On Memoir – A Reflection by Leigh Hopkinson

During a recent online discussion at Taipei Writers Group, a member asked about the legal ramifications of disclosing controversial material in one’s memoir. I immediately thought of fellow writer and family friend Leigh Hopkinson, who published her memoir “Two Decades Naked” in April.  TWG’s first guest contributor, Leigh reflects on her memoir experience and offers some advice for writers considering the sharing the more sensitive times of our lives.

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As writers, we’re often encouraged to write what we know, so it’s unsurprising that memoir has become such a popular genre. However, our proximity to our subject matter is also what makes writing a memoir challenging. During the three years I spent writing Two Decades Naked, a memoir about striptease recently published by Hachette, that challenge manifested in different ways at different stages of the process.

Initially, I decided to disguise my memories as a novel. But a novel has its own genre requirements and life doesn’t unfold in the same way. I spent a lot of time trying to cram the messiness of my past into the constraints of fiction. It didn’t work, partly because I wasn’t very good at making things up. In fact, I was trying to do the exact opposite, to recount my memories as accurately as possible. Eventually, I had to acknowledge that I was writing a memoir. This forced me to address my concerns about sharing my story truthfully, which is an essential part of the memoir-writing process.

Memoir is classified non-fiction, so readers and publishers alike expect memoirists to tell the truth, to the best of their recollection. I was concerned about complete disclosure, because I didn’t know how my truth would be received. Like autobiography, memoir is an intensely personal genre: when the work is criticised, it can feel like you’re being personally rejected. On top of this, social stigma surrounds stripping and sex work in general, so I knew that writing about my past could negatively affect my future, as well as the lives of family and friends. However, owning my truth felt important and I was motivated to write to make sense of my life, which isn’t possible if you’re fabricating details. And while I couldn’t control other people’s responses, I would be better positioned within myself to deal with any potential fallout if I told my truth. Also, selfishly, I wanted to be published. With non-fiction comprising around 70% of the book market, shying away from memoir would have made the road to publication even more difficult.

I persevered, and soon realised there were ways of controlling if, when and how information was publicly disclosed. For example, I had the option of writing under a pseudonym. This didn’t resonate, but I did want to reduce the impact of my story’s publication on other people. So I decided not to publish my memoir until after my parents had retired in case it affected their livelihoods. (Other memoirists have waited until certain family members have passed away.) I also employed the ‘if in doubt, take it out’ rule, which meant writing the tough stuff, but removing it if I had any doubts about its accuracy, if I felt unduly bothered by its inclusion, or if it wasn’t central to the story.

As memoirists, we can get hung up on telling ‘the whole truth’, but to write memoir is to write your version of events. We all experience life personally, so our viewpoint can never be wholly objective. In fact, memoir is by its very nature subjective: it demands we recant our own unique story. Also, memory is unreliable and the way we remember fragmented, spatial rather than chronological. For these reasons, I gave family and friends a later draft of the manuscript to check for accuracy, and at their suggestion, made several small changes.

I also took my writing teacher’s advice and let the emotional heart or message of the story guide my selection of material. Initially, this felt like a strange kind of honesty, but as I wrote on, I realised it was sound advice. What we leave out affects the telling as much as what we put in. And I simply couldn’t fit every detail of my stripping life over two decades into 300 pages! I trusted the emotional integrity of the work would carry through, regardless of what was conflated or left out.

Not all memoirists realise at the onset (I definitely didn’t) that memoir is afforded certain liberties not extended to other forms of non-fiction such as journalism. It’s considered perfectly acceptable to conflate characters and change identifying characteristics, and to alter sequences of events—necessary, even, in order to tell a good story and to protect individual privacy. Coming from a background in journalism, it took me a while to get used to this idea. However, I could alert the reader by including a disclaimer (I did), and the pros far outweighed the cons. It allowed me to streamline the narrative, protect identities and avoid legal ramifications.

Every publisher will have a manuscript legally checked before it goes to print. However, the author’s contract may indemnify the publisher against potential claims or actions, leaving the author solely liable. If this is the case, the last word really does rest with you, the writer, so if in doubt, leave it out. And if you’re self-publishing, I’d recommend getting your manuscript legally checked beforehand. It’s a small step in the long journey to publication, the end point of which should be marked by celebration, not commiseration.

In my experience, writing a memoir can be a confronting process, but with perseverance, deliberation, self-belief, and the support of a good writing community, it can also be a rewarding one. While it’s too soon to tell how my memoir has been received by the public at large, initial feedback from friends and community has been positive. Either way, I’ve come to view the publication of my memoir as a personally significant milestone in what will hopefully be a life-long writing journey.

Recommended:

The Memoir Book by Patty Miller

The Paris Review Interview – Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir No. 1

The Book Club – Jennifer Byrne Presents: Memoir

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Leigh Hopkinson is a New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based writer and editor. She has an Associate Degree in Professional Writing and Editing, and a Graduate Diploma in Journalism. Her non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications on both sides of the Tasman. Leigh has also worked fleetingly as a yoga teacher and prolifically as a table dancer. TWO DECADES NAKED is her first book.

Learn more about Leigh Hopkinson at www.leighhopkinson.com.

You can also follow her on Facebook.

Buy Two Decades Naked instore or online.

Have you considered writing a memoir? What has been holding you back? Or what research have you done that might benefit other writers? Let’s start a conversation.

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Podcast: The Art And Craft Of Story With Victoria Mixon

In a previous post, I shared why The Creative Penn is one of my favourite Podcast series about writing. Today, I decided to sift through some past episodes, and I am very glad I did, because I discovered this enlightening, action-focused discussion on the art and craft of story with writer and editor Victoria Mixon.

Particularly useful for new writers (which I still am), Mixon shares how to strengthen and deepen stories, as well as why and how thinking about key aspects of the story in advance will help with writing better and faster. Mixon also explains the differences between literary genre fiction that clarify how a writer should approach each style, and then focuses on genre writing.

I was so impressed with this 2011 episode that I bought Mixon’s book “The Art and Craft of Fiction”. I truly felt I could follow her process and actually write a novel I would be happy with. I’ll let you know how I do with that!

*Image courtesy of dan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

On Coming Home – Paula Morris Explores What it Means to Be a New Zealand Writer

The declamatory return; a homeland as a “wearying enigma”. This all makes sense to me. The New Zealand that’s home to me may be a place of sheep and rugby and number-eight wire, whatever that is, but it’s also none of those things. Am I still a New Zealander?

Award-winning author Paula Morris‘ 80 page essay On Coming Home explores her own return to New Zealand, articulating questions that have been swirling in my own head since I came back home in December 2014. What does returning to New Zealand mean? Do I belong here? Can I write here? Is there a set of rules to being a New Zealander? To being a New Zealand writer?

When [Janet] Frame decided to return to New Zealand, she recalled the advice of Frank Sargeson. “Remember you’ll never know another country like that when you spent your earliest years. You’ll never be able to write intimately of another country.”

Then, why is it, Frank, or Janet, or Paula, after six months at home, I am still afraid of writing about it?

Even after my second reading of this book, I cannot squash the jealousy I hold for Morris’ ability to make a personal reflection into an essay with worldwide appeal. Linking her experiences to writers of the past who have found themselves in similar states of flux regarding their own sense of belonging gives the book substance far beyond what I had imagined writing myself. Jealousy aside, I recommend this essay to any expat, and particularly expat writers exploring their own sense of belonging.

*BWB texts are “short books on big subjects by New Zealand writers”, available primarily in digital format.

Night Market – Our Second Anthology is Released!

Back in February, we celebrated the creation of our first anthology, Taiwan Tales. To revisit  our amazement and celebration at the completion of our vision, refer back to this blog post.

Members have been jokingly referring to our books as “having babies”. Having had two babies, I think there is definitely similarity in the way we forget the pain and joyfully suggest, “Let’s make another!” And make another, we did.

From the creation and first edits of the stories to the artwork, the blurb, and the layout of the e-book and print versions, many members of Taipei Writers’ Group have given their very best skills and expertise to make Night Market a production that the group is proud of. Having moved back to New Zealand in December 2014, I was probably the writer least involved in the production process, and I am indebted to the dedicated souls that worked on the editing and production for weeks and weeks. For me, the wonderful thing about this anthology is, it gave a number of group members a chance to participate and utilize skills beyond writing.

Let’s look at the cover:

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All of the artwork was done by the talented Hannah Charlton. She is a member of our group, and listed in the author section of this blog. Each Chinese sign is a title of a story in the anthology.  If you read Chinese, see if you can match them up! Post your attempts in the comments, and we will eventually tell you whether you guessed correctly. There is a beautiful black and white image to accompany each story, which you can see in the e-book and the print version.

And how about the Amazon blurb:

You can find anything in the night market…

Text messages from beyond the grave. Love potions and hidden secrets. Answers to questions that haunt our memories or discoveries that may change the direction of our lives.

Tales of love and loss, of life and death.

From local and expat authors living in Taiwan comes a multi-genre anthology of short stories as piquant and varied as the food found in the island’s famous night markets.

Who could resist that invitation to partake in a night market feast?

Another extension to our publishing experience has been the book launch parties. One is being prepared as I type, and I am feeling my distance, on the other side of the earth. But, just like our characters on that Night Market cover, the words in the book ensure our group stays together.

So, shall we make another?

Of course!