Only Your Mum Will Read It

Why do people write non-fiction? I don’t mean the dry sort that people who ‘don’t have time for fiction’ read. They will never understand that storying is part of being human, whereas we know that the best fiction feels truer than reality, deep in a place where the birth of humanity necessitated art and the telling of tales.

I’m talking memoirs here, travelogues, narrative non-fiction. Why bother? Publishers and agents hate them, they’re hard to sell online, they don’t get reviewed. Didn’t we grow out of What I Did on My Holidays in grade school? Nobody is that interesting, except to their Mum, even if they’re already famous. In fact, especially if they’re already famous.

Some of us though, we persist in thinking that reality is interesting too. We aren’t necessarily benighted artifice eschewers, we love the beauty of words all right. (Sometimes we put too many favourite words together and refuse to murder our darlings, just like real writers.) What’s more we read fiction to learn about our souls, it’s just that some aspects of real life aren’t usually allowed in stories.

I’m going to break a rule now and use some clichés…because I want to imply stuff that people say a lot. People say, ‘Truth is stranger than fiction,’ and they say, ‘You couldn’t make it up’. They are usually referring to the coincidental happenstance with remarkable results.

Consider our own David Antrobus. If you wrote a story about a chap who decided to drive to New York one day, and that day happened to be 9/11, so then the road trip became an exploration of life, trauma and empathy…people would say it was contrived, too much of a coincidence to be believable. But it happened and we would be infinitely poorer without the book, Dissolute Kinship.

I mentioned in a previous Getting it Right post that people can walk away from terrible situations in the strangest of ways but best not to pop them in a novel. But what about those stories? Aren’t we allowed to hear them? What about the day six people survived being thrown off a third-floor balcony by an electrified scaffolding pole? You’d only get away with that in a Pink Panther remake and even then the scriptwriters might baulk a bit. But it happened. When I drove ambulances for a living we’d send the occasional story to TV programmes such as Casualty, and mostly they’d be rejected as too bizarre for a workable script.

If blogging had been around in the ‘80s I might have given it a go, sharing the madness, but Tom Reynolds has done it instead. His blog, Blood Sweat and Tea, details everyday life on a front-line ambulance in London. To my shame, when someone first mentioned it I read a bit and just thought, ‘Yeah, nothing’s changed’. Hell, I’d been telling those stories in the pub since Reynolds was in nappies, even the lucky escapes were old news…already written into a damned fine first aid syllabus.

When I yawned I’d missed the point. People loved it, and not just the weird, funny stuff. The days when nothing out of the ordinary happened were fascinating to most readers too, and this brings me to my next point. Someone Else’s Normal. Blood, Sweat and Tea is a bestselling book series now, there are TV spinoffs, and mostly it contains the everyday, ‘you couldn’t make it up,’ about dossers, junkies, time wasters and stupidity. It would be a terrible novel.

There’s Bill Bryson too, the undisputed king of Someone Else’s Normal. I understood one of the most deep-seated characteristics of my helplessly British personality after reading a throwaway line of his about a nasty cup of coffee on a rainy day at the seaside. The best travelogues for me are about such minutiae, the things people have no idea that that other people do. You may not learn much about yourself when someone describes Niagara Falls—even if they use better words than awesome and thundering—but you can realise a thing or two about how where you grew up affects who you are, even as you grin, while considering that some of us are perplexed by doggie bags in restaurants.

‘She wondered, as he gazed lovingly into her eyes, whether it was politer to leave the leftover meatballs on her plate or ask to take them home.’ Maybe not.

Whether it’s an outlandish coincidence or the trivia of an alien normality, sometimes real life can be a window into the soul too. Which remains my excuse for having way too much fun for a writer.

Author: Carolyn Steele

Carolyn writes websites, copy and nonsense about emigrating. She also occasionally ambles off to do something daft in case it’s interesting enough to write about. Her latest book grew from the blog Trucking in English, and you can learn more at her blog and her Amazon author page.

14 thoughts on “Only Your Mum Will Read It”

  1. Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” is one of my favorite non-fiction books, but I keep hoping he made up the part about his hiking buddy dumping all their food — not once, but twice!

  2. My reading diet has always had a fair mix of non-fiction, both the “sort people don’t have time for fiction read” and the travel narrative/memoir, which to give it its due, is only marginally about the travel. For the travel portion, guidebooks are going to be much better to inform yourself about where to go and what to do. It’s what the experience teaches the author and, by its telling, the reader, about themselves and others that is the real payoff for these. Recently I’ve read a fair number of memoirs and realized these do the same thing. More so when written by a “regular person” than a celebrity.

    Great post, Carolyn. Any post that name checks Bill Bryson has to be in my estimation. 🙂

  3. Thought provoking post, Carolyn.
    David’s “Dissolute Kinship” is on my Kindle and in the queue of books to be read. I was referring to his memoir in my last post as one I would like to read despite my personal losses on 9/11. It will be tough.
    My issue with memoir is that I think a lot of it is masturbatory and boring. However, for every genre there are readers, and that is a good thing. 🙂
    I have not read the Bill Bryson book, but will check it out.

    1. I’d agree with you over many, I’ve read some truly terrible stuff but I do think the writer’s message is an important issue. Are they just telling you what happened as an alternative to therapy? We shouldn’t have to waste our precious reading time with that stuff; but if it comes from a fascination with life and people, or a passion to tell you that you can get through something, or from a true comic storyteller, etc then I do think they hold great value and enjoyment. But not everyone of course.

  4. Memoirs come in many forms, Carolyn; the reasons for writing them, also the reasons for reading them, are many and varied. I have written two and, for one in particular (‘Surviving the Battleground of Childhood’, sorry about the blatant, opportunity grabbing), have delivered numerous talks, helping ‘Youth in Crisis groups’ and various other victims (groups and individuals) of child abuse.

    Regardless of the intended message of a memoir, to be of any consequence, the story needs to be well sculpted, with all the best qualities of any good narrative. If indeed it contains all of the above, what makes it worthwhile reading is, as Big Al put it: ‘It’s what the experience teaches the author and, by its telling, the reader, about themselves and others.’ Couldn’t have put it better myself, Big Al.

    By the way, Yvonne, I hate, loath and detest the ‘so called’ Reality Shows; they are anything but!!

    Excellent article, Carolyn, and ‘Notes from a Small Island’ is my favourite too.

    1. Yes, I’ve had readings and talks spin off from my first memoir, which was meant to be a travelogue. It detailed the job I was doing to fund my travels, caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. It emerged during talks that there are no easy-read, humorous books out there for caregivers and that mine gave people permission to be human, to screw up and laugh and start again. It now appears in the libraries of Alzheimer societies as a support resource despite still being a travelogue. 🙂
      The book that fills this gap for caregivers is on my list to write someday soon.
      The things people find to relate to can be surprising sometimes, it was an excellent lesson in listening to readers.

  5. Great post. I too cannot stand to watch one minute of today’s so-called reality tele, but then we all know it’s not reality, don’t we. As for memoirs and such, there does seem to be an incline of interest these days. It’s probably due to the fact that so many are struggling simultaneously. That’s probably what drove me to follow suit. I’m honored to be an acting member of this club, with my dues paid up to date.

Comments are closed.