The art of memoir and narrative non-fiction

By Neil Ansell

Neill-Ansell-007I am the author of two books of narrative non-fiction. Both are memoir, but are equally likely to find themselves shelved as nature writing or travel writing. Sometimes booksellers are unable to make up their minds, and will place them on three different shelves. And three shelves are better than one.

The first thing that needs to be said about memoir is that it is not autobiography – in fact, I would argue that it is almost the opposite of autobiography. If you are thinking that people might be interested in your life story, you have to ask yourself – would someone else conceivably be interested in writing your biography? People read biographies and autobiographies because they already have an interest in the subject for the notoriety they have achieved in their field, and as that field is seldom writing a lot of autobiographies end up being written by ghost writers. Being a successful actor or sports personality does not increase the chances of you being a good, or even, competent, writer. For most of us, the market of people who would be interested in hearing our life story will consist solely of our close friends and relatives. If that.

Memoirs are different. Though they are of necessity subjective, the true subject of memoir is not the author, but memory itself. And unless you are the kind of person whose primary interest is staring at yourself in a mirror, then your memories are not really about you, but about the world you inhabit. Memoir is an opportunity to look at a part of life about which you feel you have something novel to say, and to illustrate it from your own experiences. It helps of course if you have had life experiences that are out of the ordinary. There is a catch, though, in that the things in our lives that feel the most huge and transformative are actually far less unique than they seem to us at the time. So you had a shitty childhood? So you are struggling with grief at the loss of a loved one? So you have overcome a life-threatening illness? Welcome to the world.

Publishers all over the world must sigh when they find a memoir around any of these themes in their slush pile. That is not to say that there are not good, or even great, books with these issues at their heart, but you really have to bring something new to the table. One of the most successful books of the past year has been Helen Macdonald’s grief memoir H is for Hawk. She writes about her grief at the loss of her father incredibly well, but what really brings the book to life is the uniqueness of her process of recovery. She is a trained falconer, and while still in a state of shock decides to hand rear a goshawk called Mabel.

For the most part the things that make us unique are not the big things in life, but the small things. Another recent memoir that I have particularly enjoyed this year has been The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg, a book that was a surprise bestseller in the author’s native Sweden. The author is an entomologist with the fantastically obscure specialisation of the hoverflies of a small Baltic island. The writing is witty and self-deprecating, and of course is not ultimately about flies at all. Rather it is a deeply penetrating and utterly charming examination of what makes us who we are.

The heyday of the traditional travel narrative is perhaps thirty years gone now, the days of Chatwin and Thubron and Theroux. The world has changed, has opened up, and people are more inclined to take a trip themselves than to read about someone else’s. As more and more of the world seemed to become available to us, the genre began to become degraded, as the only way to sell a travel book became to make it artificially unique by whatever means necessary. Part of the problem is that unlike fiction, non-fiction tends to be sold on the back of a proposal; before it has been written, perhaps before it has happened. And so, a writer would go to a publisher, and say; I want to paddle down the Congo. In a row-boat. Dressed as a pirate. Travel books began to feel more and more like a parody of themselves, and before long publishers began to regard travel writing as something of a busted flush.

The genre has resurrected itself by becoming less about the journey and more about the destination; the literature of place, rather than an account of someone’s adventures. Travel writing is no longer about going further, it is about going deeper.

deer islandThe form of memoir that I know best, and love best, is nature writing. Recent years have seen a profusion of fabulous nature writing; far too many lovely books to name favourites. But I do worry for the future, that the genre’s popularity may lead to bandwaggoning by writers with no real passion for it, but who are on the search for the next big thing. I fear that the genre may fall foul of creeping piratisation. I have seen the first glimmers of it in books that I have otherwise enjoyed; when I have the sudden realisation that I am reading a depiction of events that only happened because they were in a book proposal.

Let me pitch a nature memoir to you, off the top of my head. First I must pick my subject, and my subject will be hedges. My apologies to anyone who has already done this.

I shall start off personal, with a depiction of my childhood and my father’s constant hedge wars with his neighbours, that led to a purely fictitious lifelong fascination with all things hedge. This will lead me on a personal quest to find out everything there is to know about the deeper significance of hedges. I shall write about nature, how they form valuable wildlife corridors, about their endemic wildlife, their hedgehogs and jack-in-the-hedges. Then perhaps their importance in history, their part in the enclosure acts. I shall earn my environmental chops by bemoaning their loss; the thousands of miles of hedges that have been torn up and replaced with barbed wire. I shall meet up with old, wizened hedgelayers, perhaps learn how to lay hedges myself, and fail comically. I shall find a genuine hedge nut, perhaps with The Society for the Preservation of Hedges. I have not tried to look it up, but I bet it exists. I shall find the oldest hedge in Britain, and then the longest. I will spend a day walking around it, perhaps I will camp out there overnight and have a revelation; that all along what I was really searching for was my lost childhood.

The awful thing is that I could probably sell this; and it would be completely bogus.

So my plea to the writers of memoir is this; write about what you know, what you really care about. Write about what has already happened, not about things you could make happen if you managed to get an advance off the back of them. Be a human being first, a writer second. I read more memoir than anything else, and I say this out of love.

SNB logo tiny

Neil Ansell is the author of Deep Country (2011) and Deer Island (2013). He has just submitted his new book, which he says will be wildly different.

3 Comments

  1. Excellent advice, Neil, for all writers who may venture into these waters. I remember Deer Island very fondly. Beyond the factual introductory material though, your presence seemed only there to invite the reader to exchange identities with you! It made for a deeply moving read. I’m anxious to hear what your new project will be.

  2. That’s a great send-up, Neil, I love it!

    My personal bete noir is ‘nature writing’ that uses the more than human world not for its own sake but for some narrowly human purpose–to explore grief, or painful upbringing. H is for Hawk comes at times perilously close to this at times but I think redeems itself toward the end

  3. Andy Roberts

    Great piece, Neil, and thanks for the alert to The Fly Catcher. Your spoof ‘Hedge’ proposal was most amusing and soooo true- reminds me of the Alan Partridge episode where he is randomly punting ridiculous TV documentary ideas, most of which have now happened in one way or another. And of course no publisher wants to be left out of the nature writing revival and will publish any old tripe – Hedge – just to be in the game, ultimately devaluing the whole genre. Don’t push me, I’m close to the Hedge!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *