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On writing memoir

It’s like this. I face a group of people who have come to learn about writing their memoirs. More and more people want to do this as they get older. They have a story to tell, evidence to leave for those who come behind, their children and their grandchildren, something that says, I was here, and this is who I was, and these are the things that I have done. Remember me.

Writing down the story is one way of creating a record, and it’s more enduring than Hansel and Gretel’s trail of crumbs in the forest. It can be read and reread and made sense of time and again. My mother left me a precious gift. In the last years of her life she wrote her own story, in crabbed handwriting, her hands buckled by arthritis, clenched around a triangular rubber aid on her pen. Here and there in her narrative, there is a crossover between what she had told me and what she had been prepared to put on the record. There were some things she wanted to leave out but crept their way into the story anyway. A bare accounting of events, none of the pain, but something of the joy. I feature in that joy. I keep the exercise book in a drawer beside my bed. It is, as they say, the thing I would reach for if the house burned down. If I could escape, I’d take the family history with me.

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For nearly a decade, I met with people wanting to record their stories. We would gather once a fortnight over the winter months at the Thistle Inn in Wellington. One of the oldest surviving pubs left in the country, it was built in 1840 by a Scotsman called William Couper and rebuilt in the 1860s, with an extra storey, after a fire. The white wooden building stands at an angle on the corner of Mulgrave and Aitken streets, near Old St Paul’s, and a stone’s throw by a strong arm in the other direction from Parliament. Originally it was over the road from the beach and whalers used to pull their long boats up outside and tie them to a hitching post while they went in for an ale. It’s said that the chief Te Rauparaha drank there, and certainly the whaler Jacky Guard, the husband of Betty, was a customer. The sea is now further away, since a massive earthquake in 1855 altered the shoreline.

Inside, there are original wooden floorboards and wide sash windows. A steep staircase leads to the upper rooms, and it is in one of these, the Katherine Mansfield Room, that the memoir writers met. In 1907 Mansfield wrote a story called ‘Leves Amores’. This is how it begins:

I can never forget the Thistle Hotel. I can never forget that strange winter night.

I had asked her to dine with me, and then go to the Opera. My room was opposite hers. She said she would come but – could I lace up her evening bodice, it had hooks at her back. Very well.

It was still daylight when I knocked at the door and entered. In her petticoat bodice and a full silk petticoat she was washing, sponging her face and her neck. She said she was finished, and I might sit on the bed and wait for her. So I looked round at the dreary room.

Mansfield goes on to describe the ugliness and drabness of her surroundings – the piece of cracked mirror, the torn wallpaper, although she can trace a pattern of faded rose buds and flowers. Yet, before the night is out, the building will yield up its own delights, as we suspect will happen as the narrator tells us that, after the opera, ‘we came out into the crowded night street, late and cold. She gathered up her long skirts. Silently we walked back to the Thistle Hotel, down the white pathway fringed with beautiful golden lilies, up the amethyst-shadowed staircase.’ We readers are not surprised by the passionate embraces that follow: the atmosphere is there, the place, with its own history, is described to us. Was this Mansfield writing from memory or imagination? Not our business, really, because the work is presented as a fiction. But we do know the building exists, and its possibilities. We know because we have climbed that ‘amethyst-shadowed staircase’; we are open to our own pasts in this place where the embraces happened. We know, somehow, that Mansfield has been here.

It’s a polished place now, after renovations and refurbishments, all gleaming wood and modern comforts. In the room where we gathered, there was space for fourteen people to sit in a half-circle, while I sat by the whiteboard at the front. Down below is a classy well-appointed restaurant and bar, with a big television screen so that patrons can watch rugby games in comfort; in winter there are roaring fires. In the floor lies a cutaway scene beneath glass (or something akin to it) showing a ship’s hold complete with large faux rats. A corridor to the side of the bar leads along to a private sexy dining room, full of red velvet curtains.

At morning tea, we had warm muffins, a choice of blueberry or savoury. At lunchtime, we descended to the restaurant, where we gathered at long tables, and the noise levels rose and slowly, slowly we were at one with each other.

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On the first morning, some of the group may say, Oh, my life is so extraordinary that I don’t know where to begin, there’s so much to tell. Or at least they’re saying it to themselves. You don’t want to be too boastful among strangers. Others may say, and possibly out loud, that their lives have been so dull, so uninteresting, that really there is nothing to tell. Only they don’t believe that. Somewhere, deep inside, they’re waiting for the moment when they dare to reveal themselves. They’re waiting for that axe that breaks the frozen sea within, as Kafka famously said – or something like that. And they have dared to dream of writing it all down.

These fourteen expectant people are waiting for some magic tools. But this day is not about style, or about how to write a bestseller, it’s about letting go of the future and re-entering the past. And that requires stamina.

There’s nothing for it but to plunge them straight in at the deep end. To help them through the inevitable round of introductions, I’ve given them each a note asking them, while waiting to begin, to jot down five interesting things about themselves. They’re already uneasy, although there are some who will want to tell you twenty-five things. I’m not sure at this stage whether this means that oral history is really their forte, or whether it means that their stories will pour forth once they start writing. It’s the ones who say they can think of only two slightly interesting things that will be the challenge. For me and them.

But at least their brains are loosening up and, better still, for the moment, their tongues. What I like in this early round is that they’re also having to listen to one another’s stories, and start responding to them. When I was a journalist I learned early on that the people I interviewed loved to tell me about their lives, even the parts that had nothing to do with the subject at hand. Off the record, they would often add, and I’ve said that myself, hoping for the best, but it’s the way one thing leads to another: it can be irresistible to hold back on some detail that illuminates the whole narrative.

As the tales begin to spill among the group, I tell them that what’s said in the room must stay inside it, that only the person who owns the story is entitled to share it. Establishing trust is important because it’s only by opening up to yourself that what really happened in a life begins to emerge. One of the first questions I’m asked is what to leave in and what to leave out. The only way I can answer that is by saying, Tell everything but only tell yourself. Then decide what you want to tell the rest of the world.

Where to begin?

The best place to begin is at the beginning, I say.

And the question flies back. How to begin?

Where did you come from? I ask. Where were you born? Jot down your parents’ names, if you know them (not everybody does). If you don’t, write down the first people associated with you after your birth. Put down where your first home was, and find out what it tells you about you and your circumstances, or those of the people you called family.

I have written about memory and how I connect it with images of water in Beside the Dark Pool, but these are continuing refrains in my life, so bear with me.

One of my early memories is the reservoir my parents built on the land in the Far North. They toiled over it, but the water was always brackish and full of frogs. Or how I learned to swim beneath a waterfall, taught by a famous pianist, whose method was to go to the centre of the pool and tell me that I must fling myself from its edge in order to reach her. Then there was the lake in Rotorua I lived beside with my husband when we were first married, its blueness on summer evenings as we sat on the steps outside our apartment, the dark purple it turned in the winter. And now I live above a bay, and beyond that Cook Strait, sometimes calm, often wild and unknowable.

And this is where the surface of water comes into it. Once it’s broken, there’s no knowing what lies beneath. It can be potentially dangerous, but also a place for exploration, to be free and unafraid. It requires a moment of oblivion before you take that step, before you risk yourself to its depths.

But once you’re in, you’re in.

All right, I say. Now write down a secret in the family.

This is where things start to get really interesting and a bit tricky.

Although we mightn’t want to own all our secrets, it’s possible to enter speculative places, to imagine what might and might not be true. Keep writing, don’t stop, write down everything. Remember, you’re in charge of what will be read.

At this point, some of the group may decide to leave. They have that fragile hunted look I’ve seen before. This course was supposed to be fun, a hobby perhaps, a new skill. Well, there are some side-splitting stories told in a memoir group; sometimes we fall about laughing. Life is funny.

And dreadful.

And looking into the darkness, into the underworld, can be agonising. No wonder some have to leave; they’re just not ready to go there.

Even what’s funny can kill us.

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There’s another gentler exercise that I sometimes do with a group. I provide some topics – a piece of jewellery, a dance, playing a joke, the first day at a new school, a problem with a car – and then ask them to divide into pairs and choose one of the stories to tell the other person. After ten minutes they must reverse the process. When that’s done, I say, Pick up your pens. Write down your own story, the one you’ve just told, write for fifteen minutes, and I’ll tell you when to stop. Almost to a person they write freely, their stories fresh in their minds. When I stop them, they look at me with astonishment. I’ve written three hundred words, they may say. Or, I didn’t remember that story at all, but now I want to write more about it, it’s so clear in my mind.

That’s the power of storytelling. When a story is told, externalised, if you like, it has a life of its own, and it becomes so much easier to write. So when the interrogation of memory begins, we discover there are so many things we thought we knew but don’t. We often have to look for clues about family. I understand some people in the group don’t want to write about family at all. They’ve come because they’ve had amazing careers, or extraordinary travels, or endured some harrowing trauma, and left family far behind. They may already have excellent records, diaries and journals and, these days, jottings on their phones. But still, here they are, not knowing how to begin. So this first day is devoted to what they might discover in their early lives, and this can be a trigger for remembering the decisions made later on.

Sooner or later comes the moment when I have to do the work, tell them something about the process of writing your life, how to identify its various guises. I tell them there are several ways to look at what is also called, voguishly, life writing. There is autobiography, and biography, and, yes, memoir. That’s not all, but it will do for a start and perhaps it’s enough.

Autobiography is what you do when you set out to tell the whole story of your life. At least, that’s what the reader expects. They want to know it all, every last little detail. As well as your successes they want to know about your foibles and your failures and your fears. They want to know both who you’ve hated and who you’ve loved and, even more, they will likely want to know who you’ve made love to – although sometimes if there are too many lovers, they may find that tiresome and excessive; I can recall any number of these books where I’ve thought, Oh God, not another bonk. Please. In short, an autobiography is a revealing document and writing it may well be a confronting exercise and an even harder experience to live with once it’s published. Not that I seriously believe many people do write their entire story. Why on earth would you?

Biography is when another person writes the story of a life, whether the subject be living or dead. This is a much more selective process. You, the writer, gather up material you’ve researched about your subject and deliver it up, framed by your own interpretation. Your subject may have agreed to have their biography written, or it may be an unauthorised version, or the person may already be dead and so it may seem not to matter whether what you’ve written about them is true or kind. I’ve read any number of biographies, some of them about the same person, and in each of them the subject looks different. And, just sometimes, you may disagree with the author’s interpretation. I know I did when I read a biography of the famous woman aviator, Jean Batten. She was such a hero of mine yet the only known biography of her read like a sustained attack. So I wrote a novel that isn’t a biography, but a translation, as nearly as I can make it, of what it was like to be her. So yes, there is all of that.

And a word of warning for those who plan to write biographies of living people: it’s difficult to capture something they will agree with, so you may well end up writing an unauthorised version. I withdrew my permission for a biography before the first words were written. I couldn’t lay myself so bare that another person was able to pick over the bones of my past; a bit of the flesh perhaps, but not that skeleton of disaster and turmoil that lies beneath the skin of most lives. I felt guilty about changing my mind, but I believed I had no other choice, and I still do.

Well, this isn’t very encouraging so far. But there’s another way, the disreputable third way so beloved by politicians but so damned helpful when it comes to writing the story of the self. There is, as I’ve said, memoir. It’s just what the word implies – a selection of memories and stories about your life, shaped and crafted, the important things said, the disagreeable possibly left out. (Don’t leave all of it out; after all, you’re human.) What you can bear, what you can live with, what is, above all, interesting to the future reader. Not, of course, that you’ll think about the reader as you write, for that’s one of the great inhibitions – the idea that this will be read by others. What will people think of me, of the writing? What judgements will be made?

I always recommend that, as you begin the journey into memoir writing, you don’t think too much about publication. That may or may not come later. When you write about your life, you’re writing first and foremost for yourself. Look, I say, this is only a beginning, a first draft, not a last will and testament. Real writers will face many drafts – and make many discoveries – but until they choose to release their memoir into the world, it belongs to them and nobody else. The decision about what to leave in and what to take out will come later, after that essential first draft is written.

There is a fourth way, one that I’ve practised, in a sense, with Jean Batten. My novel about her is a fiction based on fact, with scenes and incidents imagined. As well, there are fictions about people’s real lives that are simply told in the third person, as if the writer is no more than a character. One of the best examples I’ve read is Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder. It is, she has said, the nearest she will come to telling her story, so it can be read as a kind of memoir. And, in the telling it is simply enchanting, the love story between her and the late Graham Gibson, how they met, how they set up house. It’s Atwood at her most tender, and her most funny. The characters, Tig and Nell, have maintained their noms de plume since Gibson’s death. I come across stories in magazines in which their story continues, the name Nell a signal that Atwood has again assumed the mantle of her past life. So fiction can play a part in telling your story and it shouldn’t be dismissed. You don’t have to tell it all. Or you can, then take a step back and let the reader do the work.

If we’re talking about family, the group asks, how do we look for the records? Where will we find them?

So here are a couple of ideas. Genealogical records are often helpful for those wanting to explore the distant past. In the digital age, they’re much easier to access than they once were. And for those who aren’t handy with technology, there are museums and libraries where you can get help.

There are letters, although that’s where the new age fails us. People don’t keep things the way they used to. I have a friend who is trying to revive the art of letter writing. It’s his mission, he says, to single-handedly save the postal service from extinction. He has a beautiful fountain pen that a collector gave him in exchange for a favour. He has found a supply of elegant notepaper. Every now and then, one of his letters drops into my letterbox, four pages of news about this and that, not necessarily important but chatty and keeping in touch – the way he might in an email (and technically, he is a very able person). The difference is that I will store his letter away in a box marked ‘Correspondence’, instead of deleting it after a suitable interval, and eventually it will land in my collection of papers at the Alexander Turnbull Library. It was, after all, through letters my father kept from his aunts in Ireland that I discovered the house where my never known Irish grandmother lived as a girl, the house that, when it was sold, allowed us to buy the farm in Waipū, that farm with a river that curled through the bottom paddock, and where my father and I sang to each other as we milked cows in the evenings. From a letter I know how my grandmother, Ann Eakin, née O’Hara, died, in Middlesbrough in the mid-1930s – and, through it, I know it’s important to have regular colonoscopies. ‘My Lofty,’ she had written to my father, ‘a ten-shilling note to help you out, but there isn’t much more right now.’ My Lofty – it breaks my heart. He called her the Mater. I found the letters in a suitcase long after he had died. Why hadn’t I listened more to him while he was alive? That is such a trite question. It’s the one half the group asked as they introduced themselves at the beginning of the day.

For a while, when email was first available, I used to dutifully print out ones I thought interesting and add them to my files. But they accumulate so quickly and, besides, there can be something oddly intimate about emails, rapid outpourings that more-considered strokes of the pen don’t deliver. I stopped when I looked at some of my own. Emails are a betrayal of sorts; we put too much or too little into them. They’re so often about feelings, rather than the details of a life. It’s so easy to be romantic or angry or simply indifferent in those fluid movements on the keys, when there’s no envelope to be sealed, no stamp to be licked, no walk to the post box, just that dangerous send button.

Do look for the suitcases in the attic, prise open their rusted locks. They’ve been kept for a reason. An aunt left me a suitcase of used spectacles and half-full needles of morphine. As a young woman she was a nurse but her life had been lonely. She was a beautiful woman. There weren’t any letters, but I discovered a lot anyway.

Talk to your friends and siblings. I was an only child and although my mother was the youngest of six, I had just one first cousin, and so I’ve depended on friends. Their versions of events, though, can be surprisingly different. When I went to Menton on a Katherine Mansfield fellowship in 2006, my friend Madeleine came to visit. We have been friends since childhood but we hadn’t seen each other for a long time when we were reunited in the south of France. Time is such an enigmatic concept. It doesn’t exist once it’s passed. There’s no way of reading it in the future. It’s just there, ruled by the passing of the seasons, the turning of the earth each day. Perhaps that’s why a person is said to have lived for so many summers. Anyway, many summers ago, Madeleine and I lived across the road from each other in a little country town with a dusty avenue leading up to it, rimmed with hakea hedges, which have pale green leaves that end in pale pink tips, and banana passion fruit vines with their pendulous, yellow-skinned fruit full, inside, of greenish seeds in watery sacs that have a cloudy taste like custard. We were children abandoned to the heat of the north while our mothers worked in orchards. Both of us created stories, which Madeleine wrote up in her copperplate hand and illustrated. Her mother was alone, which was hard straight after the Second World War, while my mother had worked in a serving position in the town when we first went there. We didn’t fit into the local social scene, a group of jitterbugging gin-drinking people who had escaped the Raj. Well, I go on writing about this, and thinking about it. Some things shape who you are.

I was planning to write a memoir while I was in France and I had Madeleine lined up to ‘interview’, to verify, if you like, my memories of that time. Soon after her arrival we found ourselves sitting on the balcony of the Palais Lutetia, home to the fellows during their sojourn in Menton, the town near the Italian border where the famous writer lived and wrote in her dying days. As we looked out over the Mediterranean, I learned that Madeleine and I had a different understanding of those years up north. I could go on for pages about those differences – in the way we saw our parents, our circumstances – but they are between us. Enough, maybe, to say that she saw me as fortunate because I had two parents, and I saw her in the same way because her grandparents lived with her – and they had a swimming pool, which meant that they had visitors. My parents and I lived in a small army hut, with not a lot of room for extras, and the truth was, we were ashamed.

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It was spring when Ian and I arrived in Menton. As we stepped off the train in the late afternoon sunlight, I smelled it, the heavy, languorous scent of citrus flowers. And in an instant I was transported back to my childhood on the other side of the world, where the main local industry was growing oranges and lemons. And here that same wall of perfume was waiting for me, unexpected, intense, disturbing.

I lay down that night in the Palais Lutetia and dreamed of my mother. I saw her working in the orchards, harvesting lemons, along with a team of pickers, mostly women. Unlike my mother, who would climb the ladders and strip the trees down, in the right way, some of the others stuck to the lower branches. But then, my mother was Scots Presbyterian, a woman of great conscience. Little and light, she would climb those trees, even when it was wet and cold, because we needed the money – one shilling and sixpence for every wooden case filled. Her dark hair was covered with a beret; she wore trousers and my father’s shirts, rolled up at the sleeves. A pouch was strapped around her waist, to hold the lemons until she came down. When I was little, before Madeleine came along, I would often go to the orchard and sit under a hedge. I was supposed to be reading a book, but I could never take my eyes off my mother for long.

And there she was again in my dream, clippers in hand, high above me, dropping one golden orb after another into her pouch, her hands flying among the leaves. When I woke I was in tears. And yet, as the scent rose to meet me again, sharper after the night’s dew, I was at home. There, and in that other place. I had gone to Menton to find my way into writing memoir, but there it was, the whole map of my childhood laid out before me. I breathed in and out again. I surrendered.

Perhaps I should add that the next day, when Ian and I walked down the main street of Menton, I discovered that it, too, was a town inhabited by Raj refugees, living their dream. On the beach, they lay in polished ranks, the crisp old leather of their skins shining, as they baked under the blistering sun, their cut-crystal voices rising as they ordered another drink from the waiters at the kiosks on the street above.

Something else happened on our way back from that first walk into town. Roses grow on trellises beside the long avenue that runs from the town centre to the Palais Lutetia. They were coming into bloom. A gardener returned our greeting when we called ‘Bonjour’, then cut off a dark pink bud on a long stem and handed it to Ian to give to me. For love, he said. Be happy.

We were, in that town.

The bud opened and stayed fresh for a week. I have a photo of it in a vase on a windowsill.

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Timelines are important. Again, that idea of beginning at the beginning, of setting events against dates – when you lost your milk teeth, started at a new school, menstruated, shifted house. When you first noticed that your parents weren’t getting along so well, or they were getting along very well and had a new baby and how your life changed. Open up your senses, your ability to see and hear, to smell and touch and taste. Savour the world.

One of the guest tutors at the memoir groups was Mary, a writer and publisher. In one of her exercises she asked everyone to close their eyes while she produced objects out of a bag. They were then asked to identify these, by touch and smell. There would be bunches of lavender, some spices, a piece of the rug from her dog’s basket, a fur collar. And then she would ask them to write something that the scent or feel evoked.

There are photograph albums. But don’t get me started here or I might cry. The children when they were little, their faces full of trust: at water play, and on their trikes, wobbling along a stretch of the concrete driveway you laid with your husband. The girl in the tutu, not wanting to be a ballerina after all, the woman along the street who made her dress because you were no good at sewing. (No, the woman is not in the picture at all, but you had forgotten about her, and how she saved the day as the other mothers excelled at running up nifty outfits.) There’s me, looking out of a picture taken in Menton when my hair has just been cut and my eyes are alight with pleasure because it’s the most beautiful style I’ve ever had and the woman, Marinella, who created it, sang to me in Italian as she worked. Just ignore the picture of me with an Afro perm taken years earlier; none of us seemed to have much taste at the time – it was the eighties. How could we have done that to ourselves? And here are the great-aunts and uncles who could have been forgotten by now, except that they loved you and their names are engraved on your heart – but the person in the next generation looking at the picture may not remember them at all, unless there’s a name attached. Didn’t I go to her ninetieth birthday? a puzzled relative might say. When I was quite small? And yes, and it was out in the country, and afterwards we all stayed in a motel together, and the pizza place was closed but we made do, found food and you all swam in the pool. Then one of you fell over and we had to take you all to the emergency clinic late at night, which was a trauma, but no great harm done. Yes, all those faces from long ago, but they mean something. They mean that this is your history.

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The first day is drawing to a close, but I have a last exercise to present before they pack up. I’ve selected a group of poems, each one different but roughly based on an aspect of family. I hand these out without looking to see whether I think they will suit or not, so men might get poems by women and vice versa, young and old, all mixed up. After a few minutes, while they read the poems and some of them hiss, I hated poetry at school and I thought we were here to learn about writing memoir, I ask them, one by one, to read the poem I have given them.

Here are two that I often included. The first is by Lauris Edmond, who was my great friend for twenty-eight years, between the time we both arrived in Wellington, and her sudden death in January 2000.

Red nightgown

(for Stephanie)

I lie still, hardly breathing.

I must certainly not laugh or

she will wake, and we have had

enough of that for one night …

why else are we here in this

absurd nesting of mothers

and daughters? – I in my black

nightgown, curled round your

smaller blue, you round that

morsel in red, unfledged little

dreamer soaring in sleep

across adventuring heavens,

sure beyond all surmise

that tired and fallible women

will wait for her awaking.

And the grandmothers in the group breathe in, and out. They know what this is about.

And then there is this, which is funny and sad and deftly reveals two characters in the flick of a phrase. It’s by the American poet Billy Collins, who was the poet laureate in the States a few years ago. I met him at a publishers’ party one night in Wellington and thought him shy, or perhaps he was tired. There was a long wait for dinner and the evening was ragged round the edges. His demeanour said, I’m done and when will we ever eat, so I left him to it, the imagined conversation never taking place. But I love his work, the way it hits the nerve.

No Time

In a rush this weekday morning

I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery

where my parents are buried

side by side under a smooth slab of granite.

Then all day long, I think of him rising up

to give me that look

of knowing disapproval

while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

There are others in the mix – Alistair Campbell’s elegiac short poem, ‘My Grandfather’, in which he remembers his Rarotongan ancestors who ate human flesh, or a couple of lovely poems by American writer Sharon Olds, one of the great sensualists of my era. Her ‘Making Love’ shakes the group with its candour and sideways allusions to sex, the heaviness of the body, the aftermath in the room of a passionate consummation. Perhaps I’m a little careful who I give that one to; even at the beginning, you can tell some people are more resilient than others. A poem I especially love, by Elizabeth Pierson Friend, called ‘Steam Reassures Him’, concerns a woman being watched by her husband as she does the ironing. He is lulled by the sound of steam and the hiss of starch, the iron’s slide around the buttons of his shirt. It says so much about domesticity, and about how women’s roles are seen within it (so it could be a feminist poem), yet it carries a certain comfort with it.

I read a poem too, just to be part of the group, and it might be one of my own, one of the really hard ones, just to let everyone know that this isn’t an easy exercise for me either.

The last time I did this, I read ‘The Garden at Sainte-Agnès’. It’s for Ian, about the year we spent in France, about one of our favourite hill towns that we used to visit, one euro each way on a bus that whirled us up from Menton. I wrote it on the last day we were there, before starting the journey home to Wellington on the other side of the world. The poem starts out with a small geography lesson, reminding the reader that Sainte-Agnès is the highest coastal village in Europe, so it’s a long climb to reach the ruins of the castle perched at the top of the mountain. But on the way up, the climbers reach a medieval garden tended by two women. It continues:

There were days when we needed

to go to the hills, to sit in the garden

beside the low parterres

shaped in crosses and stars

around the apple trees, to simply

watch the small orange butterflies

losing themselves in the spent

tiger lilies, inhale the thyme

and chives and potted sage

and watch the sheep of Sainte-Agnès

grazing in all the dim sweet

green world down below. If it was

never more perfect than this

it would be enough and more. Dear,

there is so much to remember.

The poem has become part of my own personal memoir. Written with immediacy, the detail as exact as I could make it, it evokes not just that particular afternoon but some moments in a life that can never be repeated. The poem transports me back to that place, the word ‘remember’ at the end signalling that this is how the last day in the south of France was to be staked in memory. I think the scene setting helps, and I recommend to would-be memoirists, or writers of any genre, that the observation of an environment and recording of detail can enrich any account.

At this point, I say to the group, Right, now pick up your pens and write a poem about someone in your family or circle of friends. There’s a momentary silence, but the mood is upon them now, and nobody says anything much, not even, Does it have to rhyme? They begin. One or two people may cry as they write. It’s not my intention to make them cry, but if a memory has been dammed up and bursts the flood banks then something big has started. And everyone has to respect that. We are sharing our memories with kindness and good humour and we are building trust.

The trust is important if people are going to read their work aloud. But there’s an out in the next part of the exercise when I ask who will read their poems aloud. I have only one rule in the group and that is the pass rule. If it’s too hard, you can say ‘Pass’ and everyone must respect that. Some will read, and some will pass. But everyone in the room is now alert, listening to their own heartbeats.

That’s the first day. Time to make our way down the wooden stairs into the gathering up of the day. These are the survivors. They have begun opening themselves up to the dark, to memory. They are ready to write.

There is yet another suitcase in this story. It’s one I read about in a series of essays in the London Review of Books by a woman called Frances Stonor Saunders, whose Jewish parents had fled Romania during the Second World War and later led quiet domesticated lives in England. Her father had a suitcase of documents which she was still finding the courage to open, years after his death. She writes this, at the end of a long search for the truth of her origins: ‘It’s said that a myth is a story about the way things never were but always are. Truth is not an event but a process.’

I like that. It rings true.

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