Impressions of a week at Moniack Mhor
Memoir Course - Moniack Mhor – Sept 2015
Memoir Course - Moniack Mhor – Sept 2015
In September I attended the Memoir course with Janice Galloway and Jennie Erdal at Moniack Mhor. Our guest speaker was Candia Macwilliam. I did not really know what to expect when I enrolled but that is not to say I did not have expectations! I wanted encouragement, to get answers to some writer-type questions, and to meet people who were interested, as I am, in turning their life experiences and memories into art. I knew that with, Janice and Jennie, Candia I would learn new things and get a better understanding of how to improve my work.
I have certainly not been disappointed in any of these expectations. In addition to the wonderful tutoring and peer support on offer, there was also the fantastic home cooked food and friendly staff available to make sure everything ran smoothly. The surrounding countryside is perfect for walking and finding some space and time to think creatively.
Three things I have taken away from this course: The first thing is that “The truth must dazzle gradually” that is to say, come at things at an angle, Tell it Slant.
On Wednesday Candia spoke about the hump of one book looming underneath another one, and I envisaged the dark shape of a sea creature like a whale beneath the water, waiting to break the surface. She was referring to the idea of a second book already forming and taking shape while you work on the first, but somehow this metaphor also seems to fit the kind of writing and creative work we have been doing all week, uncovering the shapes underneath the surface. Somehow this secondary shape, the thing lurking beneath the surface is how the creative unconscious works to create art. On day one Janice drags up our earliest memories murky from the deep.
Firstly, there is the fact of the thing itself, the shocking immediacy of these sensations, tastes, sounds and then, shadowy, there is the thing sensed underneath these recollections - the what of that memory, what it is really about. Why select that particular instance? Why remember that event at all? What is it about that exact place/colour/sound that pulls us back again and makes us want to describe it? Under every memory I now expect to see a shadowshape, a penumbra. What is it? Who knows until I look at it sideways and yes, the writing of it will be a slanted thing.
With Jennie, our exploration of the content of our kitchen drawers uncovered more of the shadows and shapes lurking beneath the clutter of our lives. What did the alum keys, rolls of sellotape and the clump of hair from the tail of Red Rum really tell us about the life of the owner? Suitcases, drawers, wardrobes, heads stuffed full of bits and bobs, bric a brac, rolls of film that we cannot bear to throw away even if we don’t know what they signify. What does all this stuff mean?
The second thing I learned concerened the work of memory: selecting, clearing out and valuing the experiences that are completely unique to me, to everyone in the group.
Candia left a comet trail of words and images behind. Displenshing, she said was a Scots word for emptying out the contents of the house of someone who has died. I thought, yes! It is right for a language to a have a word for this very important job which most of us in this room have experienced in some degree – the death of a parent and the sorting, storing, clearing, giving away, selling and throwing away of their stuff.
Displenishing is the opposite of replenishing I suppose, of stocking up, filling up. An emptying out: here is another metaphor to use for memoir. Writing about our lives is about the displenishing of memories. Thee analogy stumbles here because, of course, memories are exactly NOT dead things but very much alive. We speak of ‘living memory’ or ‘keeping memories alive’, after all. But this week made me think that we are all clearing out dead stuff from our pasts, finding out what is good and useful, throwing away what is not; sorting, organising the stuff we have been left by families and finding where the important narrative threads lie.
An exercise with Jennie on the last day, writing up a familiar family story, suddenly opened up spaces we could not have anticipated. Even where we thought we were not really writing memoir, suddenly we see relationships with lost sisters, new insights about parents and friends, and most surprisingly explorations about what the quality of egg custard can tell us about our family and yes, about sex! This session was so explosive that we literally caught fire with the power of these stories to reveal their truths but quick action and a water jug later we were back on track.
Finally, the third thing I learned was summed up in Candia’s word Reliquary. Like many of Candia’s words we had to look this one up and Gold again! A reliquary is a receptacle for the relics sometimes religious, and a relic can be variously according to the OED, ‘the remains of a person’ or ‘what has survived destruction or wasting away, or has lived on after us.’
I like the last definition because that feels like we are about when we dig around in memory – excavating the bones, preserving them for future generations, or just for our pleasure, to store away in pretty jewelled reliquaries, jewelled boxed – books? But to take that one step further – we are ourselves reliquaries – and some of our number more than others and no one can tell our story. Each person I met in this group had a unique story, and are the bearers of it; it is like a sacred object. I love that idea – this group of 11 and tutors out in the world, bearers of memory boxes, living reliquaries.
Moniack Mhor runs residential courses throughout the year.