Next in this new series called Writing Lessons, my guest teacher is Kate Richards, whose astonishing memoir, Madness, tackles just what the title implies. I met Kate online after slamming into her book in the form of the type of review that makes a reader rush to read more. Published this year by Penguin, Australia, Madness is building an audience worldwide. Kate is next in what is growing into a bunch of fine writers you will meet here, all of whom are going to teach us a thing or two about writing memoir. Writing Lessons will include a piece on how to write memoir, an excerpt, and a chance to win the featured book. Read all the way through for more.
Knowing Your Audience
by Kate Richards
Who are you writing your memoir for? For example, it may be one of the following: yourself only, your family and friends, self-publication in print for a small community/region, self electronic publication (e-book) for a wider audience, publication with a specialist publisher for a specific group within the general community or publication with a general publisher for a general audience.
If you would like your memoir to be read by a wider audience, you need to think about how to tell your story so that it’s clear and interesting for people who’ve never met you. A good book, whether memoir or fiction, draws readers out of themselves and into the world within the book. It captures and holds readers’ interest, both through the way it is written and through evolution of the story.
Think about books you have loved, especially other memoirs. How have those authors enabled their ‘characters’ to come alive? It may be by use of original dialogue or description or showing emotion. Even in memoir, where the ‘characters’ are real people, it’s applicable to use some of the techniques of fiction writers so that your ‘characters’ (including yourself) are three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional. Show the darkness and the light, the complexity and the uncertainty. Readers need and want to feel connected to the ‘you’ that appears on the page.
How does the story evolve in the books you love? The most common way to write a memoir is in chronological order over time like a biography, but you can choose to focus only on a number of months or years from a specific period of your life. One of the finest memoir/biographies I’ve read begins at the end of the protagonist’s life: Stuart, A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters. Sometimes it’s fun to consider breaking writing rules!
Madness, A Memoir. An excerpt
The road to the Mt Buffalo National Park at dawn is a theatre of mist, of ghosts rising and contorting and falling away. The mist clears near the plateau; up the steep track to Corral Peak is a lone granite tor, Sentinel, reaching right into the blue of the sky. Kookaburras note my slow approach – five of them at least – laughing in stereo to the north and south and east
and west. All the hairs are up on my legs and arms and I shiver, then laugh, then cry.
Now the echo of crows on the cliff-face.
Day-smell is different from dusk-smell is different from night smell. Day-smell is warmed eucalyptus oil and mountain tea-tree, candle heath and aromatic alpine baekea. Dusk-smell is thick with native grasses and boronia. Night-smell is the deep cool water of Lake Catani, where the other-side sun is reflecting onto the moon and the moon dribbles light over the still water of the lake and I open my body to it, skin white as the moon.
Flesh, air. A breathing silence.
Meaning. Illness. This thing called life.
Currawongs are the first sound of the morning, followed by flies around the entrance to my tent and the deeper sound of bees. I crawl outside to find a flame robin in a near-by eucalypt. He takes flight. I walk down to the lake for a swim, for the water like silk and the bottom-silt like silk. In front of me, as I glide along, are two wood ducks and the occasional plop! and ripple of a fish. Bright-eyed butterflies, brown and orange like a checkerboard, flicker together just above the surface. On the other side of the lake I look for frogs and cicadas in the alpine bog, but they grow faint and vow silence whenever I come close.
Back at my tent I pack a backpack and walk out towards the west edge of the plateau, walk till my calves and thighs are stretched and quietly sore. In the early evening I ease down into the grass and heath, disturbing some grasshoppers, rather ripe-looking and violent green. In the sky are long streaks of cloud. Why do I look at a group of yellowgold daisies and lose my breath? Is it that they remind me of the sun? Why do I know they are perfect? I’m not a bee or a bird; I can’t pollinate them. Perhaps it’s the symmetry or perhaps it’s evolutionary. Perhaps it has something to do with Jung’s collective unconscious or is it merely their contrast with the pale alpine grass? The daisies have soft yellow centres with an orange rim. Then the yellowgold petals – six of them, darkest gold at the base, brightest yellow nearest the floret. They couldn’t possibly be more alive.
I take off my boots and thick socks and feel the native grass under my feet. It is surprisingly soft. I take off my glasses and listen to the dusk. To my right a kookaburra, rrrlaaah hah hahhah haw, to my left tiny yellow-faced honeyeaters are settling in for the night. They are no bigger than my thumb. They zip from tree to tree, hee ee ee. Crimson Rosellas call to one another across the valley. I’m waiting for wombats to come up out of their holes into the dusk. I listen and wait. Ah, the moon behind a strand of eucalypts. Moths, dark and flittering against the paler sky.
Once the sun has dipped below the mountain range the march flies leave and the mosquitoes come and the moon rises behind a stand of eucalypts. The smell of dusk air. The moon is each minute brighter. The birds are all quiet now – just the sound of frogs and cicadas and forest bats overhead and the wind shhh through the tops of the trees. Then the kookaburra again rrlaah hah hah haw. Now the stars. First one, then another then another. Blinking, as they do. Then the frogs and cicadas stop, then no wind.
So quiet. Still. A million stars.
About Kate Richards
I let the writers compose their own bios. Here’s hers: Kate Richards is an Australian writer of literary non-fiction, fiction and poetry. She has an MD with honors and works in clinical cancer research. Her writing heroes are Matsuo Bashō, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, GM Hopkins, Patrick White, Keri Hulme, Laozi. Madness, a Memoir is published by Penguin Books Australia. It is the true story of a journey from chaos to balance, and limbo to meaning. Kate lives in Melbourne.
HOW TO WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK
I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each installment of the series will take on one short topic that addresses how to write memoir, and will include a great big book giveaway.
It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by.
The contest for this book is now closed. Please see the next installment of Writing Lessons, this week with the fine writer, Monica Wesolowska.
The winner of the Kate Richards’ book is Marcia Moston. Congratulations, Marcia! I’ll be in touch to send your book.