In an earlier post I talked about how some stories start; namely the ‘fictional memoir’ as I called it then, a novel-length story about my much-loved father. I so wished to keep going with this project, but I was stuck – call it procrastination, writer’s block, or what you want – but I was desperate to keep the promise to my daughter to write about the grandfather she never knew. So how did I break this writing drought?
Initially I set up my blogsite Artistry to ease myself back into regular writing. I very much enjoyed putting together articles about my favourite interests: books, writing and art. My ruse worked – I’d tricked myself into writing – by writing! It was only a matter of weeks before my mind began drifting towards the ‘fictionalised memoir’. I found I wasn’t comfortable using the moniker, as I thought it pigeonholed me into a genre which wasn’t quite the right fit, and the term ‘life-writing’ didn’t do it for me either. ‘Memoir’ suggests a telling of one’s own life-story. The story I wished to tell, although based on my family (and our few years with Dad), I thought of as a novel-length work, and to be read as fiction; a book that might appeal to a wider audience than just my family.
Finally I re-started the project after telling friends I was working on a piece of creative non-fiction. It had freed me from thinking ‘memoir’. Okay. Easy. I was off. Although not at the speed I’d hoped.
It wasn’t until I suggested a timeline, plus a Mind Map, while helping a writer friend indicate what scenes might go where in her story, did I realise that I should be following my own advice! OMG. I thought my memory would suffice. Ha. When I actually drew the outline in pencil and put in the dates, I realized that I’d already made mistakes in my draft.
My timeline now has each year of ‘my’ life from the age of five – to eighteen, (when my father died). I have circled each date and drawn lines out from each, noting the most salient events of that year, for New Zealand as well as our family. It was a matter of minutes before needed to snake the line underneath the first and add many more circles as I had run out of space (my notes are far from uniform). Something that worked well for me and may help another writers setting off on a similar project, is to keep a list of all the ‘real’ characters’ names, with their fictional names alongside, plus the occupations and specific connections they have with each family member; this I have written down in a notebook, although many might choose to use a word file.
I didn’t become overwhelmed with shifting the episodes around that should have occurred later than I had initially set them. It was interesting in fact, tweaking lines from here and popping them there; nothing like a bit of ‘cutting and pasting’ and completing those much-needed transitions (which I describe in detail in an earlier blog). Now, I’m flying ahead with the narrative. I keep the time-line sketch beside me for ready reference and add extra events and scenes if a bright idea occurs to me.
Alongside this attention to detail I have researched the era (1953-1966 New Zealand), ensuring the colloquial expressions are apt for the times, and, for example, to confirm that the song lyrics I remember are right; the kind of information required for either fiction or non-fiction writing. (NB: photo on right taken by my father on a Box Brownie camera.)
The writing has become fun as opposed to a chore. And the breaks I take from my work are for exercise, and not procrastination. I think of the arc of each section, and hope that when I’m ready to read the completed draft right through, I shall have captured the passion, turmoil and eccentricity of the McPhee family on every page and have done proper justice to the man named Jack.