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Writing a memoir?


Many years ago it was suggested that I wrote a memoir about being married to my Iranian husband and my experiences of the racism we suffered in Birmingham and the effect the Iranian Revolution had on our lives. It did in fact break us up and break him down. An interested agent produced a ghost/co-writer who is a best- selling novelist who came up with a “hook” which he said would get the book on the New York Times best seller list.

As I travelled back from London, the ink barely dry on the contract , my head buzzed with what it all might mean; fame, wealth, a film deal like Betty Mahmoody’s “Not Without My Daughter.”  I could have written that book myself as we were in Iran at the same time and shared similar experiences.

As the adrenaline rush subsided, stark reality slapped me in the face. I had two young daughters of mixed heritage and they were vulnerable. I knew that if my ex-husband and his family were to find out about the book, and this was in pre-internet days, we would be at great risk. His network of cousins was like a spider’s web across Europe. By the following morning, I’d decided against it.

Memoir is a slice of your life and there is a bit of that in everyone, trying to punch its way out. With blogging, self-publishing and social media to get it out there, the memoir has never been so easy to write and distribute. As we get older and bits get chipped off by life’s demolition ball, we reach a point when sharing our experiences, often for altruistic motives, becomes a driving force in our lives.

The big problem with memoir as I see it is that nobody really wants to read it unless it inspires them in some way such as a story of survival.

 It’s hard enough getting a novel published and out in paperback in the book shops. With so many books being published every day, unless you are well-known for something else – invention, performance, discovery or a celebrity, the chances of your story being of interest will be miniscule. Memoirs of traumatic childhoods were in vogue a few years ago or of young women being abducted and taken out to some Arab village to be married off but there is only so much the reading public can stomach of the misery genre.

 Memoir, like autobiography, is a positive thing to do if it’s to provide a record of your life and family for those coming after you. The memoir can be cathartic and aid transformation. It’s a way of finding some closure even if no answers.

If you are looking to publish and be damned, then there are a few considerations before you set off on what can be a very painful journey.

ü  Memoir is a slice of life not the whole of it. The first task is to choose which slice.

ü  Memoir is not fiction. It is about truth. You can’t make up things and wrap it round some facts. This cheats your readers and you will lose credibility.

ü  How will the people mentioned in your memoir feel? Are you going to ask them in advance or risk their wrath if they don’t like or agree with how they are portrayed.

ü  Libel can be a big issue in memoir writing. Avoid character defamation. These are real people not figments of your imagination.

ü  Don’t use a memoir to exact revenge.

ü  Whilst I’ve said it can be cathartic, it shouldn’t be used as therapy. This will lead to a stream of consciousness rather than a carefully constructed story.

ü  Step back from the first draft and wait. Let it shuffle into its clothes in its own time. Go back and re-read with a red pen in your hand. As with any book, be ruthless with its pruning.

ü  A memoir is not about painting yourself as some conquering hero nor should it be all positive or negative.

Jackie Buxton, Author of Tea and Chemo presents a prime example of how writing a memoir can help others.  A breast cancer survivor, she has racked up over  80 five star reviews and has inspired not only women in a similar position but people fighting all kinds of cancer and the hospital staff treating them. I asked Jackie for a few words but as she has written so eloquently about why she wrote Tea and Chemo I am going to give you the link  below so you can read her own words.

I’ve been asked if The Cruelty of Lambs is part memoir. In the strict sense of the word, no it’s not but I’ve drawn deeply on many personal experiences and allowed the characters to experience and react to them. My niche market has developed as writing about the tragedies within ordinary life.  I shall continue to write snippets of my own life into my novels if the day ever comes when I feel comfortable writing my own story.. or when I am so famous, publishers are banging on my door demanding it. J



Tea and Chemo with Jackie Buxton

My interview with Jackie Buxton.


1. Jackie, why did you write Tea and Chemo?

The short answer to that is because I was worried I'd regret it if I didn’t! The long answer starts with my existing blog and the decision to post about the trials and tribulations of cancer and its treatments, following my diagnosis of breast cancer in December 2013.

I didn’t originally intend to blog about cancer and that lasted, oh, all of two weeks. In that time I found all the answers I needed from wonderful medical staff, leaflets, booklets and online (only from trusted sites I'd like to stress). Indeed, I felt surprisingly well-informed for someone who'd had absolutely no interest in Biology or anything remotely science-ey at school, not to mention an extreme aversion to random googling and crushing stats.

What I couldn't find, however, was much information about what it was really like to have cancer and treatments, what it really felt like to lose your hair to chemo, to go through six cycles of the stuff, to lose a breast, to be plunged into a chemically induced premature menopause… and how other people began to cope with the enormity of this thing which had smashed its way into our lives. Most importantly of all, I wanted to know what happened to your everyday Jo like me if they were lucky enough to survive cancer. Would life ever be the same again? Would there be any light at all over the weeks, months and - I now realise - years of treatments ahead. The answer to that, as I was learning for myself very quickly, was an emphatic, yes! It was possible to have cancer and still be happy. I wished I'd known that right at the beginning and I wanted to share this with people who were further back on the cancer journey than I was. And that was the start of a new kind of blogpost for me.

My blog developed into the memoir, Tea & Chemo, through a combination of factors. All of a sudden, I was getting heart-felt, touching emails and comments on the blog and on other social media from people wanting to let me know that my posts had helped. I never ever tired of those, nor ever will! Knowing that something I could write, little me, which might make people feel better when they were at their most vulnerable, was very humbling. Indeed, people told me I should write a book. I was flattered of course, but questioned the merit of a book when all the posts could be accessed online.

However, the seed had been sown.

Fast forward to the beginning of 2015, just over a year from my original diagnosis, and I was submitting my novel, Glass Houses, to the enormously charismatic and energetic new publisher, Urbane Publications. I'd dotted my I's and crossed my Ts and was about to click 'send' when I spotted a note about non-fiction at the bottom of the submission guidelines. Non-fiction was also actively welcomed, particularly memoir and self-help, I read, which was where a book based around my blog posts would squarely fit. I thought about using the original blog posts for the framework to the book, interspersing these with further anecdotes gleaned from my experience and hindsight. As the idea danced across my mind, up came the inevitable, 'What if' question which influences most of my decision making in life. At this point, resistance becomes futile. I asked myself how I'd feel if I didn’t at least try, if I looked back a year later and realised it was a missed opportunity.

Thus I clicked 'send' and Tea & Chemo (working title, 'It Wasn't All Bad') was conceived.

2.  Was is a cathartic process or painful?

This is such a great question because it was both. The blog posts were cathartic to some extent. It was certainly useful for me to bash out my thoughts into a blog post and I've always been someone to sort out my head through writing things down. But I'd made a pact with myself from the start that my blog was no place for pure catharsis. The post had to be a positive message or have some factual basis, otherwise it would be a public diary entry and trust me, I wrote a diary for ten years up to the age of 23 and there's not a single entry of that I'd want to post online.

But the book writing was less of the catharsis and more of the pain. It was certainly more difficult to write. I wrote the new portion in the nine months following the end of my active treatment and often wondered if I was revisiting places it might have been helpful to have left behind. Perhaps I'd have moved forward more quickly without the inevitable research the book forced me to do.

However, all of the other publishing mechanics which were going on at the same time, such as the cover design, blurb writing, press releases as well as planning launches and signings, not to mention the knowledge that if I only sold one copy, my chosen charities would benefit, was so very exciting and this categorically outweighed the feeling of lingering too long in that old moment.

3. Who did you have to consider before writing it ( family/hospital staff etc) 

In all honestly, the first person I had to consider in all this was me! I had to think about how 'personal' I was prepared to be. I find it quite easy to talk about my feelings, but am less prepared to be too graphic about the physical effects of breast cancer. I had to be comfortable with where I placed the line I wasn’t prepared to cross but where I could say enough to be informative and clear. There are ways of doing this of course, humour can be particularly effective, but for me, this balance was definitely the most stressful aspect of writing Tea & Chemo.

Meanwhile, I knew that if I wasn’t comfortable, my husband and teenage children wouldn't be either and that certainly focussed the mind.

I was also mindful of the people who weren't so lucky; those who'd lost loved ones to cancer, who'd developed secondary cancer or simply had a more difficult time than I had. I wanted to be positive and, I hoped, vaguely amusing and upbeat, but without seeming to belittle a cancer diagnosis and all that entails.

4. Did you consult anyone?

Because I was keen to emphasise that this wasn't a scientific guide to cancer and treatments, simply one person's experience and ways of dealing with that experience, there wasn’t too much that I specifically needed to consult on. However, I was very aware that I could naively say something I believed to be good advice and inadvertently send a reader blindly following the path of something which wasn't, in essence, correct. I therefore did a lot of cross checking with respected cancer sites such as Cancer Research UK. I also frequently bugged a very dear friend of mine who also happens to be an oncologist in breast cancer – very fortuitous for me, in so many ways!

5. I understand you donated the profits. Please would you say a bit more about that?

I think it's quite a common reaction to reach the end of treatment for cancer and want to thank the people who used their brilliant minds and expert care to help you get better. I decided I'd like to donate all profit -  and my publisher was quick to offer the same -  to two places which were particularly important to me. The first was The Haven which is a charity funded entirely by donations. The Leeds branch was my oasis of calm. I'd arrive all in a rush, mind racing, and leave with a Ready Brek glow of calm and contentment – or that's what it felt like, anyway. The centre offers a range of treatments from acupuncture, to counselling, to singing groups, not to mention the opportunity to mingle with other cancer sufferers who really 'get it'.

The second place was the Sir Robert Ogden Macmillan Centre (SROMC) at Harrogate hospital. The talented, kind and empathetic staff, from the volunteers to the nurses, doctors and consultants at the SROMC, were a big part in why my experience of cancer really wasn’t 'all bad'. Tea & Chemo is geared towards breast cancer patients, their carers and other loved ones, but I wanted to help those affected by any type of cancer so the SROMC was the opportunity to both say thank you and to give something back to the general cancer community.

6. Can you give an example of who benefited from your book?

I'd hoped that breast cancer patients and their friends and carers would benefit but I'm delighted to have found that Tea & Chemo has a wider remit than that. I've had positive reviews and feedback from people affected by all types of cancer, as well as those who simply know people who have been affected and wanted to have a better understanding of what they were going through. Hospital staff and GPs have also written to say that the book has helped them to see cancer 'from the other side'. One of the lovely nurses at the SROMC told me she'd even taken notes!

7. What would you say to someone wanting to write their memoir?

If you are even remotely tempted, go for it! The worst that can happen is you get bored of it but you'll certainly have learned something along the way and enjoyed at least some of the process. Once you've committed to the memoir, think about your angle and what you have to say which would be interesting to others. Give careful thought to what you want to achieve with your missives, your intended audience, the mood and the impression you want to create, as this will guide your writing.

And then – just write! It doesn't have to be, and indeed won't be, perfect until you've re-written and edited, and re-written and edited, and… but some clever writer once said that you can't edit a blank page. It's certainly true that the first word is the hardest.

Good luck and have fun!

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