There are a number of approaches to writing life-story, and we tried three of them in Tuesday's session:
1. An excellent warmup is to freewrite from the phrase 'I remember'. A list, mindmap or stream of consciousness can provide a good resource of material that can later be developed and shaped.
I remember . . . my father used to takes us to the hills and mountains of the Scottish Highlands, usually on a Sunday. Us being my mother and my three sisters Anne, Susan and Jean. Ski-ing was often on the agenda, my dad being in the ski club. We’d go to place like Glenshee, Glencoe and the Cairngorms. Put our ski boots on, take the chair lift up the slope, skis on and down the slope we'd go.
Read Alex's completed poem at the end of this post!
Sometimes the freewrite is itself a draft poem:
I remember hard earth below my feet
I remember the way stones gave off heat.
Not a word I understood.
Bag over head
shackles bind me
I stumble time upon time.
The dust found its way through
I felt my throat creak and my mouth clag.
I struggle not with space but mind.
There are no walls to close in
no words fair or foul.
I hold to the shackles as hard as they hold me.
2. The memories uncovered can be used in a technique called Story Swap. People pair up and briefly tell their partner a memory (it's best not to use anything very troublesome - an apparently small, insignificant detail can often work really well). Pre-generating a list of memories, as in the freewriting exercise above, gives everyone an initial range of topics to choose from - rather than having to pluck something out of mid-air!
Next, both write down what they've heard, and then read back to each other and discuss the process. If it's not your own memory you're writing (or even if it is), what decisions do you need to make about what to include and exclude? Do you want to add anything? Are you going to write in the first person ('I'), or third ('s/he'), as a more neutral observer? In the present tense or past?
How do you feel about having your own story /memory written and read back to you by someone else?
In a small group, everyone can have a go at creatively writing each other member's story. Here's Alex's and my responses to one of Raiste's memories ,'Tatooed Eye-Liner' followed by his own take on / development of the story he originally told us:
Grandmother had her eyes tattooed with eyeliner. I was just a kid at the time and this has stayed in my memory all these years . . . strange thinking about it now. The years have rolled on . . . (Alex)
When he visited his grandma in the morgue
the first thing he noticed
was her eyeliner, a think underscore
of black kohl. 'The mortician'
(a word he learned yesterday)
'has done a good job', he remarked to his mum
and wondered why she laughed.
At the funeral eulogy he found out:
mum described how granny had eyeliner
tattooed on at seventy
ten years before her death (Helen)
She lay atop a wooden table
no rise and fall of breath
limbs would no more create and strain.
I could not help but notice her perfect eye-liner.
My parent half-laughed that she had had
it tattooed on to save time years ago.
She was always about saving time.
Salt and pepper in one shaker - time.
Closed a door on her own foot to try and save time.
She had lived.
Fought through all times.
My daughter bears her name.
Africa was in her blood.
The arid dry heat.
The Belgian Congo. (Raiste)
3. Focusing on place is a great way of obliquely working with memories:
a. Make a list of places that are / have been significant to you
b. Draw a map that contains these places - it doesn't need to be realistic, and you don't need to have great drawing skills to do this. Imaginative impressions are great! You can uses symbols and colours.
c. List the places on the map (it may not turn out to be exactly the same list as your initial one), and then an attribute or emotion that you associate with each.
d. Write a piece that 'joins up' some of the places on the map (or write about one or more of the associations.)
(Exercise adapted from Gerry Loose)
With regret, pity and hope I watch her go by.
In the heat of the blinding white buildings
the Alhambra sits like a jewel
it shimmers like a tarmac road flying towards the horizon.
Snowfall measure in feet. Distance in thousands of miles away.
Deer carcasses commonplace.
I fled Manchester and will never return.
My home town in the north is not my home or my town.
Edinburgh was spelt e-x-cess.
Graniers almost a home
crickets, frogs, scorpions aplenty.
Spiders in the wood shed.
Fabulous view to the north.
Shady terrace for a coffee or cigarette.
Blair Drive > Thistle St > Commercial School > Queen Anne School > Bognor Regis > Dad's shop > Bruce St
Europe - France, Italy > Corfu> Greece-Yugoslavia, Austria, Germany, Holland (Amsterdam), Brodeaux, France
I did a backpacking trip round Europe aged 19 on £200 which I had saved up from years of working in my dad's antique / jewellery shop. Me and my mate Rob got down to Dover and got the boat to Calais. Got to the south of France. He went to Spain, me to Italy. I thumbed my way through Florence then down to Bari, caught a hovercraft to Corfu, 2 weeks, then Athens - then went through what was Yugoslavia . . . Austria, Vienna. Ran out of money so got a job in a newspaper company, then thumbed my way through Germany . . . then on to Amerstdam - got a job in a brewery . . . tbc.
Over the following week, Alex wrote this poem:
Through freezing cold air
Clouds streaking above
High up in the sky
Where father passed away
I remember that day
He was at the top…
I was peddling pictures
Door to door
North and South Queensferry
At the time
Sun shining through
Lights up the shades
Slivers of clouds
Wisp’s over the view
Feeling the chilly air
Just like being there
Time has moved on…
RIP Father (9/7/2019)
Alexander Shand Hudson
In the final meetings of the Survive & Recover Project we will think about editing and refining writing, using examples from this post - watch this space . . .