By Elizabeth Hutchins
I’ve just made apricot jam, stirring memories with my worn wooden spoon as it drags through the tacky meld of glorious fruit and an obscene heap of sugar. The aluminium pan of cauldron dimensions that was my grandmother’s and then my mother’s could tell a tale or two. Yet this week, after picking the first full-sized crop from our young apricot tree I keep recalling the companionship of a small bird with gratitude.
At times when I was writing intensively I usually ate my lunch outside at a table next to our tree’s bounteous predecessor, always joined by a tame willy wagtail that came to share a crumb or two and chatter. One day, ignoring my ‘Tttt!’ greeting, Will flitted and dived constantly into the inner branches of the big tree. After a few minutes I got up to see what he was finding so interesting – and there on the trunk was a trail of termites… The ant army had just reached our back room; the old tree got the chop. But had my little writing friend not alerted me, the damage could have been a hundred times worse.
Much of my writing for children arises from my ‘backyard’ stories. Small incidents like this are pebbles tossed into a pond for me – creating ripples of memories from which I can draw. One Anzac Day I heard a World War 1 Digger (whose name I didn’t catch) say in an interview, ‘Write down the stories that you always tell people.’ So that will be hint no. 1 at my memoir writing workshop, a suggestion closely related to ‘Put yourself into the story.’ It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing about family, a trip to Kazakhstan or how you began collecting old bottles, the same principle applies. If you bring along a short excerpt from your writing – even a first attempt – we’ll talk about why the topic’s important to you. Likewise, objects that evoke memories (including photographs) are valuable catalysts for writing, so you’re invited to join in a short ‘show and tell’.
Of course there’s much more to successful memoir writing than collecting anecdotes or memorabilia. In what format will you write? How can you make your story sound interesting and bring your characters to life? Where should you begin? Who will your readers be? If you’re collating family stories or writing creative non-fiction arising from historical events, what part will research play? Are there pitfalls in writing about real people and events? I’ll try to send you home with some strategies for planning and following through your chosen project, and a list of resources – but not before you’ve shared my offering of fresh apricot jam (I call it bottled sunshine) on slices of an old-time hi-top loaf of bread!
Elizabeth Hutchins is a widely published children’s author who also writes adult historical fiction and creative non-fiction. She is awaiting publication in the US of a children’s historical novel set in Adelaide. She has taught many creative writing courses, and her paper on Fictionalising History, presented to the Oral History Association of SA is in the State Library’s Somerville collection.