School of Cultural Studies and Humanities

National Writing Day 2020 – a short guide to writing creatively

As a reader, writer and tutor, one of my favourite genres is life writing: biographies, autobiographies, and most all, memoirs. In this post for National Writing Day 2020, I want to encourage readers (regardless of prior writing experience) to think about writing creatively of episodes in their own lives.
Self portrait of Dr McGrath
We don’t need to regard our lives as ‘exceptional’, nor even ‘successful’, in order to find worthwhile stories to write from our experience. (Some of the most tedious autobiographies of our time have been authored by the rich and famous). Your recollections of being a mother in the 1980s or a baker in the 1990s might tell future readers far more about the time than any memoirs by retired politicians could hope to do.
An autobiography is, conventionally, a book-length account of its author’s life, told in chronological order. Yet conventions in life writing – as also in life itself – can become inhibiting and often unnecessary. 
Many people want to write about their lives but feel they somehow can’t get started. Yet there are ways to overcome this most daunting of all the stages in the process. 
Firstly, remember there is no such thing as a complete life story. I find it liberating to let go the ‘life story’ itself as a single idea – and instead, to think of life stories. Begin wherever feels natural. It’s your life, so write about it in whatever ways excite you. You don’t have to write about events chronologically. Not all of us can even remember the precise order in which things happened. That need not matter. 
Secondly, it’s important to begin by focusing on a period, or even an individual moment, that feels vivid in your mind.  You don’t need to start by outlining how your parents met, nor the first address where you lived, nor even your schooldays, if you’d prefer not to. If the main reason why you want to write about your life is to get to the part when you started a particular job, or when you met a certain person, just step straight in by writing some of the main things you remember. 
Thirdly – and this may be important if you want to write in order to record some memories for your family to read – don’t worry about the length. In what he knew were his final weeks, my Grandfather hand wrote three pages at the start of an otherwise empty A5 notebook, remembering his time as an apprentice mechanic. I think he’d hoped to fill more of the book with some reminisces, but that wasn’t to be. And yet those few hundred words of memories, found in a notebook in a sideboard drawer, became a treasure to his family – not least because he rarely actually spoke about his early life.
When writing about a distinct time or theme, I sometimes find the alphabet useful for a loose structure. I start off by just listing keywords and phrases in alphabetical order. 
I’ve just given myself a few minutes to sketch an alphabet of associations from the years I spent living in Manchester in my twenties, lodging with an older friend named Linda. I’ve got Café Rouge, cats, Didsbury, Dylan, family, New York, plums, poems, socialism, the table, Tai Chi, welcome, xx…  
All I’ve done is list a few of the phrases we often said or heard or read or lived, and they’ve already started to suggest whole series of further connections. 
One of my favourite alphabet poems is Mike Garry’s ‘St Anthony: An Ode to Anthony Wilson’ which you can watch here
If you were to write an alphabet poem about your life, what would it include? (You don’t need to write it in order, of course – just let the associations guide your focus). 
An enjoyable effect of starting an alphabet poem is that once you begin remembering certain associations and phrases, you may well find that you could tell whole stories based on the places, the people, or just the kinds of food and drink that come to mind. This was partly how, three years ago, I created this 30-page ‘dictionary’ of local sayings and phrases I would hear used by elderly people
when I was growing up in the 1980s in the North Staffordshire village of Kingsley.
Again, this is something that any reader or writer can do – and every single one will be unique. It’s also a format that could be used collaboratively.
If you haven’t written about your life before and want to try it, see what happens if you just focus on one or two days in the past that remain important in your memory. If you come up with one page, and it’s the only life writing you ever attempt, you will still have brought a unique, precious document into the world. And if you enjoy the writing experience, see what happens if you continue. You might be surprised – and so might your readers.


Dr James McGrath's book, Naming Adult Autism: Culture, Science, Identity combines academic writing with autobiography, and is available in paperback and on Kindle from Rowman & Littlefield International.


Dr James McGrath

Senior Lecturer / School of Cultural Studies & Humanities

Dr James McGrath is Lecturer in English and Creative Writing. James’s recent book Naming Adult Autism is one of the first critiques of literary, cultural and medical narratives of autism to be authored by an adult diagnosed with this condition.  

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