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30/07/2015
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Editor's note: What would the first line of your memoir be? Ian McMillan encourages people to submit the first line of their memoir in the comments section of this blog. Listen to Eat, Pray, Write from 8 March

Ian McMillan

I was on the first train from Manchester Piccadilly to Sheffield this morning; the 0545, chugging its way slowly across the tops, from one great city to another. My carriage was surprisingly full: there was a young woman who was wolfing down a bacon sarnie as though she’d not eaten for weeks, a man who insisted to the guard that he wanted to go to Edinburgh this way and not the easy way and a man who’d missed the last train the night before slept in a bus shelter, or so he told the silent woman in the sensible suit.

I thought, as I often do, that I’d like those people to write a memoir, to fill in the details of the lives I’d glimpsed on that early journey. Why did that man want to go Edinburgh via a particular route, and what was that young woman’s first memory of a bacon sarnie?

I wrote my own memoir in verse, ‘Talking Myself Home’ a few years ago; I’d just turned fifty and I wanted to take stock of a life that was as ordinary and unusual as everybody else’s. I wrote about my parents, who’d met as pen pals during the war; I wrote about my teachers, like the gravel-voiced Mr. Brown. I wrote about the jobs I’d had on the building site and at the tennis-ball factory, and I wrote about my life as a man of many words. What I found was that the more I wrote, the more I cast my net into the deceptively calm seas of memory, the more I remembered.

Helena Drysdale and Ian McMillan

Why don’t you have a go at writing your life? You’ll hear examples on the programme of people who took that difficult first step of putting pen to paper (or fingertip to keybord) and you’ll get a little practical help on how to begin.

Think of the stories your family tells; think of how you ended up where you are, how your parents met, who the significant people in your life were when you were young. Think of your teachers and the smells and sounds of the classroom. Think of the first time you saw the sea, the first time you saw a dustbin lorry, the first time you got on a bus. If you’ve kept letters or objects from the past, have a look at them. Look at them for a long time; listen to what they’re saying to you.

Keep a notebook and write things down as you remember them; don’t worry about a shape for the memoir at this stage. A shape will emerge; after all, you’re the shape.

And remember, everybody’s got a story to tell. Everyone’s life is interesting. I wish I’d asked those people on that train this morning to tell me their tales. Mind you, they might be reading this… So if you feel inspired, go ahead, write the first line of your memoir in the comment box below, and you’re on your way.

Listen to Eat, Pray, Write. Guests include Helena Drysdale who teaches memoir writing, and Helena Tym who has written her own memoir.

How to write a memoir

Comments

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  • Comment number 276. Posted by AMGOT

    on 31 May 2013 13:57

    American swindler in France

    An adventure into 'la vérité idéologique'
    The nonlinearity and foldover of time

    Sequels:
    Why Cisco isn't French
    Why Google isn't French

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  • Comment number 275. Posted by nancyapoet

    on 30 May 2013 15:32

    In the scheme of things, aren't births be the very embodiment of hope and joy? In some instances, contrary to expectation, they present a challenge, one played out in constant interplay over time, between parents and child. This is not all bad -- all lives are like that -- but when there is something wrong, identified at birth, the interplay is explicit and sometimes fraught. SO I should mention that my Mother was a Vogue model, my Father a surgeon, and I was born with lots of things visibly wrong.

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  • Comment number 274. Posted by BEMilne

    on 23 May 2013 09:55

    (Were there ghosts here?) The corridor was dark, when from the distant warm light came the shape of a woman decked in a black cloak. She passed, her white face stark in the dim light. She nodded.
    It was night sister walking the cold, black corridors, the guardian of sleeping mortality. I ran past shivering, aware of the hidden unknown. It was 3:30 in the morning and there was a "cardiac arrest" on Victoria ward. The light emanating from the ward beckoned, the noise and glow behind the curtains revealed life. We were there to fight the darkness to bring life back from the edge.

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  • Comment number 273. Posted by springblossom

    on 15 May 2013 10:31

    Hurtful and disturbing experiences throughout the journey of my life, have taken me through a 'transient corridor' of how to transform the all the anger, guilt and pain these have left me with, into building up my inner strength and abilities to discover the road to the peace, love and understanding that I now deserve.

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  • Comment number 272. Posted by springblossom

    on 15 May 2013 10:20

    My journey through the 'transient corridor' of my life, I have made disturbing, hurtful discoveries of who people really are and what they really wanted from me.

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  • Comment number 271. Posted by Howard McLaren

    on 12 May 2013 16:57

    The boy stood on the burning deck

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  • Comment number 270. Posted by Maria Costa

    on 6 May 2013 21:01

    It was a passionate time of discovery, learning with much enthusiasm. Happy young faces smiled near me while sharing each other's stories. Those are nurturing my heart and soul for good.

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  • Comment number 269. Posted by RhoJo

    on 5 May 2013 09:36

    I watched the first sun strike the tip of Ama Dablam, jagged like a tooth and wondered how my body would cope with the day ahead.

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  • Comment number 268. Posted by 2beblogged

    on 3 May 2013 17:00

    We had just come out of the baker's and I was holding on to the treasured package, the still warm, comforting half-tin loaf, the fragrances of the baker's and the loaf mingled with the smells of a fresh morning. I squeezed the loaf again as we crossed the road and there she was, with her deep red painted smile and stained red teeth to match. She exchanged pleasantries with my mother, who answered in her still full Italian accent, '
    Weater's better dan 'gisterday,' .

    My cheeks flamed red, the heat surged over me, I could see the look of betrayal in my mother's eyes. Our guilt and shame shared. The red-lipped woman gave her shrewd painted smile , bathing it seemed in our personal torment.
    'Dat's our bus, if we miss 'im we have to walk'
    My mother yanked my free arm and dragged me towards the bus, I squeezed the bread again as if it were my lifebelt as I was slowly being overcome, yet again, from these waves of humiliation and frustration, seemingly ever present in my life.

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  • Comment number 267. Posted by laineymae

    on 1 May 2013 14:48

    My sister found me at the neighbour's, sitting at their dining table playing whist with the family. I appeared to be completely at home and totally unperturbed when she arrived, even though I was only two.

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