Two gorgeous autumn days on the Sunshine Coast full of writing: what a wonderful idea! Colleague and friend, Sharyn, saw the details online for the Greenleaf Memoir & Family History Writing Weekend and we flew from Sydney in early March. As a group of twelve keen writers, we participated in four different sessions, book launches and an informative evening presentation during dinner. I never tire of workshopping writing – each and every opportunity provides different perspectives, new ideas and enthusiastic encouragement for the long journey ahead.
Allison Paterson began the day with her session titled Defining Memoir and Researching, Planning and Plotting. Sharing her family with us, and her process of creating many books was inspiring. We considered: is there another way (genre, style, text type) to tell your story? Allison outlined the work behind her first published book, Anzac Sons – the story of five brothers in the war to end all wars, which was compiled from a collection of over 500 letters sent from the Western Front. Following the adaptation of Anzac Sons into a children’s version, Allison created picture books and her most recent YA novel Follow After Me. Each text is linked to her original research in some way, either through the image of her grandmother’s house or female character’s who didn’t ‘belong’ in the first book. This is a compelling lesson in creativity: from a completely factual book to a fictionalised novel.
After lunch, and the launch of Follow After Me, we were taken through Aleesah Darlison‘s Running with Tigers: finding your voice and defining your characters that included a series of steps to make our ideas concrete. Aleesah urged us to consider our reader – to have one specific reader in mind: who is your reader? This session explicitly reminded me that our purpose and audience always informs our language use and the way we choose to tell our stories.
Suzanne Strong spoke during dinner about writing therapy and her approach to ‘being free’ through writing. I spoke with her briefly about the Poetry and Story for Growth and Healing workshop I attended in the UK, and the academic work behind writing as therapy.
Our Sunday morning began with an emotionally honest session with Shelley Davidow titled Writing Your Life – a memoir workshop. She discussed the ‘totally messed up continuum between truth and untruth’ and the need to strive for emotional truth knowing that people may be hurt by your uncovering of a family ‘truth’. Shelley suggested that memoir is an impression, like a painting, where fictional elements – such as dialogue – carry a version of your memories. Our first writing activity shook me deeply. It was a free-write in response to the opening prompt ‘I’ve never told you this before …’ We also explored memories and common threads in considering who we are and what we want to write. Importantly, Shelley discussed the very real possibility that ‘memoir becomes the memory of your life, it replaces your actual memory so memoir is also an act of erasure’.
Our day finished with Julieann Wallace and her very practical Getting Down to the Nuts and Shiny Bolts – editing and publishing your memoir. Julieann is head of Lilly Pilly Publishing and provided us with a booklet and series of specific questions aimed at understanding our writing strengths and weaknesses, and hope: when I feel like giving up, I need to remember … We also completed editing exercises and considered the many pathways to publishing, including the cost benefits and personal workload of each. Aleesah outlined publisher expected and standard formatting for manuscripts.
Informative, at times entertaining and emotional, this weekend has much to offer writers. Although I have a some knowledge of my grandparents and their parents, I had no plans for memoir or family history writing before this weekend. When we introduced ourselves, secret stories and family intrigues were shared. I found myself pushed to complete some activities – I had to reach into my memory to recall photographs or create events. Yet, over time – allowing ideas and thoughts to incubate and percolate with one or two chance encounters – a focus is emerging for my narrative.