The Responsibility of Memoir

Last week, my cousin brought a photograph to my attention. A friend from Gowriehill Primary School had posted online our year 5 class picture, dating from the early 1990s.

Although I hadn’t seen it in years, I remembered most of my classmates’ names, not to mention a number of memories that came flooding back. I recall how the older pupils would act as servers for the younger ones in the lunch hall, or how we would be allowed on the football pitch only on non-rainy days, or the poster telling us not to tip skipfuls of rubbish in public places – as if a ten-year-old could do that.

But when writing about people who are still alive, where does an an anecdote become an invasion of privacy?

It’s probably safe to tell you that Steven Narey was considered the fastest runner in our year, or that at one point we had two Kenneth Sampsons in the same class. By contrast, Mrs Towell probably wouldn’t be happy with my personal view that she looked and acted like Sylvia ‘Bodybag’ Hollamby from Bad Girls.

In some types of memoir, such as those by TV personalities, it’s almost expected that the writer will drop in some juicy gossip about their contemporaries. But there is always the risk of legal action if they go too far.

Last month, Edward Snowdon and his publisher were sued by the US Department of Justice because they didn’t submit the text for approval. However, a comparable British case in 1988 was rejected by senior judges, so the spy Peter Wright could safely publish his memoir Spycatcher.

In 2016, The Huffington Post published a useful guide to avoiding a lawsuit, with five pointers to avoid or stave off trouble at the earliest opportunity. So if I ever want to write a candid account of life at Gowriehill, I’ll do my best to avoid seeing Mrs Towell in court.


Based on a True Story

Every so often, you’ll see a film or a novel that purports to be based upon true events. Recent examples include the Don Shirley biography Green Book and the Freddie Mercury story in Bohemian Rhapsody. But how much can we trust the version of events portrayed?

Life writing often involves considering difficult questions about the subject matter. Is it ethical to repeat an anecdote told in private? Can details be left out of the story to improve clarity for the reader? When is it right to use people’s real names?

The answer to these questions will vary depending on the situation. In a historical piece where the people involved are all dead, the writer is unlikely to run into ethical problems.

But if the subject is still living and perhaps still active in their field, they might be entitled to take legal action. Here is an introduction to the laws regarding libel and slander.

One notable publication was Spycatcher by the former MI5 agent Peter Wright, in which he alleged the head of his organisation during his career was a Soviet spy. The book was ultimately cleared for publication a year later.

I’m Sorry, But…

Almost every writer who wants to be published will have to face rejection somewhere along the line. Perhaps it’s not what they’re looking for at that time; maybe they liked it, but other work was of a higher standard.

Last week, though, I was in the position when I had to turn down an offer. I have a friend – let’s call her Alice – who runs community engagement activities for a historic trust. This time, she was running an event for people aged 60 and over to share their memories for a children’s’ book. Unfortunately, one of the participants had fallen ill, but she had an unusual story of World War II that deserved to be told.

Wounded soldier (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Alice furnished me with the important points. I considered the offer for six days, but I found it impossible to shape a poem or a story around the facts I was given.

The difficulty with biography is that when you don’t know the individual personally, it’s necessary to conduct a lot of research. There was a Middle Eastern leader some years ago who would carry out an hour of research for every minute he planned to spend with a visitor; inconveniently, my own research has not turned up this guy’s name.

I need to stress that this wasn’t Alice’s shortcoming, but from the information I was given, I felt I’d be unable to do justice to her story. So I made the decision to decline the offer, but not before referring Alice to a tutor friend who teaches life writing. I do hope the participant’s story can be told in a suitable manner.

Of course, if there’d been no requirement to tell a true story, I could easily have taken the available facts and fictionalised the rest. It would have been very different, but probably rather compelling.

What Are the Chances?

On 4 December 1956, an extraordinary coincidence happened. Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash all happened to drop by Sun Record Studios in Memphis, which resulted in an impromptu jam session. The engineer had the foresight to record the session, and it’s now a celebrated event among rock ‘n’ roll fans.

On Wednesday of last week, I experienced a similar such meeting. I arrived 15 minutes early for a particular class, but nobody else had arrived after a five-minute wait. I then doubted myself and thought I should perhaps be in another class on the other side of the campus. I immediately headed there.

I had to excuse myself through hundreds of other students, coming the other way, aware that time was ticking away rapidly. When I reached the entrance, I happened to meet Classmate A and explained the situation. As we made our way through the crowds, we met Classmate B by chance and brought him with us. As we approached our destination, we happened to see Classmate C, who joined our small group.

Had you written either of these situations into a novel, the reader might have some difficulty suspending their disbelief. In short, coincidences don’t work particularly well in fiction, even though they happen all the time in real life. It’s related to the broader deus ex machina, when a seemingly unsolvable problem is abruptly resolved by some unexpected intervention.

One way to help the reader maintain that disbelief is to set a few parameters. This could be as simple as dropping a few hints earlier in the story. To demonstrate this, let’s break down my classroom anecdote.

My three classmates and I knew we could only be in one of two particular classrooms, so Classmate D had gone to the second room first, since she was just as unsure as me. And although the rooms were at opposite sides of the campus, there is a main thoroughfare that most students would use to travel from one to the other. So the crowds were not a hindrance to the four of us meeting, rather they were subconsciously leading us to each other.

If I included this incident in a fictional story with that background detail worked into it – Show, don’t tell, said Elmore Leonard – it’s more likely that the reader would see the meeting as quite a reasonable coincidence. It might even be possible to deconstruct the Million Dollar Quartet in a similar fashion. For a start, the label’s owner had brought along Jerry Lee Lewis as an instrumentalist for Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash later wrote that he had already planned to see Perkins’ recording session that day.

Identify the parameters to help the reader believe those coincedences.

This blog has been available at since it began last year. But from today, if you type into your browser, it’s no coincidence you’ll also end up here.


Last year, I joined a Life Writing class at the University of Dundee. One week, the tutor asked us to make mood boards to represent the themes of our writing. I didn’t look forward to this at all. As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, I’m not naturally gifted in visual expression.

But having consulted an artist for advice, I acquired materials from a nearby recycling plant, and pieces gradually fell into place. This task led to a short exhibition at the University where most of the class displayed their boards, with explanatory text and a personal story alongside each one.

The mood board in question
In the mood

My mood board came to be titled Bubble Memory, constructed of a 35mm slide holder with buttons and other found materials in each pocket. The photograph shows how it was displayed in the exhibition, which closed on Friday of last week, although we are in talks to extend it. Despite my initial dread, I was pleased with the all-round results.

This is not the first time I’ve experimented with alternative formats. Text-based artist Gerry O’Brien was also a member of the Life Writing class, and submitted a piece of homework on a thumb drive. It contained a PowerPoint presentation that told the story of meeting a man from Honduras in text, interspersed with photographs. The presentation runs automatically at a slow savoury pace, allowing the viewer to absorb every detail.

Inspired by this, another class member created a similar project, speaking about the dolls she makes and collects. And inspired by both their achievements, I converted an existing poem of mine into the format, but with no pictures and no audio. The text is displayed to the reader at approximately the speed I would speak it, but there is freedom on their part to imagine the emphasis and inflections.

I started experimenting with formats a couple of years ago when I took part in the Sketchbook Project at Brooklyn Art Library. I broke down one of my short stories into fragments of one or two sentences, then converted each fragment to a QR code. This is a square barcode that can be read by many mobile devices. When it’s scanned, the device shows the fragment of text.

I then glued each of these codes into the sketchbook in the right order to tell the story, and sent it back to the Library. It was then scanned and placed online, while the original sketchbook was taken on a tour around America. This is the finished sketchbook. The following year, I submitted an apology for the artwork in that first book.

I don’t think I will ever move completely away from text on paper, but the occasional piece in another format or another medium can engage the reader in a different way. I’ll leave you with the story of the world’s first hypertext novels, a form that would be challenging to reproduce on paper.


Nothing marks out a generation more than the slang it uses.

If we concentrate on right now, February 2014, you’ll hear people say they’ve, “taken a selfie,” or say, “because,” followed by a single word rather than an explanation. Back fifteen years, and it wasn’t unusual to, “tape that programme,” or answer the phone with, “WASSU-U-UP?”

So when writing a piece that’s going to hang around for a while, most notably a novel, it’s a good idea to decide whether you want to incorporate the slang of the day to make it a period piece, or create a more timeless tale by using more generic terms.

If you want a photo taken properly, do it your selfie.

I recently wrote a story where a major plot element is a pager. This immediately sets it in the 1980s, and I felt safe using the term data bank to describe the device’s storage, rather than the more modern memory. I tried not to overload the piece with dated words, but I did allow myself a yuppie, as the pager’s owner described himself.

But while the eighties is over and we know what it was like, writing a story set in the future is different. One day, selfie and because _____ will be as embarrassing as fab and groovy. For my first novel, where the action takes place in the 2500s, I used, for instance, sound system rather than iPod or even MP3 player. I decided not to try predicting the future term, and write something a little more bland, as would distract from what I was trying to say.

There is an elegant solution to this problem, and those of you who write steampunk know what I’m talking about. This genre imagines modern or relatively recent technology as people in the 19th century might have seen it. There are many literary examples of this, but an accessible non-literary one is the TV series Warehouse 13.

Which leads me to wonder if there’ll be a genre of the future where writers of the 2110s envision their everyday gadgets as we in the 2010s might have viewed them. This decade’s most popular invention is probably the touchscreen computer. So, a hundred years in advance, I’m going to label this predicted genre as tabletpunk.

I’d like to be around to see the look on some geek’s face when they unearth this entry.

The C-Word.

I’ve seen Chris Brookmyre twice already, and tonight was my third time. I’m a big fan of his work after All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses an Eye, and most recently, a signed copy of Flesh Wounds. Tonight, he was promoting Bedlam, which also has his autograph.

Brookmyre does not fit the stereotype of the introverted author, much like the late Iain Banks, whom I had the privilege of seeing twice. Rather, Brookmyre takes centre stage and spills out anecdotes full of swearing. He’s so well known for it that he’s now been forced to apologise in advance. Indeed, the first time I saw the guy, he read out an e-mail he’d received by a previous organiser, effectively banning him from appearing several years ago.

Tonight, he brought along a guest. Barry Phillips started a parody blog of a local footballer and found it attracted the attention of readers around the world. Now he’s written a book called The Tartan Special One about a 17-year-old who is snapped up by Dundee FC. I don’t follow the game, and I didn’t buy a copy tonight, but it still appeals to me so I might so do in the future.

I’ve started back at two writing classes: a short course in fiction run by published author Zöe Venditozzi, and Level 2 of the Life Writing course at the University of Dundee. A couple of new people have joined us, one of them from Life Writing, and she says she’s having trouble thinking of ideas for passages in the five- to ten-minute exercises we’re given in class.

By coincidence, I was discussing this issue with one of the other short course stalwarts earlier the same evening. We realised we’re so used to thinking on our feet that we don’t even hesitate over it any more. But when we began in 2011, it would be tiring trying to think of stories.

Most of our Life Writing class knew each other from Level 1, and we really bonded over this week’s homework, which was to write a summary of our life, then pick one part and make it into a vignette. The ideas for this class also come to me rather quickly, and I can sometimes think of one before I’m on the bus home.


Finally, I didn’t realise until tonight that there’s a reminder feature on WordPress. If you want to post at least once a week, or once a month, it’ll send you an e-mail.