Recently Field of Words Director, Eileen Herbert-Goodall, had the pleasure of bouncing around a few ideas with award-winning author and memoir mentor, Patti Miller. Here’s a transcript of their discussion…
E – Thank you for allowing me to interview you, Patti…no doubt many Field of Words followers will be keen to read about your thoughts and impressions regarding the writing process. You’re known as a ‘real-life’ author and teacher. Do you also write fiction?
P – I am mainly a memoirist and narrative non-fiction writer, but I have also written fiction – a novel, ‘Child’, published by Allen & Unwin in 1998, and, in the past, numerous short stories in literary magazines. Over the two decades I have concentrated more and more on both reading and writing non-fiction but still love fiction. It’s not a competition between the two, they are two essential forms of nourishment that I go to as required, but I suspect I will continue to write non-fiction.
E – What draws you to the field of life-writing?
P – First I’ll clarify what I mean by life-writing as I think it is a fairly fluid term. For me, it includes the whole field of non-fiction where there is a first-person narrator. That means it could be memoir or true crime or travel writing or nature and science writing, or writing in any area of experience or knowledge one could name. And what draws me to it, I now realise, is the voice. I like the voice of a first person narrator because it gives me the sense that I am having a personal relationship – perhaps friendship – with the writer. When I read Michel de Montaigne, a sixteenth century French memoirist and essayist who happily used ‘I’ to explore his life, I feel like I know him – and that he knows me. I enjoy that feeling of intimacy of mind and heart with people I’ve never met.
E – Field of Words will be operating its first memoir competition across August and September this year. Can you explain to readers the difference between auto-biography and memoir?
P – Here’s my definition:
Autobiography is an account of a whole life – from one’s origins to the present. It can include some family history but concentrates on the individual life, exploring childhood experience, personal development, relationships and career.
Memoir is an aspect of a life shaped by any number of parameters including time, place, topic or theme. You can write a memoir of childhood, or of a year in Turkmenistan, or of a relationship with a parent – and you can write any number of memoirs.
E – You have written a number of life stories…how do you manage to tap into a sustainable source of ideas?
P – I would call them memoir and narrative non-fiction rather than life stories. I’ve written four such books and mostly they inhabit the borderland between memoir and narrative non-fiction. They have each come from different sources. I think I am often drawn to exploring ideas – and simply use myself as material. The first book, The Last One Who Remembers, started with an idea rather than an image or emotional quest – it was the desire to explore the nature of story itself. The next book, Whatever The Gods Do, came from keeping notes about the desire to sing, but which ended up being about a friend of mine who died young. The Mind of a Thief came from a dream instruction (!) telling me to go back to the town I came from and write its story – which lead me to a Native title claim in my hometown and my own connection to country. Ransacking Paris came partly from an interest in exploring French memoirists, combined with exploring what a year in Paris had meant to me. The source, I suppose, is always my observations of life.
E – Many aspiring real-life writers think nothing particularly interesting has happened in their lives, so they don’t have anything to write about. What would you say in response to that?
P – To me, writing a worthwhile memoir does not depend on having an exciting or high achieving life – but it does depend on how you see that life. Some people can be boring about their fabulous trip to Africa; others can be interesting about their own back yard. It’s all in the eye. If you see and can reveal the infinite complexity of everyday life – as, for example, Norwegian writer, Knausgaard, does, you can write just as powerful a memoir as someone who has fought a war or ruled a country or had any number of dangerous and exciting adventures.
E – How do you find a balance between recording factual truth in your works and achieving vivid story-telling? Do you embrace a particular approach or method in this regard?
P – I think of the territory between facts and imaginative reconstruction as the ‘borderlands’ – too far over the border and you are in the territory of fiction. In terms of finding a balance I return to the fundamental relationship between a memoirist and her reader. To me, it’s very similar to a friendship where you are entrusted with someone else’s experiences, thoughts and feelings. With most friendships, you don’t mind if someone embroiders or exaggerates as they tell a story, but you do mind if they consciously mislead you and manipulate your emotions. It’s the same for memoir.
E – On the Life Stories Workshop website – an initiative you founded – it’s stated that ‘life story writing also has a psychological and a spiritual dimension – it can be both healing and awakening’. Could you explain what you mean in a little more detail?
P – I always approach memoir and life writing generally from the perspective of the art and craft of it, but I have observed that many people find it psychologically healing to tell their story. And to write well, we need to observe well. We need to pay ‘right attention’, as Buddhism put it – and that attention comes from being fully awake to ourselves and our world. Then, trying to find the precise words for what we see and understand demands more attention, more wakefulness. Writing helps wakes us up!
E – During an ABC interview recorded in January 2013, you said, ‘I’m made of other people’s stories and I guess they’re made of mine’. This is a very intriguing statement…could you elaborate on this a little?
P – As I read or listen to others’ stories, I absorb their stories and they become part of me. Without all the stories I have read and listened to, I wouldn’t be me – they are part of the fabric of my being, my sense of self. I know the same must be happening for everyone else – I believe stories create a sense of communion between us all.
E – Do you have any new works coming out?
P – I have been working on a new narrative non-fiction book, but I’d prefer not to talk about that because it’s very much in the beginning stage. Also, my latest book on writing, ‘Writing True Stories’ has just been released and that is taking up a lot of my time. It covers the whole territory of memoir, biography, and creative non-fiction, but thinking about how to write is different from actually writing! It requires a change of gear.
E – Thanks so much for your time, Patti – it’s been an absolute pleasure…and good luck with the release of ‘Writing True Stories‘.
Patti Miller, founder of the Life Stories Workshop, is an established writer and Australia’s most experienced life-writing teacher. Her books have been published by Allen & Unwin, Random House and UQP. Her passionate and supportive approach to life writing has grown out of her love and knowledge of the art of writing and literature and her fascination with the stories of our lives. She has taught writing workshops for more than twenty years, specialising in life writing since 1991 and is the author of the best selling Writing ‘Writing Your Life‘, as well as ‘The Memoir Book‘. She holds a BA (Communications) and an MA (Writing) from the University of Technology, Sydney.
You can read more about Patti and her work at Life Stories Workshop: http://www.lifestories.com.au/index.htm
‘Writing True Stories’ is available for purchase here.