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Writing Memoir

June 19th, 2020

Everybody has at least one good memoir, a personal story that can reflect the experiences of a single day or span 50 years. My own, one of 10 winning memoirs recently selected for publication with the Fish Publishing 2020 Short Memoir Competition, had a narrative arc stretching from my 19 year old self to the (ahem!) 51 year old I am today. An offhand comment by my mother one afternoon prompted me to revisit my relationship with my long-deceased father, a Dublin foundryman, and to examine how his untimely death had unknowingly influenced me over the years. I uncovered a story that had sadness, humour, and ultimately a little redemption for both of us. I also learned that you don’t just write a memoir, you experience it (or rather, re-experience it), and it changes you a little.

My first bit of advice for budding memoirists is to educate yourself on the prose style and degree of personal exposition involved. I began by reading a selection of long- and short-form memoirs by established authors like Anne Lamott, Alan Bennett, Emilie Pine, David Sedaris and Sinéad Gleeson to better appreciate the writing techniques they employed to inject emotion and drama into their personal stories in order to hook their readers. This was hugely informative and taught me that the best memoirists are fundamentally unafraid to broach their own shortcomings and are frequently prepared to reveal those blush-inducing, and for some, often painful personal anecdotes from their past.

This brings me to my second bit of advice. Tell the truth! In her wonderful memoir, Bird by Bird (an absolute must-read for any aspiring writer – go buy a copy immediately, you won’t regret it!), Anne Lamott writes, “You can’t find your true voice and peer behind the door and report honestly and clearly to us if your parents are reading over your shoulder. So you have to breathe or pray or do therapy to send them away.” In this way she tells us that, when it comes to writing memoir we have to be prepared to zone out those all too familiar voices of restraint in our heads that whisper things like, “No, you shouldn’t write about that. That’s too mortifying!” With memoir you need to dig deep and build your story on a foundation of truth and openess. It goes without saying of course that your story should be sensitive to the feelings and views of others, particularly when it comes to writing about family (even long dead family members!)

One last bit of advice; a diary is a writer’s best friend. My own has become a personal mind palace into which I deposit the myriad things I see and hear daily; from absurd observations and snippets of overheard conversation to letters, e-mails and personal thoughts on everything from current affairs to books. A quick word-count indicates that my diary grew by 48,000 words in 2019! Now that’s a deep well of memories and anecdotes to rummage through whenever I feel the urge to write. Start your’s today!


Phil Cummins lives in rural Ireland. As an academic and scientist, he tries to figure out the mysteries of life. But when his day job is done he retreats to his garret and tries to write about them. A diarist, essayist and short story writer, themes of interest include family, sense of place, ‘otherness’, and modern life.

Instagram: @profphilcummins

Twitter: @retroPhiltered







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