How Do You Write a Memoir When You Can't Remember?
The most asked question...
Next week, marks publication day for the second time around for Wendy Mitchell. Her new book, What I Wish People Knew About Dementia, will be published by Bloomsbury on January 20th.
This is the second book that we have written together, her first being the Sunday Times Bestseller, Somebody I Used To Know, and I am particularly proud of this new very wise book that we wrote together during the second lockdown.
This morning, Wendy was interviewed on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, and this weekend, an interview with her will be published in The Sunday Times Magazine. The writer called me last week because she had a few questions about our process and how we worked together. It is no secret that Wendy has a ghostwriter, as she herself admits, if she didn’t you might find the same thing written on every page. But the thing that puzzles people the most is how exactly did we write the book — how is it possible to write a memoir of somebody who has no memory?
It’s a good question.
Her first memoir, Somebody I Used to Know, told the story of Wendy’s diagnosis with Young Onset Dementia back in July 2014. It was a devastating moment for Wendy who had enjoyed a busy career as a non-clinical manager within the NHS, as well as bringing up her two daughters, Sarah and Gemma, singlehandedly.
There was, quite naturally, a period of mourning for her. No-one can deny that a diagnosis like that can feel like the end, but what Wendy likes to remind people is that it can actually be the start of something else, something different, a new way of living, but living nonetheless – not suffering, don’t ever use that word in front of Wendy!
She started writing a blog in October 2014, so she could keep track of what she had done each day, or what she had discovered about this disease she now would be living alongside, and that was brilliant for me, I had 150,000 words of blogposts to wade through which gave me a bit of a timeline to follow. But as I was also writing about the bit leading up to that diagnosis, it left a huge blank.
Figuring out what came before that blog, particularly the two years since signs and symptoms had started to appear, was not so easy. It was a little like putting a jigsaw together, except the pieces varied from medical letters to entries from her daughter Sarah’s diary.
The memoir was told in two timelines: Wendy now in the first person, told chronologically, and Wendy speaking to her previous self pre-dementia in the second person. It was important to me to show the old Wendy too, the fierce and determined single mum who worked full time, renovated her homes, re-felting her shed roof singlehandedly while her neighbours looked on nudging their husbands in a why-haven’t-you-done-ours-yet way.
You would think that asking Wendy to cast her mind back that far might be difficult, especially because for me, memoir writing is all about the detail, it’s how you transport the reader. And it is true that details of the same event varied slightly day to day, layering up the colour, but what I noticed was that, as we worked, memories would be returned to Wendy. I would often wake to a photograph of a Post-It note in the morning sent on What’s App, some scratchy Biro writing on it, and a message from Wendy saying: ‘does this mean anything to you?’ She had written it in her sleep, but it was almost always something we had been discussing the day before — her brain was returning memories to her as she slept.
It is probably incredible to most people to discover that we wrote that first book over What’s App, messages bouncing back and forth as I started to understand her story and her life better. I live down in Kent and she is up in Yorkshire, in terms of miles we couldn’t have been further apart. I went to visit Wendy right at the beginning and we sat in her conservatory overlooking the garden, getting to know each other better. Trust is the most important thing between an author and her ghost, and our friendship quickly grew and remains to this day.
Slowly I moved Wendy through the story of her life and her disease, weaving this way and that between the two. She would write bits and pieces on What’s App or email, or reply to questions that I posed to her, and then I would digest the answers and write them into her manuscript. I would send each section to her before moving on, it was a completely collaborative process. That is how you build trust.
Wendy will tell you how she often wrote to me and said: ‘Oh, we must include x, y or z…’ and I would tell her – patiently, she says – that we had actually written about that a week ago. Wendy admits now that she can’t tell you what’s in the book – each reading brings her a surprise – but she recognises it as her voice. That’s what we hope for as ghostwriters.
If you would like to know a little more about our journey writing together, this piece appeared in Granta magazine a couple of years ago. But otherwise, I think it might be nice for you to hear from Wendy herself. So next week, I’ll ask her to describe the experience for herself, and as this post has focused on the writing of Somebody I Used to Know which was straightforward memoir, I’ll tell you a little more about the writing of What I Wish People Knew About Dementia another time because, as polemical memoir, it was different altogether.
If you would like to buy a copy of Wendy’s first book Somebody I Used To Know, you can do so here. And if you would like to pre-order her new book What I Wish People Knew About Dementia, you can do so here. (If you use the links I’ve provided you’ll also be supporting independent bookshops.)
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