A writer friend of mine is currently working on a memoir. While swapping writerly news with her in a cafe one afternoon this week, it briefly crossed my mind what it would be like if I tried to write my own memoir.
Answer: probably not that great. The truth is, my life is quite boring. Okay, so I make that claim, and then when I start dissecting it I find it’s not completely true – I’ve had some experiences which aren’t entirely commonplace. I’ve written questions for the Weakest Link. I’ve been to an inner-city comp followed by Oxford. I moved to America three weeks after passing my driving test. But while I expect I could cobble together an autobiography if I absolutely had to, I haven’t had an experience I’d describe as truly memoir-worthy. No epic journey of self-exploration through the wilderness a la Cheryl Strayed (author of ‘Wild’). No tragic past to overcome like Dave Pelzer (author of ‘A Child Called It’). It’s all just been… a bunch of stuff that’s happened. And I’ve bumbled my way through. Which is fine – after all, experiences which are good to read about and experiences which are good to live through are not the same thing. It just means I don’t have rich seam of real-life story-gold to mine, so I have to make stuff up instead.
A question I actually only rarely get asked – probably one of the perks of writing fantasy – is if I’ve ever plundered my own life for writing material. The answer is no, not really – I’ve not even been particularly tempted to insert caricatures of people I know into my work. There have been times when I’ve tried to put aspects of myself into my writing, but I’ve never found the resulting stories very successful. They end up feeling forced, somehow less honest than the stuff I’ve invented out of whole cloth, and I’ve found writing them uncomfortable.
It seems to write about yourself well you need to achieve a level of critical distance on your own experiences that I simply haven’t managed to reach, and perhaps I never will. Maybe that’s nothing to worry about. After all, one of the inherent limitations of memoir as a genre is that you’ve only got so much material available. I’m currently reading Caitlin Moran’s novel ‘How to Build a Girl’, and while it’s enjoyable, it’s deja vu-inducingly close – even in title – to her memoir ‘How to Be a Woman’, and she’s also used her own early life as the basis for the sitcom ‘Raised By Wolves’. Now I love Caitlin Moran, but I don’t think she can really keep recycling her eccentric upbringing indefinitely. The great thing about fantasy, in contrast, is that you can make up whatever you want, and keep making it up. I’ve already got more ideas than I’ll ever be able to use, and I have more of the buggers every day. (having ideas is not the same, alas, as having written books).
In some ways, moreover, writing pure fiction can feel more revealing than writing memoir or confessional fiction, since you haven’t got anything to hide behind, no ‘but it really happened like that’ defence. You have to admit that everything just came out of your own head and yes your brain really is that weird. But then, if I was too concerned about people thinking I was weird, I wouldn’t have started down this route. Today, I have a nice quiet actual life, and plenty of time to spend with my inner life, filled with things both rich and strange. I might never get a memoir out of it, but I’m happy.