As you start to write your style will emerge. Before you begin you should have some idea of how much of you will appear in the book. If you’re writing a memoir nearly all of it may be written in the first person and yours may be the only viewpoint that the reader glimpses. Margaret Forster makes this change in emphasis explicit half way through her family memoir, Hidden Lives. Just before this she has been telling the story from her mother’s point of view and describing her concern about her precocious child. Then the tone changes:
“It was at this time, in 1943, when I was five, that my own real memory begins, real in the sense that I can not only recall actual events but can propel myself back into them, be there again in my Aunt Jean’s room-and-kitchen, standing by the window at the back of the Buildings, staring out at the outside staircase and the tops of the wash-houses, while behind me Jean asks me what is the matter … So I can stop now, writing in the third person, stop retelling stories I was told about the years before I was born, about when I was under five, stop splicing oral history with local history and start instead letting my own version of family lore come into play. I am there, at the centre. What a difference it makes, how dangerous it is.” (page 132-133, pbk)
“I” is less common in a biography – unless you want to incorporate a sense of a personal quest – but there is just as much scope to write about a person’s life from different viewpoints. If you’re writing about a singer you might describe how members of the band reacted to their decision to leave it or how a fan greeted the news.
Think of your subject’s, or your family’s, life as a series of dramatic peaks – such as when they went to war, moved to a new country or secured their first recording deal. Write in a way that builds up the momentum towards these peaks. Maybe your grandmother was a nurse tending wounded soldiers as they arrived at Dover following the evacuation of Dunkirk in the summer of 1940. At the same time your grandfather may have been stranded on a French beach, unsure whether he would make it home. His rescue and reunion with your grandmother provide two obvious peaks. It’s your job to lead the reader towards these peaks by setting the scene and describing the mounting tension.
Avoid historical hindsight – the reader knows the evacuation of Dunkirk saved thousands of lives, that the Nazis lost the war and that it ended in 1945 but people who lived through those events did not have such knowledge. Don’t reveal too much too quickly. The sentence “Grandmother arrived at the hospital where she would in two days’ time be reunited with her future husband,” robs your story of much of its tension.
Dealing with gaps
Most researchers hit a blank wall with at least one person who appears to have left few traces of their existence. Claire Tomalin wrote possibly her finest book about Nelly Ternan, the elusive mistress of Charles Dickens. In The Invisible Woman Tomalin teases out the story of an actress who was effectively written out of history books. The hunt gives the book the edge of a detective story and one in which Tomalin is scrupulously honest with her readers:
“Nelly now disappears from view completely, conjured into thin air. For four years she remains invisible … At a guess, she has been living in France. It is only a guess. This is to be a chapter of guesses and conjectures, and those who don’t like them are warned …”
Later on in the same chapter she adds: “We have seen that there is no hard evidence that Nelly had a child; but there is too much soft evidence to be brushed aside entirely.”
How creative can I be?
It’s useful to have a reader in mind, whether they’re your grandson if you’re writing a family history, or, if you’re writing a biography, someone who enjoys the genre. Knowing your reader will help you to gauge the sort of language to use and what you will need to explain. To a teenager, for example, the “last war” might mean the Iraq War whereas an older person would assume you were referring to the second world war.
Just like a novelist, it’s your task to paint a picture of events and to show, rather than tell. If your ancestors arrived in America by slave ship it’s far more effective to show the reader what it felt like to be in the hold – to describe the heat, the smells and the noise in the cramped conditions – rather than simply to tell them that the slaves were transported by ship.
Very few biographers invent dialogue. Instead, they allow their subject’s voice to emerge through letters, diaries or interviews. If you’re writing a memoir or family history these sources may not exist or you may want to supplement quotations with impressions of what you remember them saying. Often it is more effective to paraphrase or to describe how they spoke, rather than trying to invent convincing dialogue. In Unreliable Memoirs, for example, Clive James describes the agony he suffered as a small boy when his class faced their regular spelling test.
“I remember not being able to pronounce the word ‘the’. I pronounced it ‘ter-her’. The class had collective hysterics. They were rolling around on the floor with their knees up.”
Dialogue should be a stylised form of real speech – chat with the dull bits left out. In this extract from Toast, entitled Pickled Walnuts, Nigel Slater uses comments from his Dad and stepmother, Joan, to increase the reader’s knowledge of their personalities and their marriage.
“One weekend when we attended a fete in a field by the river, Dad came back with a jar of pickled walnuts as big as the jars of sherbet lemons that stood behind the sweet counter in the post office. ‘It will last us a year or two,’ he said, bringing them in from the boot of the car.
‘I don’t know how you can eat the filthy things,’ shuddered Joan, screwing up her nose like he had just handed her a jar of preserved dog poo.'” (Toast, page 207)
In Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Charles Dickens he not only makes up dialogue for his subject but invents a meeting between himself and Dickens. Making things up is a risky business and not every editor will appreciate your originality. The critics attacked Ackroyd for his audacity – but his biography was a bestseller.
Tony Benn: How to write a diary
Those who write diaries use them in a number of ways: to record the day’s events, to describe the people they have met, and to capture thoughts and emotions. An authentic diary tells the truth as the writer sees it at the moment when he or she writes.
Having written over 15m words since 1940 – a 68-year span – I know what a sweat it is to do it, and what pleasure it is to read it.
Experience has always been my greatest teacher and if I write at night I get two
bites at that experience – when the pressure is off and I can describe what has happened in perspective. Then, when I read it, I get a third bite at my experience.
The daily diarist has a different job to the memoirist or the autobiographer: a good political diary must above all be contemporary, accurate and include mistakes. Published diaries are often selective by necessity, but misjudgements must be included and it must be accepted that nothing is altered after the event. Diarists follow different principles: some being famous for their wit, some for their sexy revelations, some as an expression of the diarist’s style.
In the post-Blair era we have been treated to many accounts from those who have now retired from active politics and wish to intervene to put the record straight – as they see it.
· Tony Benn’s latest collection of diaries is More Time for Politics: Diaries 2001-2007