‘A very weird thing happened when I wrote this book – I forgot that anybody would read it.’ – Liam Pieper
Memoir is not a comprehensive story of a life, but a collection of memories that have had a significant impact on the writer. So, how does one go about crafting a memoir? As part of the National Writers’ Conference at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Benjamin Law sat down with Liam Pieper, Luke Ryan and Lorelei Vashti to chat about crafting and publishing their memoirs, The Feelgood Hit of the Year, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo and Dress Memory. Here are a few highlights from the session.
How do you frame a memoir?
Liam describes his book as ‘a family trying to survive my adventures’. Liam found crafting his memoir was akin to looking at a magic eye trick – ‘you stare at it long enough and see the thread’.
Lorelei’s stories came from the dresses she picked. She found the process easy, ‘because I carry these memories with me every day’. Each garment triggered flashes of powerful and emotional memories of her life.
Did Luke feel it was inevitable that he’d write about cancer?
‘Say what you will about cancer, but it offers a very clear editorial structure’, Luke joked. After handing his manuscript in to his editor, he received feedback that the manuscript needed ‘more cancer’. He responded by including ‘way too much cancer’ in the second draft. The editorial process helped Luke come to terms with ‘the fact that this is the story I have to tell’. He grew to appreciate the universality of his story, that ‘so much of your life is common’ that other people can relate to.
How did you get a book deal?
Lorelei originally wrote one short story every Friday for six months on her blog, Dress Memory. Her blog caught the attention of her publisher.
Liam described securing a publishing deal with Penguin as ‘an accident’. He went to the launch of Penguin Specials and met the editor.
As much as memoirs are about ourselves, they involve respecting other people as well. What are the ground rules for writing a memoir?
Luke wanted to use the real names of people from his childhood. In the end, he only changed the names of two people, both of whom were sexual encounters.
All of names of people were changed by the final draft of Liam’s memoir, except for three. Penguin did a legal check prior to publication. However, Fairfax requested additional clearance before publishing an excerpt. Liam had to get a note from his mother that confirmed she smoked marijuana.
Lorelei described the process as ‘mental gymnastics’. She respected the fact that ‘these people didn’t ask to be in a book’. Lorelei was so concerned with ensuring the privacy of people in her memoir was respected, that she even changed the door colour of a share-house.
What was most difficult about writing a memoir?
Luke said ‘finding the angle that will resonate with people beyond you is very hard’. It has been two years since he first signed the publishing contract.
Lorelei thought it would only take six months to write her memoir, but in the end it took three years. She said ‘the structure was all important’. Once the structure clicked, after two years, the writing flowed. She urged anyone in the midst of writing their memoir not to be hard on themselves.
Liam found the biggest challenge was to not be boring. ‘Everyone will feel lonely or lost – the trick is to find the universal in the idiosyncratic experience’.
Did you find writing your memoirs difficult, or was it therapeutic?
Luke had already been telling his story on stage as part of his stand-up comedy routines. He found writing was a way of taking control of the narrative.
Liam found the research therapeutic, as he had difficult conversations with people from his past.
Lorelei found framing past relationships in a way that tells the story, even if it wasn’t the full story, difficult.