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.

A Nickname That Sticks

At my school, some of the boys acquired nicknames that stuck with them until they left.

Some were rather obvious: ‘Wilf’ was derived from the first name William, while ‘Gubby’ was shortened from the surname Gilbertson.

But some were a little stranger. One boy was dubbed ‘Beefy’, not for being fat, but after an incident that isn’t necessary to repeat. And I never did find out how Adam started to be called ‘Cuba’

A nickname in a story can be a powerful way of telling the reader about the personality of the character or the type of friends that surround them. The best nicknames work with mutual consent, but not necessarily consent with the nicknamed party.

In the William Golding novel Lord of the Flies, Piggy says early on that he doesn’t want to be called Piggy. Yet nobody had thought of calling him this until he mentioned it, then everyone started doing it.

When just one person has another name for a character, it tells us as much about the person who uses that name as the person it applies to.

Perhaps it’s a close bond between the two. In the crime series NCIS, Ducky nearly always calls Gibbs by his first name ‘Jethro’ because they’re old friends.

Conversely, I’ve witnessed the opposite relationship. In a previous job, one colleague accidentally referred to another as ‘Declan’ instead of Brendan. For the next three years, he continued to use ‘Declan’, seemingly oblivious that none of the rest of us found it funny, least of all Brendan.

The End of Days.

I know you can’t see me, but I’m blowing a whistle as we speak, indicating the final dying minutes of National Novel Writing Month. I breached the 50,000-word target by only 29 words; that’s 13 less than my very first novel in 2010.

Last year’s total was 60,000 and I’d barely scratched the surface, but this time around, I don’t have the material to go much higher, so I’m happy with my haul. Many congratulations if you’ve also hit the benchmark.

My aim is for this to be the last time I bore you with this subject for the next eleven months.

I’ve been to a number of literary events this week, including a fiction writing and a life writing class, and I’m pleased to say I’m enrolled in the continuation class for the latter.

On Thursday, I attended a literary salon where I heard current English students read out their best pieces. Then on Friday, a poetry and cabaret event. A number of pieces were in the Dundee dialect, which must have confused the last act, a songwriter from New Orleans.

I’ve lived in the city most of my life and understand most of the vernacular, yet I’ve never naturally spoken it. It inspired me to write a poem exploring the theme, and I completed it before the event ended. I’m not known as a poet, and I’m not at the stage where I would describe myself as one, but I have been dabbling in the form.

I’ve also been working on another piece, but I need to give you a bit of background. If you didn’t know, I’ve only been a writer since October 2010. To put that in context, I was 27 when I wrote a fictional story for the first time since high school. The piece was that first NaNo novel.

However, when I was at school, I fancied myself as a singer-songwriter, not to mention an actor. I’d tried to write song lyrics, and I recently rediscovered a four-line fragment with two internal rhymes. Moreover, I can still remember the tune, and the words still resonate as much now as they did then.

At the time, I tried to expand it by writing extra verses, but nothing seemed to work until I turned to Google+ earlier this week. With the help of a community, I preserved the rhyme scheme but expanded the number of syllables, and I’ve now squeezed nearly four verses out of it. If I keep making progress, I finally hope to perform it on December 9th after all these years.

After a conversation with my former NaNo Municipal Liaison a couple of weeks ago, I raked out my school qualifications. I’d correctly remembered I’d earned only a C for English, although I have criticisms about the way it was taught. Perhaps that’s why I never pursued it, or perhaps I was too fixated on music to realise my strength was in words, not instruments.

I’ve got to make up for the time I wasted setting up blogs writing factual events without realising that I was able to write fiction. I kick myself every day about my late start, although I take some comfort from the careers of Barbara Taylor Bradford and Richard Adams. Their first books weren’t published until they were over 40 and over 50 respectively.

But I need to work fast if I want to reach a state of parity. I want to reach the point where I’ve produced as much work as if I’d started as a teenager. I have around 200 pieces in total, but that could have been 1,000 if I’d begun at age 15.

I won’t rest until I’m satisfied I’ve made up for every minute of wasted time.