MUSE :: INTERVIEW with Katherine May: "Writing a memoir never feels all that brave to me. It just feels like an obvious thing to do."
The Muse Letter No. 58
In the midst of winter last year I was reading a book month by month called “Wintering”. It felt like perfect timing to read about the season and metaphorically speaking that moment in your life when everything feels bleak, unmoving and dark. Katherine May the author of said book took me on a journey through a time in her life where her own kind of wintering was very apparent.
I think that’s why I love memoirs so much lately because it connects us and makes us feel less alone. Every paragraph a blanket I could wrap myself in.
How did you start writing?
From a very young age as soon as I could physically write I was writing stories and plays and poems and always enjoyed it tremendously but then in my teens I gave up because I just got embarrassed and really self-conscious about this kind of thing. People at school were taking the piss, so I just gave it up.
For a long time I didn’t write at all. In fact I had to go and see a therapist before I could even get one word down to overcome my big fear of failure. I was in my mid-twenties when I realised I was still nurturing this ambition to write and I found it very hard to go back to it then. I had a real block and it felt like a lot more pressure as an adult than when I was a child. So I did a course and slowly with time found my way back to it.
It must have been really hard at school then. When you were sharing it back then when you were a teenager, was it fiction or was it personal stories?
I mainly wrote poems but then I think one of the things was that when I wrote fiction for school assignments my English teacher hated my fiction. She just couldn't make any sense of it and she would even hold me back after class to ask me what the hell I was trying to do with it. Like every other English teacher I had before would encourage me and told me I was a really good writer but this one woman just destroyed my confidence. I just thought well if it’s this incomprehensible I’d better not do it and I completely gave up. Though today of course I think it probably wasn't any worse than anyone else’s. I think she was making a big to-do about it because she thought I was over-ambitious and she had to put me in my place.
Which made me feel like I had embarrassed myself and that writing was just a silly ambition for me to have.
It’s so sad that one person can literally destroy someone's confidence in such a severe way especially because it's most probably her own problems that she was not able to face. I mean why was she so mad about a teenager’s writing?
You could tell I had really irritated her. I think it was partly because my previous two teachers had really nurtured and encouraged me to write so I got used to sharing my work with them behind the scenes and I suspect that they bigged me up to her before she met me and there was a definite response about it. I also know that she herself had slightly thwarted ambitions to be a writer so I might have triggered something in her.
It does sound like that. I’m wondering now how after overcoming this big writer’s block, how did you arrive to write a memoir and personal essays? Because I think that’s such a brave thing to do. Having recently written a memoir myself I know that writing about your personal life and sharing it publicly can be quite scary.
Well, I think the first thing is that writing memoir never feels all that brave to me. It just feels like an obvious thing to do. Somehow I don’t have this concern that the stuff that happens to me won’t be recognisable because it always seems that when you share something lots of people are really grateful because they recognise themselves.
I feel much sillier about my fiction for instance. I always feel like that exposes something. This phantasy interior life: It’s like when the adults catch you playing.
One of the first pieces I wrote after I started writing again were non-fiction, were memoir. I must have been around 24 years old, that was about 20 years ago, so back then memoir wasn’t really a developed genre particularly in the UK compared to the US for instance.
Everything was very pointed to fiction. In lots of ways I kind of waited till non-fiction was publishable. Over time it became something that other people were interested in, too.
That’s really interesting. As I’m German I can very much relate to this because I feel like over there memoir is even more niche and almost only occupied by famous people writing about their life or if there are essay writers it’s usually of a very political or philosophical colour and not really about the personal sphere. Whereas in the US but also now in the UK especially young female writers take up way more space. Why do you think that is happening right now?
I think we gradually got more used to female memoirists so that now we’re at a point where it is an absolutely valid genre and not seen as “misery memoir” or some other condescending way of viewing it. I think also the internet had an influence on that, reading essays online and the US market spreading this brilliant tradition of fantastic literary writing, we’ve just been blind to before.
I remember when I was starting out I really needed to search for great memoir writers, like Jenny Diski who I think is an incredible writer or Sue Townsend’s who I just adored but I remember it was a pretty hard thing to find.
Do you think it has to do with a certain feminist influence “the personal is political” that has paved the way for writers to examine their own life’s more closely and actually make it a subject matter? Or in another way, how much do you think is memoir writing political?
Oh I think it’s definitely a political act. Not in a big P party political but in a small individual effort. I think the biggest boom in memoir writing in the last years has been driven by feminist writing of various stripes but also by minorities and oppressed groups writings. Looking at immigrant groups or people of different identities, queer writers or even myself: My previous memoir “The Electricity of Every Living Thing” was about me learning I was autistic when I was 38. Writing about that was definitely A a political act and B but also an act of outsidership and exploring a disability.
I think the ability and confidence to do that and get it published is also strongly linked to the internet and the way that it brings together people who previously have been kept very far apart but who have been desperately looking for like-minded people to connect. In publishing terms it created definite markets for certain types of explorations, but my hope is also that people are interested in lives that are different from their own. And in that way reading memoirs is diversifying minds. I think that is deeply political because it produces empathy.
I think when you read a memoir it can often feel like you’re reading your own thoughts even though obviously it is not you, it’s not your memories but I think you identify in a different way to whereas when reading fiction. I can’t really explain it but somehow it feels more compelling.
I think you can’t stress the importance for minorities to get that feeling of being understood for maybe the first time in their life. For instance within my autistic community especially women are often not diagnosed or like me diagnosed very late so to read about this experience and to identify in a positive way.
Memoir externalises that and it feels like coming home when you finally encounter someone who is like you for the first time in your entire life. That relief is so invisible to mainstream society but it’s such a real thing in minority communities. And that exactly why it’s so political. To know that we are okay, we are relevant human beings, we are not wonky people. We are a different kind of a person and if we can start to recognise each other that means we can begin to demand to be listened to in a really concrete way.
That is so true. If someone was now thinking about starting to write a personal essay or even begin a memoir, what advice would you give them?
I think probably start by anchoring what you're writing about in real-time and that gives you a framework around which you can go backwards and forwards and into memory and recollection and into philosophising and drawing on other things that could contribute to it like folklore or history or literature or whatever it is that fascinates you.
But I do think having a present day action particularly if you’re stuck and you don’t know what to write about can give you narrative drive and can make what you’re writing about feel relevant. So someone being in the present day looking back and telling you why this particular memory is relevant to the present day I think is a good approach: To deliberately go on a quest to find something out about yourself.
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IN CASE YOU MISSED LAST WEEK’S MUSE LETTER:
THE RIGHT TO UNCERTAINTY
“Isn’t our tongue always slipping a bit when projecting into a future that we have very little control over? Always turning and twisting and trying to reach for something in the dark.”
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