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.

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)socketcreative.com.