Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Life Writing

As some of you may know from earlier posts on this blog, as well as writing fiction I have an interest in life-writing, ie: writing about real things which have happened to you.

This came about in two ways, the first through writing fiction and the second through teaching life-writing to students.

In terms of writing fiction, I have spent most of life doing that thing we are told to do - 'write what you know'. Now, only a very simple reading of that concept means that you can only write about real things that may have happened to you. Instead, it is a deeper thought, which says that whatever you are writing, include those concepts and emotions which you have come across and, sometimes, where appropriate, include fictionalised elements of reality.

I think it would be impossible to write something completely fictional. Writers are forever borrowing from real life, even if it is just from observations - the way someone walks, talks, flicks their hair, wears mismatched socks on every alternate Wednesday or whatever. And sometimes we borrow events or snippets of conversations. It is what we do and how we create, and in each usage there will be a greater or lesser correspondence to real life.

I started thinking about this a few years ago when I wrote a story which was very close to autobiography. It had a fictional narrator, and the main event (the loss of the narrator's father when the narrator was very young) was also fictional, but many of the details I used in the story were real and true to my life. Over and above that, the theme of loss which ran through the story very much reflected my own feelings about my father who was, at that time, suffering from dementia. After I had written it, I took great interest in trying to work out if this was memoir or fiction. It ticked a lot of the boxes for both. It was a made up piece of work, but it borrowed a lot of both my memories and my feelings.

With distance, I class that piece as fiction, but it certainly gave me an insight into the crossover between the two forms, and left me interested in how much reality writers use in their work.

A couple of years later, while working at Edge Hill University, I was asked to take on the Life Writing module. This sparked my second wave of interest. I was teaching the students how to write a whole range of pieces, from personal essays to travel articles, biography, memoir, etc A topic which soon came up was the concept of 'truth' versus 'accuracy', something which is still a debatable topic.

The other main issue was to do with writing style. How do you make the mundane interesting or stop the tragic from becoming melodramatic.

This last is something which I think is crucial to life-writing, in that most people who set out to document their lives don't just want to talk about making a sandwich, but often about difficult experiences in their lives. The technique I recommend for this is to write completely without emotion and just present the events to the reader. It is the ultimate in 'showing' not 'telling' in that you present the tragic events to the reader just as they were presented to you and allow them to feel the same things you felt without the authorial voice imposing upon them. It is a very powerful technique and one that I employed in a piece I wrote about collecting my brothers ashes from the crematorium a couple of days after his funeral (I have posted the piece below, in case you're interested.)

What has been most interesting, however, since immersing myself in life-writing, is just how useful the specific techniques have become in my fiction writing. By aligning oneself with the events in a novel and searching for ways to tell them which convey the situation without directing the reader, I think that the writing becomes better and the reader, by having to do a little more work and engage a little more empathy, becomes more involved in the story.

I'm glad that I was given the life-writing module to teach as I think it improved my fiction writing and gave me insight into the tools that I need to use in given situations.

And... here comes the plug. I'm running an online course in life-writing. If you fancy giving it a go and seeing how it interacts with your fiction writing (or poetry, or script, or whatever) or just want to do it to set down those stories you have always promised to write, then please do sign up. It starts on 17th September 2012 and further details are here:  http://www.calumkerr.co.uk/pp002.shtml

Advert over. Here's the piece I wrote. Thanks for reading and, until next time, take care.

The Box

It’s been three days since the funeral. It’s strange to be back here.
                It was raining on the day. Pathetic fallacy, that’s called. The sky wept along with us. We moved from the car to the shelter of the crematorium’s porch, and people milled and talked, sometimes about the deceased, but more often about other things.
                We only had a few moments, though, before we were called to carry the coffin.
                It’s not something you think about very much until you actually have to do it, but you need training to carry a coffin. There were four of us, one at each corner. We were told how to lift it in a particular way, and settle it on our shoulders, then walk in step to keep it level, stop it from slipping.
                I was conscious, as we walked down the central aisle of the chapel – all the other mourners having already taken their seats – that we looked suitably slow and respectful. I wanted to turn and tell them that it wasn’t respect, it was the weight. We couldn’t walk any faster. The weight of years, the weight of life, pressed down on each of us as we carried him to the front.
                As we placed the coffin on the platform at the front, there was a sense of relief as the weight was taken from us. I wondered if he felt the same relief when he was finally able to shed his burdens.
                The rest passed in a blur of music, tears, and the kind words of others.
Now, three days later I have returned to carry out the next duty.
                There are no black cars or black-clad mourners today. The chapel is deserted, and the sun is shining. Is that another reflection of mood? Is this a good day to balance the bad?
                It’s strange to be alone. I seem to have been surrounded by people for so many days.
                I don’t linger in the porch, nor enter the chapel, but instead make my way around to the back door. I’m conscious of the large chimney which rises from this part of the building, a dark finger pointing up into the clear blue of the sky.
                I knock on the partially-open, wooden door, but there is no answer so I step into the gloom.
                It’s dark after the brightness of outside. Once my eyes adjust I see more wood and the normal trappings of an office. I have stepped back-stage and can see the workings of this particular theatre. It feels like trespassing. This place feels more sacred than the other room with its pews and symbols.
                “Hello?” says a voice behind me.
                I turn, startled and see the a face that I only vaguely recognise, even though it’s been little more than 72 hours since I last saw it.
                “Sorry I wasn’t here. How can I help you?”
                “I’ve come to pick up my brother.”
                “Of course.” He bows his head in a show of respect which seems utterly unconscious, simply part of the man.
                He takes his name from me, nods again, then disappears through another wooden door. He returns with a small box, no more than ten inches long. He doesn’t hand it to me immediately, but places it on the table and directs me to complete and sign some forms.
                With the formalities complete, he lifts the small container and places it into my hands.
                I’m strangely split, aware of what is happening, but also aware of a haze which seems to have settled on me.
                I wander back into the sunshine, blinking at the brightness.
I walk slowly, not out of respect, but because I cannot walk any faster. The weight of this box is so much less but also so much greater than that of the coffin. I can feel it trying to pull me down to the ground as I walk back to the car park, alone, just me and my brother.

(Originally published at http://flash365.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/21-box.html)


  1. Very good piece, Calum. I'm particularly interested as I intend writing something on a similar theme - but with a vastly different 'take' - of course.I'll tell you something now that you may find generally interesting. I always feel rather timid about cremation and don't think I'd have the courage to collect a dear one's remains. This is partly due to the tradition I come from and partly down to my creative instinct, which insists on making the deceased always somehow 'alive'.

  2. very creative writing that too last paragraph was good.


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