Memory and Misery: Memoir Writing Advice from Crystal Jeans
22nd Aug 2016
The Vegetarian Tigers of Paradise is the new novel by Welsh author Crystal Jeans, telling the story of narrator Crissy's family, childhood and adolescence.
But the book began life as a memoir, and here Crystal divulges her secrets: when to distrust your own memories, what to expect when friends and family recognise themselves in your writing, and how not to believe your own bullshit...
The Perils Of Writing About Your Family
Be careful. Change names. No matter how affectionate your stories or kind your intentions, you will upset people. If you are (un)lucky enough to get published, you will have a deep grumbling anxiety in your belly, you’ll think it can be easily assuaged by further changes of identity (let’s make that short fat blonde man into a tall, skinny ginger man with a beard, should do the trick). But it will not be enough. Because they’ll recognise themselves, and they might not be ready for what you really think.
When my family read my book, they loved it. But once the honeymoon period had ended, my mother admitted that she was very worried about how her character would be perceived by judgemental strangers, so worried that it was eating her up. I felt like a piece of shit. You too will feel like a piece of shit. I cannot stress that enough.
The week following publication, I was a turd with shoes. I even hoped that my book would do badly – for about five minutes (I later amended that to, I hope it does so well that it makes me rich so that I can compensate my family with fancy cars and holidays to Disneyworld).
My best advice: fictionalise it to filth unless you are an absolute sweetheart who never has an unkind thing to say about anyone (in which case you run the risk of being boring) and just accept that things might get hairy.
Or just don’t do it at all.
Not convinced? Take a gander at this article discussing the repercussions of Augusten Burrough’s famous memoir, Running With Scissors. And remember – he thought his depiction of his foster family, the Finches, was affectionate.
Do Not Trust The Memories Of Others
I was writing a chapter about my dad, which I would later go on to name ‘Dad’s Drugs’. At this early point, I’d settled on writing a straight memoir and wanted to record things as faithfully as possible, so I sat my dad down, pulled out a notebook and interviewed him about his long history of drug use/abuse.
Because he thinks drugs are cool and that I’m impressed by this (I’m not), he was a keen and willing interviewee. I wrote long lists about morphine and cannabis and LSD and noted his thoughts on them.
(‘So basically, Crystal Meth is the only drug you haven’t taken?’
‘Actually I think I took that once in the eighties.’
‘Was Crystal Meth even around in the eighties?’
‘Apparently. Because I smoked a load.’)
I wrote the chapter and a couple of years later, after many direction changes (I decided to take my own advice and fictionalise it), I got it published by Honno Press.
My dad isn’t much of a reader, but there’s nothing like starring in a novel to get the pages turning. His verdict? Funny. He loved it. Except there were some things I’d written in ‘Dad’s Drugs’ that ‘didn’t happen like that.’
‘What are you on about?’ I said. ‘I literally sat down and wrote what you said word for word. I didn’t even fictionalise that bit. I still have the notes.’
The man’s brain was drug-addled. A shrug was the correct response.I felt like a piece of shit. You too will feel like a piece of shit. My best advice: fictionalise it to filth.
Do Not Trust Your Own Memories
It wasn’t just my dad’s memories that were iffy; I was starting to get confused about my own. Case in point: my mother once told me a story about the time my dad, an animal lover, went to work in a slaughter house. He came home to my mum half way through his first shift sobbing. Except he didn’t.
There was no sobbing. Talking about it years later, my mum told me that he came home very upset and quiet. I must have added the sobbing myself, perhaps because I liked the idea of my father being such a super-sensitive animal-loving darling that the sight of pig death moved him to tears. I had subconsciously decided to re-frame my own dad.
It does help with writing, being a born manipulator and all.
Kiss Goodbye To Your Real Memories
It took me years to get The Vegetarian Tigers of Paradise into its final form. I had other projects on the go, but there were long periods where I was immersed in this world of my past. And this sort of immersion can play havoc with your recollections.
I’d go over a chapter dozens of times, changing fact (or imagined fact) to fiction, making things up, swapping identities. I did this so much that I no longer properly recall my real memories.
There’s a character called Russell who once dated my mother. Russell is a made-up name. I no longer remember the real name. He will always be Russell to me now. And he will always appear to me as he did in the scenes I set up; he is no longer a vague face floating in the ether of a twenty-year-old memory, he is a man who raises his eyebrows and licks the crisp Rizla paper with a small pink tongue-tip. *
This is the problem with memoir writing. We start to believe our own bullshit.
There are scenes that I half-fabricated that now feel more real to me than the initial memory. Such as my parents telling me and my sister that we would be leaving the faith (we were Jehovah’s Witnesses up until that point). I couldn’t remember how it really happened so I set up a scene.
And now, when I try to think back to that time, I imagine that scene: my mum on the sofa with her beefy leg up on the cushion, my dad picking his nose, rain outside.
It’s like I dragged down an emaciated old christmas tree from the attic, and seeing its bareness, I overcompensated with hundreds of baubles and yards of tinsel, and now all I can see is baubles and tinsel and there are only glimmers of green artificial leaves poking through, and it’s important that the tree is artificial in this analogy, because even the memories we think are real might not be real.
I’m not saying I mind. I’ve got a fricking book published.
Screw my memories.
*I’m totally lying here for convenience. I do remember Russell’s real name and there is no scene in which he licks a Rizla paper and raises his eyebrows. But I did forget his real name for about three days. You know you’ve arrived as a writer when you find yourself lying about lying.