they happened. You might say: in April I applied for a new job, in May I was interviewed, in June I got the job and signed a contract. Now think about it again, but think about the details you remember, the little things. The outfit you borrowed for the interview; it was a hot day, the room was stuffy and the itchy suit your friend had lent you was a size too small. Immediately, we’re there in the situation. A combination of fact, or ‘narrative memory’, and sensory details or other memories connecting with the bare bones of the events, ‘associative memory’, is what breathes life into writing, whatever genre you’re writing in.
Which brings me on to my favourite aspect of life writing…
That marriage of granite and rainbow
Virigina Woolf wrote that the art of life writing has the potential to be “…subtle and bold enough to present that queer amalgamation of dream and reality, that perpetual marriage of granite and rainbow.” (Woolf, 1925).
The first time I read it, this quote lodged in my brain. I love the way it paints a picture of the hard ‘granite’ facts of reality and the ‘rainbow’ of imagination. For me, it captures the essence of what all good writing is striving to achieve in a very visual way – the delicate, complex marriage of fact and imagination, creating a truth that resonates in the mind of the reader.
The art of life writing is to get under the skin of a memory or experience and bring it alive, to make the personal universal and trigger a sense of recognition in the reader. This, I realised, is exactly what we’re doing when we write the story of a brand for a client. That too requires the solid granite foundation of facts. But it’s when these are illuminated through the creative prism of the detail, the rainbow, that the magic happens.