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People have strong thoughts and feelings about memoir, and how old you need to be to write it. In this new monthly interview series, Bri Lee talks to five memoir writers at different stages of life, discussing their experiences with the craft and with publishing in the controversial genre.

Patti Miller published her most recent memoir in her 60s, but has been a prolific life writer for the last twenty years. The Mind of a Thief (UQP) won the 2013 NSW Community and Regional History Prize in the NSW Premier’s History Awards and was long-listed for the 2013 Stella Prize. I wanted to talk to Patti in particular because she’s also been teaching writing – and memoir writing in particular – for a really long time, at various universities, at the Faber Writing Academy, and she also founded the Life Stories Workshop.

Image: Sally Flegg

Bri Lee: Thank you so much for making time for me. I think I’ve already explained the basic concept for this series, right?

Patti Miller: Yes! I have defended the rights of twenty-year-olds to write their memoirs long before doing this, so it’s a great thing you’re doing.

BL: Cool! Thank you. Great start. Ransacking Paris is your seventh book, and it’s your fourth work of ‘life writing’.

PM: Yes, I’d probably call it memoir or creative non-fiction, or narrative non-fiction.

BL: So starting from that point, can you speak about why Ransacking Paris? What was the catalyst for this latest work of memoir?

PM: Well, The Mind Of A Thief was the one before this, and that explored my connection to country via a native title claim in my home town. The first post-Mabo claim was in my home town, so I was talking to Indigenous people there and looking at my own connection to country and how and why my own ancestors had taken the land in the first place. But I also realised that my mind was formed by European thought and literature and ideas, and I wanted to explore that side of things. I had promised myself I’d never write a book about Paris. [Laughs.] Then I realised that it was a way for me to be able to write about an important year in my life, but more to be able to explore what it meant to be a European as well as an Australian.

BL: Did you know when you went to Paris that you wanted to turn your time there into a book?

PM: Not at all. It was ten years [after living in Paris] before I started the book, which is a bit of an indication that I had no intention of writing a book about that experience. Really, at the time, it was actually about reclaiming that desire to connect to the world without being a mother. I’d been a mother since I was very young. I was not quite 21 when I had my first child, and I had always intended to go off and see the world, but sometimes things don’t happen the way you plan. That trip was about fulfilling a teenage dream I had about being a writer in Paris, but I was turning 50. [Laughs.]

In a way I think all of my memoirs are about how we construct ourselves, and how a self is made.

BL: How has your approach to memoir writing changed through your life? Have your techniques or attitudes changed in the decades between your first and last work of life writing?

PM: Well that’s an interesting, writerly question. I started my first work as part of my degree at UTS, and I think it was really an exploration of identity. What it is to be a particular human being. What makes a person, how we construct ourselves. And in a way, now, I feel like I’m doing the same thing. I mean, there’s different emphasis on it in The Mind Of A Thief – it was about how I identify myself within the landscape and the country I grew up in, which is central to my soul. But the first book was more looking at identity in relation to the stories that form us – the ones we read and the ones we’re told – that shape how we think about ourselves.

In a way I think all of my memoirs are about how we construct ourselves, and how a self is made. In Ransacking Paris, it’s the cultural elements in particular – reading and looking at other memoirists – how they construct their sense of self and how that has effected how I construct myself. So I’d say it’s variations on a theme.

BL: Would you say that you’ve, I don’t know, got better at it? Or been able to go deeper with each one?

PM: I have been able to extend more and more out into a wider world. I think Montaigne said something like ‘we look into the mirror of the vast world, to know what we are like ourselves’ and I think I’ve been able to do more of that. To know and explore how we are, not just individuals, but how we are shaped by our time and our culture and by politics and by other people. So I think maybe I have widened and deepened my scope. And I hope that makes it more accessible to other people, the fact that I have placed myself in a wider context. Because, in a way, I don’t think that I’m writing about an individual self, I’m writing about what it means to be a human being.

BL: Has it gotten any easier or harder?

PM: In some ways, obviously I’ve gained a lot of confidence over the years so I feel more at ease with the writing and I feel like I’ve been able to incorporate various research elements more easily. I remember with my first one, The Last One Remembers, it was difficult. I’d read so much and researched so much it felt like a lumpy thing. It was difficult for me to incorporate the research into the writing, but now I’ve become more confident doing that. The Mind Of A Thief was written in one year, the first draft at least, which is very fast for me. I didn’t know where I was going – I was interviewing people as I went – but at the end of the year it came out with a shape. I’ve previously had to work much harder to bring structure to a story, but then, with Ransacking Paris it was difficult again. You’d think I would have ‘got it’ by then! I wrote the first five chapters, almost 30,000 words, then realized that the structure was wrong, and I threw it all away.

BL: Yes, I remember reading that in your interview with Caroline Baum in The Sydney Morning Herald.

PM: And I just had to trust the creative process. I threw it all away. I wanted to follow a more natural flow, rather than the formal way I’d begun. So in some ways it’s gotten easier, but I definitely still make mistakes.

BL: Well that’s reassuring, if nothing else.

PM: Yes.

I don’t think that I’m writing about an individual self, I’m writing about what it means to be a human being.

BL: Touching back on what you mentioned right at the beginning – what age do you think is too young or too old for memoir? Mary Karr says you’re supposed to wait until you’re 35.

PM: Okay, well I’m going to completely disagree with Mary Karr. [Laughs.] Because I think that statement, or any statement about what age people should be to write memoir, assumes that memoir is about your achievements and what you’ve done in your life. Whereas I firmly believe that memoir is about your experience of being in the world. And that experience is just as valid when you’re 17 as when you’re 77. I want to know about the unique experience of a 17 year old! I mean, the whole reason I write and read memoir is that I want to know what it’s like to be another human being. That’s the great mystery! You can never truly know. Even when you love someone dearly you’ve actually got no clue what it’s like to be them. To me, your experience of your life is utterly fascinating. Regardless of your age.

I feel really passionate about this. What are they on about? Memoir isn’t about your achievements, it’s about your experience of the world, and that is about the mystery of consciousness.

BL: You also teach life writing and you’ve written a book about memoirs – what have you learned from teaching and talking about the genre?

PM: I’ve learned a lot about writing. I’ve learned how to see what the issues are in a piece of writing, and also how to create the texture of a life on the page. It’s not a history we’re looking for, it’s actually about an experience of being. But I’ve also learned, on a human level, that you can never ever judge other people or make assumptions about what they’ve been through, until you hear or have read their story. So many times when I’ve met someone and felt that maybe I don’t connect with them – maybe they have different political values or come from a different background or class – but once you hear their story you realise that, despite very real differences, in a sense we’re all the same – walking around in this mystery trying to figure out where we’re going. The main human thing I’ve learned is compassion. The main writing thing I’ve learned is that everyone has the capacity to find their own creativity. I really do believe that because I’ve seen it so many times. A number of the people who have taken my workshops have gone on and had their books published. So when I meet each person, regardless of the background, I have faith in their capacity, it’s just about opening the doors.

It’s not a history we’re looking for, it’s actually about an experience of being.

BL: What is the most common misconception about memoir that people turn up to your workshops with? Or generally?

PM: The most common one is that they think memoir is self-indulgent. They think it’s wanking, navel-gazing and all a bit embarrassing. And as you would guess, about 80 per cent of the people who take my classes are women, and they’re very reluctant to claim their own experiences are valid and worthwhile. They worry it’s selfish and won’t be interesting to other people, but I’ve actually found – and I know this to be true – that the detail of life is what connects you most to other people – when you go down deep into yourself and find what is most human about yourself, and others can then connect to that.

Some people come to a workshop thinking they are writing a history, and to me that’s a misconception – it’s an attempt to convey an experience of being.

BL: You mention in that Baum interview that you think more and more these days people need to have some kind of trauma or confessional element in their memoir to get published. Do you still think that’s true?

PM: Well, this is speaking from the point of view of publishing rather than writing. I do notice that people still are more likely to get published, or be published more quickly, if they have a story that is more sensational and more narrative-driven. That’s just the reality of the marketplace. It’s not a reflection of the quality of the work. I think there are works which are quieter, and more reflective, seem to have more difficulty getting published than others.

The other ones that seem to get published a lot are ones that speak to that redemption myth. The ones like ‘I had it tough, and things have been hard, and I have worked really hard, and now I’m okay.’ That redemption myth is at the centre of our culture. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is a redemption myth and really it’s just about walking. But this isn’t a conversation about the quality of the works, I’m answering your question about what will sell.

Memoir isn’t about your achievements, it’s about your experience of the world, and that is about the mystery of consciousness.

BL: Have you seen or experienced memoir being treated differently in different countries?

PM: That’s hard to say. I think it’s definitely seen an explosion of popularity in many western countries recent decades. And with that, a lot of criticism of memoir, because there’s so much memoir that’s called ‘confessional’ and some people feel like it is reality TV. That it represents people putting aside the art and craft of writing a book and that it’s just people throwing up all over the place. And certainly some of that has come out of America, and there’s some of that here. I think in France they consider memoir a little bit, ah, a bit ‘indiscreet’, I suppose. They like a more subtle, interesting, literary memoir.

The difference I see is not so much from country to country, but from men and women memoirists. I do think that male memoir tends to be mainly about achievements, hence that idea of memoir being about one’s achievements. But women tend to write more about the interior things. Not always, obviously, but I certainly notice it in my classes. It’s difficult to get men to write about their emotional life, it’s about what they have achieved. And it’s difficult to convince women that exploring their internal life is valid.