Thursday, 13 January 2022

Which I? by Sheena Wilkinson

Last month on this blog I shared my first tentative thoughts about writing a memoir. Many people – OK, a few people, but more than usual, commented or contacted me to say they thought it was a great idea. That they’d love to read it. I’m easily flattered, and this felt like the best reason to start it for real. There’s nothing like putting your intentions out there in the world to make you feel accountable. 

I’ve been listening to relevant podcasts, as well as reading lots of good memoirs and one or two books about life writing, of which the most thoughtful and useful has been the brand-new Write It All Down by Cathy Rentzenbrink, who knows a thing or two about memoir and is brilliant at communicating it. I’m attending an online course run by her later in the month. I always recommend that people go on courses to learn about new genres, and it’s exciting to be following my own advice. 


But I can’t keep reading and thinking.  I need to start writing. So I’ve done what I always do at the start of a project. I found a special notebook, dug out some coloured pens, made a lot of notes about what I wanted to say, and then started writing. I’d already decided I wasn’t going to write a linear story, but organise the chapters – self-contained personal essays, really – thematically. I’d worry about structure later. 


I knew it would be harder in some ways than writing fiction. I understood that there would be other people’s feelings and privacy to consider. And even leaving that huge issue aside, I wasn’t sure how open I would want to be. All very well to plan a chapter about falling in love at the same time as going through the menopause – how much about my hot flushes and mega-periods and murderous mood swings did I want to reveal? How much would anyone want to read? Thank God for the notebook, repository of stuff that I definitely wouldn’t want to see the light of day. 


One thing I didn’t expect to struggle with was voice. After all the voice would just be me, wouldn’t it? How hard could that be? I’ve been using my own voice for 53 years. As a child I used to get into trouble for being too outspoken; as a writer I’ve always tried to harness that frankness to dig down for the kind of uncomfortable truths that often make for powerful writing. Surely writing my own story would come naturally. Just use the voice you have. Put the I on the page and that’s you. Isn’t it?


But which I?


So far I’ve written two chapters. First, the one I mentioned last month, written in response to the prompt A Haunted House. ‘38 Pictures of Irene’ was painful to write, forcing me back to a time when this house I live in wasn’t my home and felt like it never could be, when jealousy and guilt blighted the strongest love I’d ever felt and turned me into someone I barely recognised. Yet at the same time I was happy in an entirely new way. Then, by way of relief,  I wrote ‘Oh my God, I forgot to have children!’ which is about – yes, you got there before me. Being childfree has never caused me pain, so this chapter was fun to write. There were even jokes. I felt much less self-conscious, and it shows in the writing.  The I of ‘OMGIFTHC!’ is much chirpier than the I of ‘38POI’. I think she’s more me. Every word of both chapters is true, and yet the minute I write I in this context, I start to worry about who I mean by that, what am I trying to project, in a way that I don’t even consider when writing, for example, this blog post. 


Maybe that’s normal. It’s early days and I suppose it takes time to find the ‘right’ voice. When I put all my chapters together and edit, and edit, and edit, the voices will cohere and the I on the page speak in one consistent voice. Or maybe we all have more than one voice, and it’s a matter of finding some version of that that can speak for the whole book?


I can’t answer that yet. One thing I do know: writing it all down in this public place definitely helps me to ask the questions, even if it’s going to take some time to figure out the answers. So thank you to ABBA, and its community, for indulging me. It won’t be the last time. 



Rowena House said...

I'm sure you are right about the many 'I's, and as thematic essays also sound like a very good idea, variation of voice would seem like a logical choice for this brave project. Will follow your twists and turns with great interest. Good for ABBA as a sharing space!

Lynne Benton said...

I will really look forward to reading this when it's published, Sheena!

Keren David said...

What I say to feature writers is, it's fine to vary your voice. It's all you. Sometimes you are happy and chirpy and cracking jokes, and sometimes you are sad. It's fine. The voice is yours.

Penny Dolan said...

Fascinating. Set me wondering about voice and voices for a current project.