Life with Revisions

Writing from Life

Life is any writer’s raw material so to what extent you will choose to use your own life experiences is obviously going to be very important. Some writers draw heavily on their own lives, so much so that it can be difficult to separate their art from information in the public domain about them. The poet Sylvia Plath’s mental issues, her estrangement from her husband Ted Hughes and her eventual suicide are well documented. Accordingly, it can be tempting to read her novel The Bell Jar, which tells of a young woman Esther Greenwood’s descent into mental illness, and assume that Greenwood is Plath. With other writers, particularly those who are creating other worlds needed for genres like fantasy, the gap between their own experience and what they write is a huge one. Yet even in this case it is likely that something from the writer’s own psyche will have been the trigger for their creative writing. Virginia Woolf said,

‘Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible.’

Writers often use settings with which they are familiar – Dickens used London, Emily Bronte the Yorkshire Moors and the American poet Fred Voss uses the Californian aircraft factory where for many years he worked on the shop floor. Similarly, writers have often had other jobs before being published and have used this specialist knowledge in their work. For example, Ian Fleming, author of the Bond novels, was a journalist and worked in naval intelligence. Indeed, for some writers their past jobs are their material: Gervase Phinn has been very successful with his humorous memories of primary school teaching.

The old adage ‘Write about what you know’ is good advice, especially when you are starting to write. On the other hand don’t let it restrict you and stop you trying new and unfamiliar subjects.

You might choose to use something from your own life – an incident or a person or a place – as the substance of your writing. This will, even if recent, be based on memory and memory is a slippery thing! None of us remember the same thing in exactly the same way. We will choose to notice some things and ignore others; we will interpret what happens according to our own preferences and prejudices. When redrafting it will not be possible to include every single detail and therefore choices will have to be made about what to omit. A starting and end point need to be decided on. Who is the protagonist? What is the flavour of your piece? Is it serious or humorous? Is its main purpose to entertain or is it didactic?

Didactic writing is writing whose primary purpose is to teach or educate.

Therefore even if your intention is that your writing will be an accurate account of your experience, something that it is clearly not imagined or fictional, the process of writing will inevitably be, to a greater or lesser extent, a creative one. This is why it can be tricky territory, in a workshop situation, to ask whether what someone has written is ‘true’ or not and is probably a question best avoided.

At the top of a piece of paper write down a key date in your life and at the top of another sheet a second key date. A key date might one that designates a birthday, anniversary or death but it does not have to be: it might just be of significance to you. For a couple of minutes shut your eyes and think yourself back to that day. Then spend about 10 minutes writing about your memories, either a particular moment or a period of time on that day. Don’t try to tell a story or even necessarily make any sense. Recall your feelings, your sensations, describe the place and attempt to recreate that day from memory.

The Soundtrack of Your Life: write the story of your life in terms of music. Give each section or chapter of your life the title of a song.

Therapeutic Writing

Writing about painful or traumatic events has long been the stuff of poetry and fiction. The Roman philosopher Seneca said,

‘Things that were heard to bear are sweet to remember’

What do you think he meant by this? The poets Douglas Dunn and Christopher Reid were both sadly widowed when still relatively young men. Their collections, respectively Elegies (1985)and A Scattering (2009), are both dedicated to their wives and the poems here are very moving. What Dunn and Reid don’t do is to be sentimental or ask that the reader feels sorry for them because of the subject matter: the poetry is crafted as skilfully and beautifully as any of their other work. Quite probably there was some therapeutic value for both poets in writing about their loss but this is something of which we cannot be sure. Certainly, the writer Justine Picardie talked about how her memoir about the death of her sister. If the Spirit Moves You ( 2002)  was a way of bringing her back to life through words.

Creative writing is increasingly being used as a therapeutic tool amongst health care professionals and within prisons. People are encouraged to write about their experiences and feelings as a way of helping them come to terms with and recover from what are often very difficult situations. Research has indicated its effectiveness, even more so than other art forms such as painting and sculpture. By all means, use writing to get something out of your system and to make yourself feel better. However, if your intention is for the piece to have any kind of public audience then it will need the crafting and attention that all writing demands. Even though you might be writing about very personal stuff you still need to retain what Graham Greene described as the ‘splinter of ice in the heart’, in other words the critical detachment that enables you to be ruthless in revising your work.

Think about it
A useful way of creating some distance between yourself and what you are describing is to rewrite your piece in the third person, as if whatever happened was to someone else. Or rewrite is from the perspective of someone else who was present. Not only will doing either of these things throw a different light on the experience but they can also serve the purpose of testing out the material, seeing whether it is strong enough to warrant further work.

Therapeutic writing Writing that aims to heal.

Write the letter or email that could or would not be sent. It might be to a person who was or is important to you during your life (perhaps they might not have known it) or it might be to a historical or fictional character. The imaginary recipient of your communication might not even be human: you could write to an animal, a piece of furniture, to an item of clothing or to a place. What about writing to a part of your body? Alternatively, write a piece of dialogue in which you speak with someone with whom you have not been able to communicate. Again this could be someone real or not. As above, the other ‘person’ need not be a person at all but an object. Give yourself about 10 minutes and write from the heart. This is something you might not want to share with anyone else but spend some time considering what you’ve written.

Autobiography and Memoir

Autobiography and memoir: Both are written in the first person and both describe the writer’s life. Memoir tends to have a narrower focus than autobiography, perhaps dealing with a specific period of time.

Autobiography and memoir are both first person accounts of the writer’s life. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably but memoir usually focuses on one specific period of time while an autobiography uses a more chronological narrative and covers more of the author’s life. Generally, both are written either by famous people or by those who have had an extraordinary experience. The quality of the writing in some of the commercial autobiographies and memoirs is open to question: often the book has been hurriedly brought out to cash in on the celebrity’s current fame. Others are ghost written, in other words written by a professional writer, often a journalist, who works in collaboration with the celebrity concerned.

Ghost writing: Writing that will be accredited to someone else.

Yet many memoirs written by people who have achieved fame in other fields are excellent reads and repay attention if you are interested in this type of writing. ‘ Memoir of a Not so Dutiful Daughter’ (2009) by the broadcaster Jenni Murray is one, Dreams from my Father (2008)by Barack Obama another. As you would expect, literary memoirs are numerous. For the new writer, reading about the early life of an established writer can be illuminating. Bad Blood (2001) by Lorna Sage, and When Did You Last See Your Father(1994)  by Blake Morrisonare both well worth having a look at. Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (2006) is the one to choose if you prefer a lighter touch.Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why be Happy when you could be Normal (2013)is fascinating if you also read her first novel Oranges are not the Only Fruit (1991),widely assumed to be semi-autobiographical not least because the novel’s protagonist shares her name. In her memoir she discusses the differences between fact and fiction and the different truths that both can reveal. On the other hand, Tobias Wolff’s memoir This Boy’s Life (1989)reads as a novel and without the information that it is memoir, a reader might easily be forgiven for assuming it to be a work of fiction.

Similarly, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer tells of a disastrous Everest expedition in 1995. It is part memoir part travelogue ( the lines are very blurred in this area ). Krakauer is a journalist and yet because tension is built up in a similar way as it would had he been writing a thriller his book becomes much more than a dispassionate account of the facts. In addition, because there were so many other people involved in this story, inevitably there were those who disputed Krakauer’s version of events. You might notice this subjective treatment in newspapers too. Have a look at some broadsheets and see if you can find examples of articles where the journalist is going beyond merely reporting the facts. What devices are being used and to what effect? Unfortunately, this kind of article is often about a disaster or tragedy of some kind.

When you are writing about members of your close family, there can be ethical issues. An early example of this is Edmund Gosse’s autobiography Father and Son (1907) which told of his difficult relationship with his father. This caused a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement to write,

 ‘The author of this book has no doubt settled it with his conscience how far in the interests of popular edification or amusement it is legitimate to expose the weaknesses and inconsistencies of a good man who is also one’s father.’

Imagine you have become a successful writer and have been commissioned to write a memoir or your autobiography. Give it a title. (Titles of films or songs can be good for this) Write the first page of the first chapter. Remember that you don’t necessarily have to start with your earliest memory but, if not, then it is likely that your beginning will be something of significance to your writing career. Incidentally, this is a good exercise for helping you to envisage what kind of writer you would like to be. If you are in a writing group with people who are familiar with your work, then write each other’s publicity blurbs for the back of the book. This is also a great way of discovering where your peers think your strengths lie.

Food for Thought

Meals are useful for a writer because they are occasions where a group of people, usually family or friends, assemble, where discussions or arguments take place and where relationships between sometimes disparate characters can be revealed. Significant occasions tend to involve eating and drinking and therefore our memories will often be linked to food. Here is an extract from the TV chef Nigel Slater’s memoir Toast.

Tinned Ham

It’s a Saturday in mid-August and we have dragged the picnic table on to the lawn. My mother likes it to sit between the apple trees so she doesn’t have to squint in the sunshine. She is wearing Scholl sandals and a duck-egg blue dress with sprigs of daisies. It has buttons up thefront. She and my father bring the food out from the kitchen while I just sit at the table looking at my lap. There’s a bowl of pale lettuce, some slices of beetroot invinegar, cucumber cut so thin you could read the Bible through it and a sauce boat of Heinz Salad Cream. We must be the only family to put salad cream in a sauce boat.

My mother puts a tomato on my plate and cuts it into quarters, then a few giant curls of lettuce, two slices of beetroot and tells me, ‘You don’t have to have salad cream if you don’t want to.’ I know what’s coming. My father is eyeing my plate, searching for the slice of ham that will turn his puny son into a Viking warrior.

Without a word he stabs his fork into a slice of ham and slaps it on my plate. A hot wave of hate goes through my body. Hate ham, hate him.

Actually, I rather like ham. What I don’t like is this ham. The sort of ham that comes from an oval green tin and is surrounded by golden-brown jelly. The sort of ham it takes an age to prise from its aluminium coffin. The sort of ham that my father carves very thinly with the same knife he uses for the Sunday roast. Pretty-pink ham, evil jelly.

It is amazing how long it can take to scrape every morsel of jelly from a slice of cold boiled meat. I spend a good fifteen minutes separating good from bad, pushing the jelly towards the edge of my plate. A scientist exhuming a mummified corpse wouldn’t have been as patient as I am. Meanwhile, my father is glaring at me with a mixture of anger and disgust. Disgust at what I am not quite sure. Could it be the waste of valuable protein or the waste of valuable time? Could it be simply that it looks ungrateful? Perhaps it is the way I am doing it, like someone has put poo on my plate.

Mother is silent. Father is silently fuming. If he were cartoon you’d see the smoke coming out of his ears.

Suddenly, he reaches across the table, picks up my plate with its ham, salad and painstakingly removed jelly and chucks I across the lawn. Mother pulls her lips into a thin, straight line. Ham, beetroot, lettuce and cucumber are spread out on the lawn. I get down from the table and run in through the kitchen and upstairs to my bedroom. I close the door, lie face down on the bed and wait.

You would expect a chef’s memoir to dwell on food but consider how this is about much more than what’s being eaten. What is the writer telling us about his relationship with his parents? How does food act as a means by which the author shows us this? Notice how the type of food that’s eaten is an excellent way of showing the time when this is set – the mid to late sixties. As readers, we have no way of knowing how accurate Slater’s account of the ham throwing incident is and we can only suppose that his father’s recollection might have well been very different.‘ Memory….is the diary that we all carry about with us’ said Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest but we would never expect any two individual diaries to be the same.

Describe a memorable meal.
Take the line ‘ We must be the only family to…….’ and use it to write a memoir piece.
Use a piece of familiar furniture – perhaps a table around which the family sit or something old that belonged to grandparents – as a starting-point for a poem or a piece of prose that looks at family relationships.


This is someone’s life written by someone else. Authorised biographies have the permission and co-operation of the subject, unauthorised ones do not.  What is interesting here is the relationship between the writer and the person whose life they are writing about. Some biographies are marketed on the basis of their revelations: the book will disclose previously unknown love affairs, mention other famous names and so on. Others will be in effect a ‘whitewash’, skimming over or sometimes completely missing out anything that would show their subject in a bad light.

It might be the case that you are interested in writing a biographical piece on someone you know. Having got their permission, you will need to invest much time in interviewing them ( recording is much easier than trying to take notes ) and doing further research of your own. This type of writing demands factual accuracy and for your individual writer’s voice to take a back seat. Having said that, biography will require you to deploy the same skills as are needed for any successful piece of creative writing in terms of composition. It can be a great way of preserving memories of an old person, perhaps a grandparent, that can then be kept and passed down within the family.


If writing directly from life there are things to be wary of, most notably depicting anyone in a way that could cause offence or upset either to the person themselves or to those close to them. One of the first expose memoirs was Mommie Dearest (1978) written by the adopted daughter of the film star Joan Crawford. There have been cases where a writer has been sued for defamation of character. In her memoir Ugly the barrister Constance Briscoe claimed to have been abused by her mother who took her and her publishers to court for libel. She was unsuccessful but Briscoe’s siblings took different sides, going to show how perceptions can be so different. These are extreme examples but you do need to take care when writing anything that purports to be factual. If you’re claiming something as fact then it needs to be: dates, events, all need to be double checked.

Think about it
What games did you play at primary school? Do you remember any songs or chants? What about crazes? Your first day at secondary school; your first job; the first time you were ever frightened; a memorable holiday; being ill; a storm, flood or gale; Christmas or any big festive event; falling in love; falling out of love…… The list is as endless as our memories so there should never be a shortage of material.

On the other hand, if you’re using your life memories as springboards for poetry, prose or script then there are no restrictions. Remember that they are only triggers, meaning that they might lead you off on another track completely, and don’t forget that you can always make subtle changes with your personal history if by doing so the finished piece of writing is improved.