Why I am a life story writer … In one word: fate. If you want the back story, read on:
Let’s go back to a summer’s evening in Cornwall, UK and I’m at a small literary festival. The event is beyond quirky. On the first night, I wandered through a medieval walled garden illuminated by candles flickering in jam jars dotted along the paths. Everywhere I looked, I saw women wearing chiffon and tulle with sparkly wings who later turned out not to be fairies but publisher’s agents from London. Accompanying them were men dressed in velvets and brocades. I felt distinctly dowdy so I picked honeysuckle and white jasmine clusters and stuck them haphazardly in my hair, less pre-Raphaelite beauty more like a mad Ophelia. But in the dark, who cared?
Fate falls like a sledgehammer among the fairies
Sitting down for dinner, I was next to a bubbly woman, who, like me, was a writer. Her genre was ghostwriting, and her clients were celebrity chefs. After she’d enchanted the table with tales of banquets and feasts and the odd kitchen disaster, she turned and asked me what I was working on. I’d been very excited to win a large tender recently, but then it dawned on me – there was no way I could make ‘researching the concrete trades in Europe’ sound fun or sexy. At that moment, a sledgehammer hit me on the back of the neck and said, quit now and do something more interesting with your life.
Fast forward a year. I’ve moved to Oz and am volunteering at an Alzheimer’s day centre. I get on particularly well with Derek who used to teach in remote Aboriginal communities. In his more lucid moments, he tells me about his time in the Kimberley. Later, I write up his memories, then nip down to Officeworks and get them made up into a booklet. Nothing flash. And indeed, not a life story. Just a tiny memento of our time together. I meet Derek’s family at a morning tea and give them the booklet. His wife and daughter burst into tears. This is the second time the sledgehammer – or is it fate? – strikes.
Deeper connections come with age
I don’t think I could have been a ghostwriter in my youth. I didn’t have the life skills or wisdom to connect as deeply with people as I do today. But here I am, 10 years on, with many life stories written and hundreds of people I’ve taught and inspired to write about themselves.
And while on one level, life story writing is about recording memories, what it really offers is a chance to look back reflectively on life, make sense of the past, and then be free to move on.