How to turn memories into memoir

Giraffes, South Africa Image cr Toko LosheIn a special guest post, author Toko Loshe guides us through the thorny issue of turning real, raw and emotional experiences into a memoir.

Life in Africa was not easy, with hurt, anger and revenge rampant all around you, yet the little Zulu girl, her swollen tummy hiding strings of brightly covered beads wound around her waist, was giggling. Playing hide and seek behind her mother’s legs as she bargained for some small fish we had kept for bait. Bargaining for life, for just another day before hunger gripped again.

The little hands reached out as the fish were gently laid in them. A tear ran down her mother’s face as she bowed with thanks, and the little girl’s face beamed with joy – a smile just visible through the hard crust of snot running from her nose, as a raspy cough gurgled up in the tiny chest.

Xhosa Lady, South Africa Image cr Toko Loshe

Stay true to yourself

Having a balanced view of your life is always a challenge. It may be riddled with personal hurts and experiences. Specifically when loved ones are still around, you might ask yourself whether there’s any point in dragging up that old stuff again. “Move on, stop being a victim,” a little voice in your head keeps telling you.

“We all went through it,” your siblings, children and partners may warn you. “If you mention that I will never forgive you. Do not under any circumstances include my name in your story.”

Worst of all, your own little voices may be telling you: “For God’s sake, nobody wants to read about that.”

Wrong, many people may want to read about that. In fact, many readers are looking for answers, to their own torments and hoping to see that someone else understands. They may hope that reading a story of a hardship or emotional upheaval similar to their own will help them to make sense of and cope with it.

Fountain, South Africa Image cr Toko Loshe

Let the memories flood in

Don’t get me wrong, you must have shades of light and dark in your writing, and a good story should have more light than dark. The light side of your life is there hiding behind your emotional scars that you have not allowed to heal. You will be amazed how those memories will come flooding back once you allow them to.

Telling stories became a part of me when I was living in South Africa. Whenever a topic was highlighted in the media, I would remember another time when just such a thing had happened. Sometimes it made me sad that society was not learning from their mistakes. Every story will trigger a memory, no matter who you are or where you have been, no matter what life you have lived.

These memories that linger can be the foundation of your story, but remember that yours is just one of many. Even within your own family, each person will have their own version with its own little twist. Tell is as you recall it. Don’t try and make everyone happy by telling it their way, unless of course it is also your way and a shared experience with the same recollection of joy, love or horror. Be true to yourself.

Don’t shirk from the uglier truths

Creating a vision in the mirror of a perfect life, this is the story that you tell people. The lies we tell ourselves are much worse than the lies we tell others. Cracking that false image, be it yours or someone else’s close to you, is extremely painful.

Start with the good life, the fun things and the love that may not always have been expressed yet deep in your heart you knew it was there. That is the depth of your story. The ashes of your life. Pull out that love, display it and talk about it by bringing out the love in your mother’s eyes as she tucked you in while smiling through a split lip and bruises around a swelling cheek, as she managed to kiss you on your forehead.

River, South Africa Image cr Toko Loshe

Identify your message

There is joy and love in my story, yet I was very aware of the desperate battle of survival many families faced around me as they tried to keep themselves and their children alive. Ask yourself: “What am I trying to say?” What is the message you are to put out? Behind all good stories is a message as you invade someone’s space and get into their head.

Tell a love story with love – say it, feel it and most of all mean it. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to say how much you loved someone, how they made you feel. If it is a romantic part of your life, when you were in love for the first time, even the first time you experienced sex in a loving union, try to summon up what you were thinking and how your emotions were in a turmoil with these new feelings.

Choose your starting point

Decide where you are going to start your story, then create chapters by the turning points and changes as your story evolved. Where were you? What did you look like at that particular time, and most of all, what were you thinking? This is you, this is your story. Even if you stole the rosary beads from the bibles in the church on Sunday and feared that God would never forgive you!

There will be many ups and downs in your life, you must display them all as you seesaw through your chapters bringing each episode to a climax before moving on to the next. Most of all, you must enjoy your writing, it will not be easy and there will be tears both of joy and sadness. Write those feelings down.

About the Author

Toko LosheToko Loshe lived in South Africa during some of the most turbulent years in the country’s history. Born in 1944, Loshe experienced racism, political unrest, violence, and social upheaval as South Africa’s divisions grew deeper. Her new book Shades of Africa is an intensely personal account of the dangerous world in which she lived. The book has been described as “a photo album in prose about the brutality of life in British South Africa.” Loshe now lives in Australia.

Book review – Single Mother on the Verge by Maria Roberts

Single Mother on the Verge coverSporting as it does a pastel-shaded cover of the type usually reserved for chick-lit novels, the opening page may come as a shock.

Single Mother on the Verge is far from a fluffy romance. Protagonist, Maria, is three-dimensional and very real, unsurprising when you realise this is no work of fiction, but an autobiographical account that was inspired by her award-winning blog of the same name.

Maria is certainly the winning agreement, as she takes us through her life as mother of Jack, girlfriend of Rhodri, lover of Toga and Morton, and ex-girlfriend of the terrifying Damian, whose l cruelty left her with emotional scars that make her quiver with fear any time anyone knocks on the door after midnight.

The issues faced here are complex, as Maria deals with Jack’s desire to see his dad, while dealing with Rhodri’s unwillingness to ever take the easy option about anything. Continue reading

How to create fiction from family treasures

Terri Wiltshire 4 generationsAuthor Terri Wiltshire offers her tips for using family stories to create fiction, or, as she’s been fondly calling it: ‘Pilfering the Family Jewels.’

There’s an old Jewish saying that goes: “God created families because He liked stories”.  Since the time humans could draw pictures on cave walls, we’ve been collecting and sharing stories of our “clan”. It’s how we connect to others. And we all do it. When we gather for holidays, weddings, and funerals- the stories pour out from each generation to comfort, to celebrate, to reminisce, or to laugh out loud at our outrageous human foibles. The place and time might change, but the struggles and joy of “family” are universal.

Listen and Collect

Writers are constantly told to write-what-you-know and the most fertile resources are the tales we grew up hearing over and over again: the whispered rumours of an ancestor with a criminal past, the hilarious pitfalls of raising six kids with one outhouse, the practical jokes associated with Uncle Dwayne’s paralysing fear of snakes, and the disastrous day that lightening struck your grandmother’s washing machine and killed the cat.

As a child, I looked forward to family gatherings and begged to stay up past my bedtime when I knew the stories would continue into the night. But I was in University before I realised the importance of our oral history and started keeping a file of names, phrases, and recollections.  The stories were spread out over a hundred years and included those that had been passed down from my great-grandparents. Some were funny. Some were heartbreaking. I wasn’t sure how they were connected and I wasn’t sure how I would use them, but I knew I needed to keep them handy.

Terri Wiltshire and cousins

Start Small

Novels based on family experiences don’t have to revolve around a large, life-changing event.  Sometimes we worry so much about finding the BIG story, that we miss the tiny details that make it worth the journey. Good stories can emerge from the smallest snippet of memory.  In my case, it was the shuffling gait of a gentle, reclusive great uncle who seemed to know so much about the world, but so little about how to fit into it. In writing “Carry Me Home” he became the catalyst. I took his sweetness, his awkwardness, his stubbornness to live his life his own way, and created a character and a set of circumstances (the BIG story) that allowed those traits to shine through.

Woven in, are tiny threads of family experience, which I’d heard along the way, including: riding the rails during the Great Depression, making sorghum syrup from sugar cane, and sharecropping. I also added a generous sprinkling of family recipes and cooking tips, along with family phrases, and habits.

The great thing about developing fiction from family stories, is that they are both universal and unique. The emotional aspect of human struggle is universal but the circumstances of that struggle, the dynamic of the relationships, is unique to each family.

Terri Wiltshire Sunday after church

Tread lightly

If you feel My family isn’t that interesting, you might try interviewing a few of the older generation. You’ll be surprised what nuggets will be uncovered. It’s important to remember that family stories are not blueprints for a work of fiction. They can serve as that first seed of inspiration, or a rich source of seasoning, but sticking rigidly to a historical truth (in family terms) will create more problems and limit the scope of your story.

There is also a certain anxiety in using our kinfolk as a resource. We worry about offending or taking advantage of private experiences, so above all, it is important to treat your family “treasure” with respect. I never duplicate a real person or a real event, but there are enough trinkets from the family vault to keep them happy searching for the bits and pieces we’ve shared over the years.  I make sure that whatever I choose, it is used with fondness and care, and not ridicule.

Be true to your heart, not your geography

True places are not found on maps (Herman Melville)

Just as I created fiction from the jumble of memories and recollections of my past and my ancestor’s past, I created a fictional town to set it in. I didn’t want readers to get distracted trying to recognise, or uncover discrepancies, of a specific town. It was the heart of the place that mattered most.  I called the town Lander, which was my grandfather’s first name, and which means ‘of the land.’

Lander, Alabama is a composite of many small southern towns I lived in as a child with a central square borrowed from one place, a railway yard borrowed from another, and a cotton mill borrowed from yet another. Lander is all of those towns, but none of them in particular. Likewise, “Carry Me Home” is sprinkled with traces of my family, but they are there to support the fiction that emerged from a specific time and place.

There is a wealth of raw material that can be collected just by sitting around the kitchen table. Listen. Ask questions. Record. And create… but honour those who have trusted you with their slice of family history.

Terri WiltshireAbout the author

Terri Wiltshire was raised in the Deep South in America. For the last 25 years she lived and worked in the UK, where she ran a role-play company before relocating home to Alabama recently. “I’m surrounded by family and old high school and university friends so I’m pilfering away!”

A former journalist and NBC News presenter, Terri is also an actor and director. Carry Me Home is her first novel.

If you’d like to share your own writing journey on SkyLightRain, get in touch! Just send an email  to Judy(at)

60 Postcards – My tribute for Mum

Postcard cr Rachael ChadwickRachael Chadwick – author, blogger and instigator of the ’60 postcards’ project – offers an insight into a remarkable journey, and how a memoir in motion can become more than the sum of its parts.

The reason it all began….

I always thought that I was invincible. I had never considered that anything horrific would happen to me or my family. But that all changed very suddenly when, in February 2012, my mother was diagnosed with bowel cancer after a very short period of feeling unwell. I was preparing myself for the biggest battle of my life for her but there could be no fight. Just eight days after her diagnosis we were delivered the brutal, heartbreaking news that Mum’s cancer was too aggressive to treat. Seven days after that we lost her.

I fell apart inside but put on a front to the world – I had to keep going. As hard as I tried it was all becoming too much – the milestones that followed that year were dragging me down. I felt completely helpless and so, I decided that I had to try something completely different.

Rachael Chadwick writing postcardsThe Project….

In the December after she passed, it would have been my mother’s sixtieth birthday and I knew we would have done something special for it. I thought about my wonderful Mum, about the close bond we had and about how we shared a love of all things creative. I decided to hit my grief from another angle and celebrate my mum on that weekend by creating a distinctive tribute.

With Eurostar vouchers as the last gift that Mum had given to me, Paris was the chosen city for the weekend. I wanted to spread a message about her and scattered sixty postcards – one for each year of her life – around the City of Love. I wrote the same handwritten note on them explaining why I was there and put my email address on them asking the finder to get in touch. Eleven of my closest friends came along to support me on my mission of remembrance and we filled the weekend with fun and laughter, we overindulged (an understatement) in cheese and wine and we hid postcards as we went.

Rachael Chadwick in Paris with friends

When I returned back to London I was dreading the first Christmas without Mum but it was just a few days later that I received an email from my first postcard finder. I was completely blown away. I knew that my mum would adore the project and with that in my mind, plus the excitement of the messages that were beginning to flow into my inbox, life was beginning to feel a little brighter.

The Blog…

Eager to share my story, I set up a blog ( three months after my Parisian adventure. I used it to tell my postcard tale while explaining honestly about how I was feeling about my loss. The reaction to the blog was overwhelming as I was supported and encouraged by friends, family and even strangers.

Rachael Chadwick writing postcards with friends

People who had also lost a loved one got in touch, telling me that they could relate to my words and were comforted by them. Knowing that I could potentially help others spurred me on even more and I decided to take a leap of faith and send an email to Stylist’s Emerald Street who mentioned my blog on a daily email. I experienced a surge of new readers and the most mind blowing part of it for me was that I began to gain interest from the literary world.

60 Postcards book coverThe Book…

I couldn’t pinch myself hard enough when I was offered a book deal with Simon and Schuster six months after my blog began. It may sound a little crazy but it was a very confusing decision. Of course, writing a book is such an incredible opportunity – something I had only ever dreamed about before – but this was a book about my very personal experience. I was excited to talk about my postcard journey, but talking about Mum’s death just eighteen months after we had lost her was painfully tough. Still, with the support of my family and friends I wrote 60 Postcards the book – a legacy for Mum that my family can treasure and pass down for generations.

What happens next?….

My project has reignited my passion for life while enabling me to keep my mother’s memory alive. I still suffer from what I call, ‘uncontrollable storms of grief’ (even very recently) but I am determined to keep 60 Postcards moving forward, especially as I am receiving so many incredible emails from readers who have enjoyed the book, are sharing their own experiences and telling me about tributes of their own.

I already have ideas for the next stage for 60 Postcards. I want to blog more regularly again, using it as a platform for stories about inspirational people and projects. I would love to get schools involved, to organise meet-ups for readers and encourage more interaction through social media – all of which, I hope, will continue to spread the message that grief does not need to be shouldered alone.

But the most exciting part about this project for me is that so many serendipitous events have occurred along the way, I never really know what is going to happen next! Who knows?!…

Rachael ChadwickAbout the author

Rachael Chadwick is an author, blogger and freelance writer. Her first book, 60 Postcards, is published by Simon and Schuster, and is available to buy from Amazon. The book began life as Rachael’s blog Find out more about Rachael on Twitter and Facebook.

New magazine Broad Street seeks true submissions

Geneva street cr Judy DarleyBroad Street, a new semi-annual literary magazine, has put out a call for beautifully written narratives – the twist is that they must be true.

It’s a glorious concept, and challenges you to turn your storytelling skills to your own life. Play around with your memories of your own experiences, pick out an event or adventure that lends itself to telling, and retelling, and whittle it down to a story arch that will please loves of short fiction, yet works as non-fiction.

Capture your slice of memoir, essay or experimental whatever in five words to 5,000 words, and submit it to Broad Street via Tell It Slant (note, there’s a $1.50 submission fee – such a shame).

Based at Virginia Commonwealth University, Broad Street states that it “will present the best of literary journalism, creative nonfiction, photography and illustration” then adds “No academic studies or pomposity, please.”

Find out more at

Memories of an autobiographer

The Cuckoo coverNever throw away anything you write, however banal it seems – you never know how it may come in useful, as author Tony Bayliss discovered when he came to write the first instalment of his autobiography The Cuckoo

One of my all-time favourite books isThe Diary of a Farmer’s Wife – 1796 -1797. It was written by Anne Hughes, a woman whose existence would be unknown to us had her diary not been found under floorboards over a hundred and fifty years later.

It’s an account of how Anne lived in a small English village at the end of the eighteenth century. She makes no mention at all of the wider world, perhaps because communications were so poor in those days that she felt remote from it all; indeed, the village WAS her world. Had the title not already been used, I suppose ‘Diary of a Nobody’ would seem appropriate, except that none of us is a nobody: we each have a story to tell.

Most of us think that our lives are not worth writing about – who would be interested? Anne Hughes certainly thought that, and was writing to herself, as do most diarists, but every page is filled with fascinating information and insights into the life she lived.

It’s more than fifty years since I wrote my first diary and, like Anne Hughes, I wrote it to myself, having no idea that the passing years might make it interesting to readers from the future. I was ten-year-old boy, coping with the break-up of my parents’ marriage, my emerging sexuality, and feeling at odds with my dysfunctional family. I was the proverbial cuckoo in the nest, hence the title I have given to the memoir. Continue reading