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13/12/2017
BBC Radio 4

    Submit the first lines of your memoir to Radio 4

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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

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