Makey-Uppie Stories

One of my favourite Twitter users is the Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards. This account is dedicated to picking out tall tales and outrageous claims from social media users.

The best way to gauge the style is by reading a number of posts. After a while, you might begin to spot some common elements:

  • The story is usually heard second-hand from a friend or relative, or witnessed by the writer, although some accounts are first-hand.
  • The setting is usually a crowded public place such as a supermarket or a gym.
  • Stories often feature a child aged under 10 who speaks more articulately than would be expected from that age range.
  • In an argument with a member of staff, a manager will sometimes intervene; the member of staff is usually fired on the spot.
  • The story rounds off with a report of spontaneous cheering from the crowd.

The winner of the award in 2018 is a textbook example.

And yet, when we read an autobiography, there is usually an understanding that the events don’t take place quite as presented. Sometimes events are merged, or timelines become elastic, or the wording implies that something else really happened.

The difference between this type of writing and a Didn’t Happen award nominee is that the author has taken care to ensure that the events are at least consistent with generally accepted behaviour. How often have you seen a member of staff lose their job in front of customers, or heard an entire cafe cheer at someone else’s conversation? Probably never, and certainly not at the same time.

And with some authors, the story is so good that readers don’t care whether or not they’re being deceived. Try starting with these rock-star memoirs and make up your own mind.

The Geography of Biography

I wrote the first draft of this entry in Camperdown Park in Dundee.

It’s a place I visited many times when I was young, often for the playpark or the boating lake, or sometimes the zoo. Its 400 acres leaves plenty of room for a large expanse of grass and – until last year – a golf course. But I chose to sit beside the duck pond, tucked away between the trees.

It’s hard not to compare my memory of Camperdown from childhood to how it currently appears. On the whole, the whole area is recognisably the same, although some parts don’t appear quite as massive now. I do feel the playpark has suffered from the loss of the pirate-ship climbing frames, even if the new modern equipment is less of a death-trap.

The chances are that most people reading this won’t know where this park is or my connection with it, and frankly, won’t care. Yet memoir and biography are two genres that consistently sell well, so it must be possible to draw the reader into someone else’s nostalgia.

In my experience, the key is to give as much context and description as possible, and tell it as if it were a fiction story.

In this case, I might expand upon specific memories, like playing a golf game on my GameBoy near the duck pond or becoming annoyed with somebody who deliberately splashed me on the boating lake. I’d also look a little wider, perhaps that a school friend lived nearby or how we’d often visit the Little Chef while in the area.

Even when writing fiction, I find it useful to base made-up places on real ones, as it helps to keep the description consistent. If I ever need to set a story in a zoo or on a climbing frame shaped like a pirate ship, I know where I’ll use as a model.

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.


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.

The Shock of The New.

Even although I’ve had stories published, I’m very keen to keep expanding my horizons. DamyantiWrites made this very point in her recent entry Do You Swim Free?, where she discusses authors who are happy to sit on the well-worn cushions of their comfort zone, rehashing the same ideas for years.

To this end, I’ve joined a Life Writing (LW) class at the University of Dundee. Thus far, the vast majority of my scribing has been about fictional characters in fictional situations, but LW is all about the self: memoirs of a specific event you experienced, an autobiography of your entire life, or a biography of someone else’s.

In last week’s class, we wrote a passage about a recent holiday; in my case a boat trip up the River Forth in Edinburgh. Part of our homework involved rewriting the passage using reference material such as photographs, maps and articles. The next class is on Tuesday, when we’ll be discussing the LW we have enjoyed and/or disliked.

I hope to expand my horizons in other ways too, such as poetry, and the performance type in particular; I intend to come back to that subject in the future. I’ve also written a stage play and I’m kicking about an idea for a screenplay.

There are authors who can carry off taking the same path over and over again. Read almost anything by Agatha Christie and it follows a familiar pattern where everyone ends up in the drawing room while Poirot or Miss Marple whittles them down to reveal the murderer. And I dislike Dan Brown’s style, but looking past that, he is another good example. Historical facts, symbolic minutiae and conspiracies spill out onto every page of every book, and the public lap it up.

I really yearn to pull something unexpected out of the bag. P D James is one author who did just that. For years, she penned detective books, then at the age of 72, wrote the science fiction novel Children of Men. And Roald Dahl is famous for his children’s books, but additionally wrote macabre short stories for adults, and the script for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. That’s like Cliff Richard releasing a hip-hop album.

To that end, I’ll attempt to wring every possible benefit out of the LW course, and not just from the teaching in class. Being a student allows me into the university library, where I’m writing this, and into the cheap campus bar. And that means it’s easier to take Ernest Hemingway’s slightly dubious advice to, “Write drunk, edit sober.”

But I’ll need to squeeze it all in before December, when the course ends and I’ll lose these privileges.