Personalised Memoir Writing Workshop on Line

There are all sorts of creative writing workshops on line, but ours is a little different. For one thing, we want to make it personal to you, so that we work on those areas of writing that  interest you most, or which you find most problematical.  We have no fixed schedule, so you can do the course at your own pace, and you will also have the opportunity to have the first 5,000 words of your finished memoir critiqued at a later date.  You can find more details about the course here, but do feel free to email us if you just want to chat it through.

The book that made everything worthwhile

Just finished one of the books that has given me more pleasure than any other.  This was the reason I started LifeLines Press.  For this book alone it has been worth the years of  VAT returns, production nightmares, cantankerous clients (not that I’ve had many, of course), and sleepless nights.  I will let the client speak.

“LifeLines Press, and its publisher Rebecca de Saintonge, have given me and my family a gift beyond price: the publication of ‘The Memorial Book’, my accounting of the Hirschhorn and Fischer families’ ordeals through the Holocaust – the stories of those who survived, and those who didn’t survive.  Throughout the many months of the book’s preparation Rebecca showed exemplary good taste in the design; she gave expert advice gently and  unhurriedly; and was immensely patient to deal with all the changes, additions, backtrackings and my own anxieties that I imposed on her.  The result is beautiful. I hope she can continue to serve others in the same manner.

Norbert Hirschhorn MD.

A woman with an Interesting Past

Another fun workshop with The Oldie Magazine.  The day was devoted to aspects of journalism – travel writing, blogging and writing reviews. My session was on the techniques of interviewing – how to ask questions (and how not to ask questions) and, most importantly, the art of listening.  Not always as obvious at it may seem.

These Oldie courses are always great fun. If you haven’t been on one yet, and can get to London, give it go. The punters are always fascinating, and yesterday we had a particularly interesting crew – among them a circuit judge, a farmer, a couple of physicians, a probation officer, a Woman with an Interesting Past (which she was delightfully unrestrained in telling us about), a couple of secretaries, a former woman priest, and a whole handful of others whose common denominator was not just a desire to write better, but a wonderful sense of humour.  But what else would you expect from Oldie Readers?  These events are usually rounded off by Jeremy Lewes, the deputy editor, whose gift as a raconteur is second to none.

If you’re interested in writing, and want your confidence and spirits lifted – join us.  I guarantee you’ll leave with your feet dancing on the pavements, and your imagination fired up and ready to go!

Afrikaners in need of a hero

A little while ago I received an unexpected email from an Afrikaner asking me if I could re-print my biography of the extraordinary Nico Smith, the Afrikaner anti-apartheid fighter who risked his life in the struggle for black justice.  Since the fall of apartheid, he wrote,  the Dutch Reformed Church had lost many members who felt angry that they had been misled and misguided.  They needed to know that there were some Afrikaners who had stood out against the rest.  One such was Nico Smith. As a result OUTSIDE THE GATE: A white man’s fight for black justice in South Africa, is now available on kindle, and will soon be available as a paperback.  Both have a new introduction from Douglas S. Bax, Moderator Emeritus of the Presbyterian Church of South Africa, and an endorsement from Professor Piet Naude who wrote: “As South Africans struggle at the current moment to live beyond our trenches of race, gender and especially class, this book is a must read to inspire us to move beyond the enclaves that hold us captive… I warmly recommend a re-edition of this book.”

Historical writing can be emotionally tough

Those of you interested in historical writing would have been fascinated by an evening arranged by the Society of Authors recently.

Lady Antonia Fraser and Antony Beevor – two of the most respected historians of our time – were talking about how they approached their work and what emotional impact writing, often traumatic events, had on them as individuals.

I had never thought before about the personal cost of being a historical writer.  Take Antony Beevor. He writes modern history, much of it concerned with the Second World War, so, unlike Antonia Fraser, who specialises in the Tudors, he is able to interview people connected with the events he’s researching.  And not just the goodies.  The baddies as well.  He spoke about meeting a German who’d worked alongside the Fuehrer.  “I found I was shaking a hand that had shaken the hand of Hitler”. A challenging thought.

Some of his interviews – with war criminals, with survivors – have left him sleepless. Some of the things he has uncovered chill the blood. At the time, he said, you just concentrate on getting the material down, the emotional impact of what you have heard doesn’t hit you ’til much later, usually in the middle of the night.  After visiting some of the death camps it was years before he could sit in front of a plate of food and not think that in those circumstances it would have fed 10 people.

For Antonia Fraser the emotional connection was different, but still intense.  Her subjects are long dead, but when you research a life in detail – a life for which you already have a fascination, and often an empathy – when you visit archives and read and touch the letters they wrote, look at the clothes they wore, or walk where they walked; when you immerse yourself in every detail of their lives, the horrors and fascinations of their times, these historical figures become intensely personal to you.

I can relate to that. I remember when I was studying for my PhD, the Swedish monk I was writing about, though he lived in the 13th century, was almost as real to me as my living friends. (Perhaps this says something infinitely sad about historians!).  History isn’t about scientific fact, it’s about emotional events.  And it’s in our DNA. We feel connected. And clearly, when Antonia spoke about Mary Queen of Scots, the manner of her execution still moved her, so real was this Tudor queen to this 21st century Lady.

What both writers made clear from the outset was the difference between writing history – which is what they do – and writing historical fiction.  Historical fiction, or faction, definitely has its place, but if you want to know the difference between the two, look out for adjectives.  Historians would never write “King James smiled at the Lady X as she sauntered past” unless there was reliable, written historical evidence that Lady X did in fact “saunter” past at that particular moment in the days events, and that James had actually smiled.  Unlikely!

Anthony Beevor felt the problem for future historians lay in the fact that reliable written evidence is now on the decline.  How will they find the truth about events in the 21st century and beyond when we rarely write letters or commit thoughts to paper? We email, or text, or use social media. The everyday realities of ordinary people will be lost in the ether. Even politicians are now using their own private emails to communicate so that conversations can be, and are, erased. What written material there is, like published diaries and memoirs – are by their nature slanted versions of real events, coloured by a personal bias, an in any case, reflect the lives of only a privileged few.

But while he feared lack of reliable documentary proof would make it extremely hard for future generations of historians, Antonia Fraser was more sanguine.  Historians, she felt, would always find a way.

This was a fascinating evening with two charming, self-effacing authors whose passion for their work, and utter integrity as writers, was inspirational.

For writers, work doesn’t stop with the final draft

There you are in your garret, writing your heart out, month by month, sometimes year by year, and when your baby finally is born, and the publishers take over, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d done your bit. Not so. After publication the amount of marketing you, as the author, still have to do is staggering. There are articles to write, TV, radio, and newspaper interviews, talks, .. blogs! Of course it’s heady stuff, but not always comfortable.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had some good experiences and some bad ones. Radio highlights were definitely the Jeremy Vine show for the BBC and the Andrew Morton Show in Canada. Very different journalists, but both brilliant, empathetic interviewers who gave you space to speak and made you feel comfortable and relaxed. Unlike the ghastly experience I had with Premier Christian Radio!

You also have no control over head-line writers – especially for the newspapers online – and some of these have been pretty scurrilous!

But the really rewarding aspect of all of this has been the number of strangers who have written saying how much ONE YELLOW DOOR has comforted and encouraged them. Writing about your own life is not comfortable, but their emails and letters have made the whole venture worth while.