True stories with the power to transform

Monday, August 13, 2018
By: 
Sian Prior interviewed by Amelia Theodorakis

A portrait of Sian Prior
Sian Prior

Why do we write memoirs? Memoir tutor Sian Prior says that humans have a powerful urge to tell, listen to, and learn from true stories for all sorts of reasons – just don’t write them if you’re looking for revenge.

As writers, our lives provide us with stories to tell. What do you think attracts people to writing memoir?

Some people write memoirs to try to understand themselves better. That was certainly the case with my book ‘Shy: a memoir’ (Text Publishing). Some write memoirs as a way of sharing the wisdom or survival skills they’ve gleaned from their life experiences. Some write for a sense of cathartic release, especially if they are writing about grief-inducing events. Life writing can sometimes help us gain some distance from the painful memories we carry around with us. Some simply want to share their stories. Humans have a powerful urge to tell, listen to, and learn from true stories.

What are the most common mistakes or slip ups that writers make when writing memoir?

It is rarely enough just to describe ‘what happened to me’, even if your experiences are startling. Memoirs require both hindsight and insight from the author. You need to try to find the ‘story’ behind the ‘situation’, work out what’s at stake for you in telling this story, and how the events you’re writing about have helped to shape your identity. You can’t assume the reader will care about you and your life. You have to make it worth their while to enter into your world for a while. You can do this by using many of the same literary devices that fiction writers use to engage their readers. It is always a mistake to write a memoir with the motive of revenge. Most readers hate that.

The daily life of a writer is often filled with anxieties (e.g. self-doubt, time constraints, social pressures, etc). How do you find the psychological space to write without being clouded by these anxieties?

It is hard. You have to do some careful self-diagnostic work to find out what’s holding you back. I am a shocking procrastinator, and often I’m procrastinating to avoid dealing with my anxieties. The irony is that not doing the writing can make me feel even more anxious. I recently had a month-long writing residency in Mildura, courtesy of the Mildura Writers Festival, and it was such a luxury to be in that town with nothing to do but write – and no excuse not to write!

You have a new manuscript coming out soon – how has the process of writing memoir been different this time, compared to your first memoir, 'Shy'?

I’m not sure ‘soon’ is the right word, I’m only half way through the first draft of the second memoir. It has taken me three years to make a proper start on this book, mostly because the subject matter requires me to re-visit some very painful memories. I realized recently that even though I’m writing about very different experiences to those I wrote about in ‘Shy’, at its heart this new memoir is in the same emotional territory. They say writers keep digging up and chewing on the same bone, over and over. I’m chewing and spitting out dirt and hopefully getting somewhere, but it is slow, hard work.

 Do you think everyone has a memoir in them? Which stories make the best memoirs?

I think everyone’s memory bank is potentially worth mining for publishable stories. But not everyone wants to write about themselves, and many writers prefer to re-shape their experiences as fiction. As for ‘best memoirs’, different readers seek different things from memoirs, so it’s a hard one to answer. Stories of personal transformation or reconciliation, stories that involve deep critical self-reflection, stories which remind me that humans have more in common than not - these are the ones I am most interested in.

About Sian Prior

Dr Sian Prior has been a writer and broadcaster for 25 years and has written for newspapers, magazines and literary journals and won awards for her short stories. She has taught non-fiction at RMIT and for writers centres around Australia. Her book ‘Shy: A memoir’ was published in 2014.

Sian will be teaching Refine Your Memoir, a long course for memoir writers at all stages of the drafting process. The course kicks off in September, and you can book in here.