Memory is composed of the odd-shaped pieces of life that we carry with us – the stories we tell and retell ourselves until the edges wear off into the smooth grain of habit. Or it is the private interior landscape. Or the records we share to bind ourselves to another. The visceral jump at a certain smell, a certain name. The rush of the past, the shadow of the past, the carefully sanded kernel of the past. All of these and none of these. Memory is deeply personal, and unique.
When I say that as a writer I am interested in life writing, I mean I am interested not only in what people remember about their life and the significant events, but also in what those remembered moments mean to people in their present. Life writing, like all writing, offers the opportunity to frame the stories of our lives as we wish, and to decide for ourselves what the important moments are.
I’ll give an example. When my grandma died, I inherited her recipe books. They are small notebooks filled with her looping handwriting, page after page of detailed wartime classics like brains on toast, mutton stew, and eleven varieties of boiled pudding. She added pages and held it all together with elastic bands. She emigrated four times in her life, and moved house countless more times, and yet this little elastic-bound collection came with her each time she moved until she died three weeks from her 100th birthday. It was clearly important to her. Here’s another significant detail: the books are completely spotless. These aren’t well-thumbed kitchen books dusted with flour and the stains of a thousand dinners. She never used them to cook. In fact, beyond scrambled eggs and fry ups, she never really cooked.
My grandma spent her working life juggling three jobs, two kids, and a seriously ill husband and mother. The burden of earning was solely on her shoulders, and so she left the house early and came home late. Her mother was in charge of the home kitchen, and though my grandma was one of her generation’s fierce working women – ‘the man of the house’ – I wonder if those little recipe books were her way of addressing that part of the feminine role that she was expected, as a woman, to fulfil.
For a long time now I’ve suspected that I will write from these books at some point, though I haven’t yet worked out what that will look like. Whatever it is, it will of course be filtered through my own perception of the records in those books, my own knowledge and memories of my grandma, and the creative decisions that I make. It will be shaped by my words, not presented as a factual history, and will very possibly fall under the heading of life writing. Writing drawn from the experiences of my own – and my family’s – life.
Over the last eleven years I’ve worked with Harriet Morgan-Shami on community arts projects focused around life writing, among other literary forms, and have realised that this is a form with huge potential for new and experienced writers alike. ‘Life writing’ can mean autobiography, but it can also mean small focused pieces of writing that are drawn from life and shaped with creative techniques, and this is where its power lies.
Harriet and I have worked, alongside other artists, predominantly with women who have been marginalized in one way or more, and who often have large burdens to carry in the form of their past and present situations – whether that is to do with mental ill health, homelessness, prison time, refugee experience, or simply the rock hard realities of life with very little money. Through life writing, I have seen small pieces click into place for so many of the writers we work with. Many times I’ve heard, ‘This is like therapy, but without the pressure!’ –and sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. Life writing is exactly and only what the individual writer chooses to write and reveal, and the application of creative approaches makes room for change in the story, like alternate endings, new perspectives, a reclaiming of self. It also makes room for the tiny moments, the ones that from the outside might seem insignificant – like an old bus pass found in a pocket – but that in their retelling and reframing through life writing can hold something special and quietly powerful. Something funny or poignant or outside the big events that are supposed to define a life.
It is for all this that I am thrilled to be working as one of the artists on the Women’s Words project. As we aim to start building an archive of stories from the women of Manchester – not only writers, but all women – we are holding a series of drop-in workshops at libraries across the city, and working with specific groups of women who’ve faced significant hurdles in their lives. We are drawing inspiration from our city’s suffragettes, and the ways in which they used writing and self-publishing to agitate for the change that brought about equal voting rights in the UK.
We passionately believe that – as the famous feminist slogan states – ‘the personal is political’, particularly when it comes to anyone who has been marginalized in the way that so many women have. There are stories in this city and lives in this city and personal earthquakes in this city that need to be recognised, documented, and made available to all of us who hope for positive change – especially those who come after us. History lies in what is written and recorded, and so we invite you all – women of Manchester, past and present – to join us in sharing your story.
Don’t forget, the date for submitting your stories to our archive is the 24th of November 2017. You can email them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org