Patti Miller on curiosity and memoir

One of our most popular Faber Writing Academy courses is Patti Miller’s True Stories, which sells out year after year and it’s no surprise either, with many established and debut authors testifying to the impact of her teaching on their writing. Here she discusses the curiosity of memoir writing:

PattiMillerIt a curious way to spend one’s days; writing memoir. And I do mean curious. Memoir is, for me, the expression of an unending curiosity – a desire to know the texture of being in the world. But writing memoir is also about history and for many, it can be about healing.

I think for me, memoir is a way of exploring some fundamental questions. What is it really like to be here, not just what it looks like? It is something that I have always been curious about. I feel the hunger to know, and to find the words to express it, when I catch a bus, or sit in a café. I want ask to each person, what is it like for you to be here in this world with only a set of stories to guide you? How do you do it? How do I do it?

I tried to explore these ideas in my first memoir, The Last One Who Remembers. I began by going back to the stories of my childhood, those family stories that shape us all in our early life. I looked at the stories I was told and the books I read and explored how those stories had moulded my life.

When I teach memoir, I always begin with those early stories, not because they come first, but because they nearly always produce original writing. There is freshness and a clarity in those child memories that creates clear and powerful writing.  As each person reads out his or her story in class, the rest of the group listening are astonished at the way the words re-create the past, make it live in the present.

The memoir can also expand to include narrative non-fiction, where any number of other topics can take central stage. The Mind of a Thief, tells my own story, but also looks at a Native Title claim. My most recent memoir, Ransacking Paris, explores a year spent in Paris, but it also involved creating a historical and literary context – the year was threaded throughout with French writers like Montaigne and de Beauvoir, each with their own take on how to understand the self.

Memoir is also large enough to encompass healing. Many of the writers I work with write of painful experiences: childhood abuse, marriage break-ups, loss. These are experiences that can and do unravel lives and can even unravel a sense of life being worth living.

The extraordinary thing about writing is that it can knit a life back together. I have observed many times that in the writing of the story, no matter how painful, there is an awareness that the writer has made sense of the inexplicable and therefore made it more bearable. Both the writer and the reader are strengthened, and for both, it can be a healing journey. At the same time, it is the art and craft of language which transforms experience, so for me, the words always come first.

Writers, as they re-create their world on the page, live twice, living again the joys, adventures, achievements – and the grief and confusion. Some accuse autobiographers of being self-absorbed, but after teaching thousands of life writers, I’d assert that the opposite is true, that writing a life creates a feeling community – the feeling that we really are all are here trying to make sense of this mystery together. To me, writing a memoir is not about making a record of your achievements; it’s about how you have experienced being in the mystery of existence.  To write your story for others is to give the extraordinary gift of your own experience of being.

Patti Miller is the author of a number of books, including two best-selling writing texts, Writing Your Life and The Memoir Book. Her latest book is Ransacking Paris, UQP 2015. The next of her courses, TRUE STORIES: Writing Memoir and Narrative Non-Fiction runs from February to May. This is a three month intensive course is for those who want to concentrate on memoir or narrative non-fiction. A practical course, based on readings, discussion and exercises, it offers the opportunity to develop several chapters under expert guidance. It will develop skills and explore the richness of the genre along with the joys, challenges and possibilities for the writer of ‘true stories’.

Here’s Patti discussing the course and why it is so valuable to students:

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