Writing your life story might be therapeutic, but it’s unlikely to result in great literature. If you want to write about your experiences, consider turning them into fiction instead
Years ago, during my infertility treatment, I kept a diary. In it I recorded all the intimate, comical and excruciating processes involved in switching off one’s hormonal system, then superstimulating it so that dozens of eggs will develop at the same time to be harvested for in-vitro fertilisations. I wrote about bending over a table once a day so that my partner could inject drugs into my buttocks; about giggling, high on painkillers, as the technician probed my swollen ovaries for ripe eggs – and about the simple short process of putting fertilised embryos back inside me.
I wrote about the bated-breath days afterwards, waiting to see whether one had implanted. And about out anguish when my cramping womb signalled that none had. When we tried again, and failed again, I wrote about that too. And about the two miscarriages I had, in quick succession, over the following six months. It was a bad bad time, the worst I can remember, and I wrote it all down as honestly as I could.
I found the act of writing therapeutic. It allowed me to dwell on what had happened, focus up-close on every detail, and structure it on the page in a way that satisfied me. Freud believed that this is why people with post-traumatic stress have recurrent nightmares: because the trauma is too great to comprehend all at once; the mind needs time to examine it from all angles, to incorporate it – and this is what the dreams, eventually, achieve.
Writing as therapy
Writing only works as therapy, however, when it is structured in some way. Psychological research has shown that simply blurting out one’s feelings onto the page is nowhere near as therapeutic as turning them into a crafted piece of poetry or prose. This is one reason why Survivors Poetry – the organisation that works with mental health ‘survivors’ and their carers – insists that its members go beyond simply expressing their anguish, and make the effort to turn their experiences into considered pieces of art.
Reader, it worked for me. My laptop became a friend during those long sad months. And when I’d recovered my sense of purpose, and had remounted the horse of my life, I decided to turn my diary entries into a book.
I called it Test Tube Diary. It’s one of the two unpublished manuscripts in my ‘bottom drawer’. The problem was that, although it was as vivid and truthful as I could make it, and dealt with experiences of crucial importance (I thought) to growing numbers of women, it wasn’t powerful enough to constitute a whole book. My loyal agent sent it out to a few publishers, but when they rejected it I knew in my heart of hearts that they were right. My real-life experiences, though of immense interest to me, were not sufficiently compelling to justify publication for a wider audience.
I think that this is often the case with autobiography. Even those who have lived through extraordinary times – the second world war, for example – can’t assume that their stories will interest more than a handful of friends and family. Sarah Waters wrote recently about a man in the immediate post-war years, who used to hire himself out by the hour to listen to people talking about their experiences during the Blitz. Though he wasn’t a therapist, people were prepared to pay him to listen to their stories.
they are so bewitched by the strength of their memories that the are unable to subject their work to the rigours of narrative structure
These days so-called ‘life-writing’ classes have never been more popular. But whenever I run a creative writing workshop, it’s often the people writing memoirs who have the most problem with the exercises I set. It’s as though they are so bewitched by the strength of their memories that the are unable to subject their work to the rigours of narrative structure. ‘Could you make the woman younger?’ I might suggest as a way of increasing a character’s vulnerability in a key scene; or, ‘What about cutting out some of the children?’ I’d propose as a way of making the plot less confusing.
‘But it wasn’t like that,’ they would argue. And of course they’d be right. It wasn’t like that. The trouble is, the way it was didn’t make for a good story.
Truth and fiction
Michele Roberts maintains that there is a distinction between life writing and the art of memoir. Life writing, she argues, is done for the satisfaction of the author, without necessarily considering an audience. Memoir, on the other hand, applies the rules and conventions of fiction to the author’s real-life events to construct a compelling g narrative.
Life-writing is inclusive. Memoir is selective. Life writing is discursive. Memoir is focused. In this sense, life writing is definitely more truthful, just as an unedited interview – with all its hesitation, repetition and deviation from the subject in question – is more truthful than the version that appears in print. But it doesn’t read as well.
Selection is the key. Hilary Mantel’s elegant and angry memoir Giving up the Ghost focused on how her lifelong ill health affected her fertility and her way of thinking. Mary Loudon’s Relative Stranger is a poignant investigation into the life of her estranged schizophrenic sister.
Roberts argues that for autobiographical material to come to life it must be ‘put onto a stage’. To do this effectively memoir writers must do that thing they find so difficult: the must detach themselves from the literal and-then-and-then-and-then truth of their experiences.
This is one reason why most successful published memoirs are written on the border between truth and fiction and why many stray so far from the straight and narrow to be marketed as novels. Jeannette Winterson’s explosive debut Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is a fictionalised version of her bizarre religious upbringing. Barbara Trapido’s more recent Frankie and Stankie tells of her unusual childhood in South Arica.
‘I played hooky from the make-believe novel I was writing,’ Trapido wrote when the book came out. ‘I began to make a story out of my own real-life stories; family stories, friends’ and neighbours’ stories, the crowded dramatis personae of that multi-ethnic immigrant community I’d grown up with in the mercifully anguished age of high apartheid; all the stuff I’d locked in a box on coming to England 40 years ago.’
left alone for long enough, memories and research alike start to shift, disintegrate, cohere – and what surfaces are the kernels of the stories we need to tell
I believe that Trapido’s ‘box’ was crucial to the success of her novel. It’s the equivalent of the cupboard A L Kennedy locks her research notes into before embarking on her writing. It’s the place where, left alone for long enough, memories and research alike start to shift, disintegrate, cohere – and what surfaces are the kernels of the stories we need to tell.
When I stowed Test Tube Diary away in my own box, I thought I’d finished with it. It had done its job. It had helped me through a difficult time, I concluded, but now it was over. But I was wrong.
It just needed to compost down for a bit longer – another ten years in fact – to give my unconscious mind time to do its work of sorting and resorting, sifting and storing, until the fragments that were worth writing about came to the surface. They became the core of my novel, Hungry Ghosts, about Sylvia, an infertile lab worker recovering from two IVF attempts and two miscarriages.
Test Tube Diary was not the only thing I my unconscious box, of course. Along with memories of my eight-week scan and my D&C, my obsessional temperature taking and food label reading, were a myriad other stories that have touched or fascinated me before or since.
The artist I met in the island of Symi, for example, who’d fled the pollution of Athens to purify her body in order to conceive a baby. Her plan was for her lover to fly in every month to impregnate her – but he never came. Her quest for purification, and her voluntary island exile, surfaced as crucial aspects of Sylvia’s story.
Another thing that surfaced was a small yellowed newspaper clipping from 1993 headlined ‘Boy lived with dead animals’. This was a brief report about an 11-year-old ‘unknown to social services’ who’d been discovered living with his mentally-ill mother and numerous ‘dead and dying’ pets in an overgrown house in a leafy Home Counties suburb. The story haunted me for years, until I worked out for myself how he and his mother might have ended up in that situation. He became Martin, the other main character in Hungry Ghosts, whose disturbed and isolated childhood is described in the book, and who grows into the man who will force Sylvia to question her beliefs about life and death.
The other book in my bottom drawer was another memoir – The White Woman – about the months I spent in Zimbabwe researching traditional beliefs. It was an account of how my scepticism about the paranormal was profoundly shaken by a series of inexplicable events I witnessed while I was there. Like Test Tube Diary, it didn’t work as a book: it was too subjective, too wedded to the truth, insufficiently ‘thrown onto the stage’. But that journey I took, from scepticism to credence, is the same journey Sylvia is forced to take in the course of Hungry Ghosts.
The point is, nothing we experience, nothing we write down, is ever wasted. You might not know how it will surface, but if it is needed, there it will be, waiting for you.
Some ways of turning fact into fiction
Here are some suggestions for helping you gain some distance from the details of your own experience and discover their underlying emotional truth
- Use third person
Calling yourself ‘she’ in your autobiographical writing will help you visualise your narrative in scenes and action sequences, and prevent you dwelling on introspection. You can turn it back into first person later.
- Choose new names
Rename your true characters, including yourself, before you start. This will free you to develop them in ways that better suit your narrative. Better still, reinvent them completely.
- Purge your cast
Don’t include everyone. List your dramatis personae and pare them down to a crucial list of four or five. Try creating composite characters from two or more real people.
- Impose a plot
Decide on a ‘dramatic premise’. Who is your main character’s ‘quest’? Who or what is impeding her? How does she deal with these impediments? (Of course ‘she’ is you’…)
- If in doubt, leave it out
Select, select, select. Don’t include anything that isn’t absolutely essential to the story you are telling – even if it means leaving out some of your strongest and most cherished memories.
This article first appeared in Issue 29 of Mslexia (Spring 2006).