I PURCHASED THE fine new memoir, She Left Me the Gun, immediately after reading The New York Times’ review of the book that read, in part, “It’s one of those memoirs that remind you why you liked memoirs in the first place, back before every featherhead in your writers’ group was trying to peddle one.” That second phrase, well, let’s just leave that lie, shall we? But that first one? It’s spot on. Emma Brockes’ memoir is indeed one of those books that reminds you why we love this genre.
Here, the author generously takes on the high-wire topic of how much to tell, and how particularly tricky that question becomes when the story is yours.
Read on. Learn a thing or two about what to leave in and what to take out. Like what you read, and want to read the rest of the book? All you have to do is leave a comment to be entered in the big book giveaway.
What to Leave in – And Take Out
By Emma Brockes
I have an odd feeling that in order to write this book, I really needed already to have written this book, if you see what I mean. Writing memoir is desperately difficult, because you are not only trying to manage all the things you manage in a regular piece of writing – characterization; structure; convincing dialog etc etc – but, of course, you are also trying to manage and by-pass your own internal filters. Everyone lies to themselves and it can take forever to untangle what you genuinely thought about something at any given time, and to pin down and interrogate your own evasions. Or to articulate how you got from thinking one thing to thinking another, honoring each stage of that journey without turning your memoir into a piece of sloppy, self-involved journal writing.
I err on the side of brevity; I like to get in and out again as efficiently as possible, so we can all finish up and go home. In the context of memoir writing, the risk I faced was cheating the reader of enough emotional reaction shots to feel sufficiently involved in the story. Good memoir writing must negotiate the line between under and over sharing and understand the aesthetic impact of each. That’s also a pacing issue; when to linger and when to move on. These are all bog standard writing problems, but in the context of a memoir they are particularly tricky because of course you are the character in question, and you need simultaneously to be third party to yourself – to render your own personality realistic – without getting too jazz-hands and contrived about it. Looking back, I can’t think of any exercise less appetizing than sitting around all day thinking “WHAT AM I ACTUALLY LIKE?” A non-writer friend of mine who watched me go through that process said, on receipt of news that another friend of ours was about to embark on his memoir, “God, you’re all so gross.” I’m inclined to agree.
Anyway, it’s worth doing if the story is good enough. And if you can be more or less humorous about it. And if you can bear to spend years of your life picking bits of fluff out of your belly-button. If not, I would counsel doing something more fun, like sorting out your closets or getting started on your tax return.
She Left Me The Gun, an excerpt
If You Think That’s Aggressive, Then You Really Haven’t Lived
My mother first tried to tell me about her life when I was about ten years old. I was sitting at the table
doing homework or a drawing; she was standing at the grill cooking sausages. Every now and then the fat from the meat would catch and a flame leap out. She had been threatening some kind of revelation for years.
‘One day I will tell you the story of my life,’ she said, ‘and you will be amazed.’
I had looked at her in amazement. The story of her life was she was born, she had me, ten years passed,
end of story.
‘Tell me now,’ I’d said.
‘I’ll tell you when you’re older.’
A second later, I’d considered saying ‘Am I old enough now?’ but the joke hadn’t seemed worth it. Anything constituting a Life Story would deviate from the norm in ways that could only embarrass me.
I knew, of course, that she had come from South Africa and had left behind a large family: seven halfsiblings, eight if you included a boy who’d died, ten if you counted the rumour of twins. ‘You should have been a twin,’ said my mother whenever I did something brilliant, like open my mouth or walk across a room. ‘I hoped you’d be twins, with auburn hair.
You could have been. Twins run in the family on both sides.’
And, ‘My stepmother was pregnant with twins, once.’ There were no twins among her siblings.
She always referred to her like this, as ‘my stepmother’, and unlike her siblings, for whom she provided short but vivid character sketches, and even her father, who featured in the odd story, Marjorie was a blank. As for her real mother’s family, all she would say was, ‘Strong women, strong genes,’ and give me one of her looks – a cross between Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen and Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here – that shut down the possibility of further discussion.
It wasn’t evident from her accent that she came from elsewhere. In fact, years later, a colleague answering my phone at work said afterwards, ‘Your mother has the poshest voice I’ve ever heard.’ I couldn’t hear it, but I could see it written down, in the letters she drafted on the backs of old gas bills.
It was there in words like ‘satisfactory’ (great English compliment) and ‘peculiar’ (huge insult). ‘Diana,’ she wrote to her friend Joan in 1997, ‘such a pretty girl, but such a sad life.’
She was imperiously English to her friends and erstwhile family in South Africa, but to me, at home, she was caustic about the English. The worst insult she could muster was, ‘You’re so English.’
I was English. I was more than English, I was from the Home Counties. I played tennis in white clothing. I went to Brownies. I didn’t ride a horse – my mother thought horses and unnecessary complication – but I did everything else commensurate in those parts with being a nice girl. This was important to my mother, although she couldn’t help hinting now and then, at how tame it all was.
“Call that sun?” she said, when the English sun came out. “Call that rain?” When I got bitten by a red ant at Sports Day, my mother inspected the dot while I started to sniffle.
“For goodness’ sake. All that fuss over such a tiny little thing.” Where she came from, any ant worth its salt would kill you.
Among the crimes of the English: coldness, snobbery, boarding schools, ‘tradition’, the royals, hypocrisy, fat ankles, waste and dessert, or “pudding” as they called it, a word she thought redolent of the entire race. “The English,” she said, “are a people who cook their fruit.” It was her greatest fear that she and my dad would go down in a plane crash and I would wind up in boarding school alone, eating stewed prunes and getting more English by the day.
If I’d had my wits about me I might have said, “Oh, right, because white South Africans are so beloved the world over.’ But it didn’t occur to me. It didn’t occur to me until an absurdly late stage that we might, in fact, be separate people.
Above all, she said, the English never talked about anything. Not like us. We talked about everything. We talked a blue streat around the things we didn’t talk about.”
Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Emma Brockes, 2013.
Emma Brockes writes for The Guardian’s Weekend magazine and has contributed to to The New York Times, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle. She is the winner of two British Press Awards – Young Journalist of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year – and while at Oxford won the Philip Geddes Memorial Prize for Journalism. Her book What Would Barbra Do? How Musicals Saved My Life was serialized on the BBC. She lives in New York.
AND THE WINNER IS…
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.
The winner of Emma Brockes’ fine book is Katherine Cox Stevenson. Congratulations, Katherine! I’ll be in touch to send your book.