Today we have another international visitor, and a topic with an unusual twist. Mary Hamer explains how writing a historical novel, Kipling & Trix, gave her the opportunity to creatively showcase some personal experience in a setting that may be a more effective than memoir. Read on to learn how this is relevant for memoir writers.
It’s a challenge, writing memoir, to make all the other characters interesting, not just darling moi. One that’s especially hard when we’re writing about experience that’s been difficult or painful. How to give a rounded account, how to keep a balance? Avoid presenting ourselves as the sad victim or proud hero? As readers we all know what a turn-off that can be. And yet we want, we need to write into those painful experiences we’ve had to overcome. They’ve helped to make us who we are.
And they’re powerful: young film-makers in LA used to be told to think of the worst thing that had ever happened to them: and then find a metaphor for it, make a film about that. I’ve got a tip rather like that for memoirists. An exercise you might find helpful. It comes out of my experience of writing Kipling & Trix, my novel about the writer, Rudyard Kipling and his sister, Trix. When I realised that I too had been through an early experience that marked them, I felt I had what it took to tell their story.
Let me explain.
When these two were small—he was just coming up to six and she was three—their parents left them with strangers and went back to India. They meant it all for the best: India’s climate and fevers were dangerous for European children. All the British sent theirs back, if they possibly could. What was unusual in the case of Ruddy and Trix, though, was the treatment they got from the foster-mother their parents left them with.
This woman introduced terror into their lives. When she threatened them, vulnerable as they were, with Hell and the eternal flames in which they would be punished, how could they not be overwhelmed? They’d never heard of Hell, or heaven, for that matter. I’m sure the woman believed, like their parents, that she was acting in the children’s best interests, though she can’t have had much of an instinct for childcare or much understanding of her own desire for power and control.
We have testimony concerning the damage this caused. At the age of seventy, writing his own memoir, Something of Myself, Rudyard Kipling was bitter about the fear and confusion planted in him at that time. His sister, Trix, never recognised her own confusion. Worse, she lived it and acted it out. You don’t have to be a therapist to make a connection between the impact of those early experiences on a developing three-year-old brain and the string of later breakdowns that Trix suffered.
As a child, I too had shared a similar experience, though it was decades before I understood how it had affected me. Then, at a time when I’d been working on a book about trauma, so knew enough to take them seriously, I had a flashback. Until then the memory of my Irish mother teaching me about Hell when I was small had always been quite neutral. Without warning, the emotion which had been missing from that memory returned and I found myself dizzy with shock, disoriented, lost. I was back in the body and mind of my five-year-old self.
From that moment, I knew the power of such teaching to undermine. Imagine then how I sat up, reading Kipling’s angry memory of being subjected to the same experience! I’d been studying his life, wanting to write about him but not sure whether I could find anything new to say. There are several excellent biographies. I certainly hadn’t fancied adding to them—all those footnotes! Now I had a new and original angle. One that made sense of Kipling’s lifelong battle with depression and his compulsion to write, to imagine his way out of pain. I decided to write his life in the form of fiction so I could position readers to enter his inner world and understand him from the inside.
I found his sister’s experience just as compelling. Trying to repair ourselves by writing seems to be instinctive. Like her brother, Trix wanted to write. She did succeed in publishing two novels with a number of stories and poems. But over time she lost confidence in her own voice. As a woman writer it was all too easy for me to identify with Trix. Inventing scenes of exhilaration and passages of writer’s block came readily! But I do believe that the story I’ve told about Trix in my novel, tracing her long struggle, is more powerful, more just to the trouble she caused and above all more interesting than any doleful account of my own fight to keep writing.
So where’s the tip for you memoirists out there? Look around. See whether there’s someone else’s story that resonates with your bad stuff. Try telling their story, instead of your own. You could make it an exercise: just a scene, a passage of dialogue. Make it really embodied, concrete, not just inside heads. You may discover fresh perspectives. Better still, you might decide that their story is something you could tell really well, using what you know from your own experience. Why not run with that?
Mary Hamer was born in Birmingham, UK. She has published four books of non-fiction, having spent years teaching in the university. She is married, with grownup children and seven grandchildren. Kipling and Trix is her first novel, and it received the Virgina Prize for Fiction in 2012. Mary’s website: http://mary-hamer.com/