Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Writing about Childhood by Bronwen Griffiths

Writing about childhood is on my mind as I hope to publish a flash fiction memoir this year. I’m not sure how much I thought about these issues while I was writing but they were certainly there, under the surface. I certainly struggled with my memories. Some things I remembered clearly but much of it was like swimming in a silty pond.

How do we write about events that happened long ago? What should we leave in and what should we leave out? What do we actually remember and is what we remember truthful? My brother and I found a lamb in a barn when we were little but he is convinced he found the lamb first and I am just as convinced I did. Which one of us is correct? Does it matter?

Research tells us that memory can be faulty, although we don’t need to be told - we know this ourselves. Who hasn’t sworn blind they have put their house keys in a particular place only to find them somewhere else altogether? The past is even trickier. There are things my brother remembers about growing up I don’t remember, although sometimes if he mentions a name or an event, I find I have a faint recollection. Conversely there are events he can’t recall, or events where he does remember but where his take on it is quite unlike my own. Some of this may be due the fact that he is two years younger, and some because his experiences were different. Some may be due to the fact that we differ in our approach to life.

I don’t think I can recall anything much before I was five years old – although I seem to remember being scared by the bell-ringing practice from the nearby church and I’m sure I was in my carry-cot then. However my mother used to tell stories about how I cried when the bells rang. So is this a ‘true’ memory or something I have created from her account?

At the Back of the Scythe Works (published early last year on the Black Country Arts Foundry website) was constructed from a real event but the Travellers in the story didn’t leave quite as I tell it. However I don’t believe that really matters because what is true is that the Travellers did vanish from our village at some point and their way of life changed irrevocably. In the story I don’t call them Travellers - I call them ‘gypsies.’ That word isn’t acceptable today but I used the word because that’s what we called them back then and I felt it would be inauthentic to use another word. Context is important here.  

Writing any type of memoir can also bring up many other ethical and moral issues. My own childhood was not particularly traumatic but nonetheless, as is the case with most of us, there were difficult times, some of which I only understood later in life. My parents and relatives of their generation are no longer alive but my brother and cousins are. Should I – should you - include memories which might upset family members? What if my memory of an event is disputed by another? Writing about difficult and hurtful events is not easy but surely a memoir that only includes the sunny days of childhood is a kind of falsehood? I mentioned context above. It’s equally true for difficult events. What might be acceptable now – for example a pregnancy outside marriage – might not have been acceptable decades ago. I don’t think it’s a matter of leaving such things out but a matter of being sensitive and in the end only the writer can decide. Your story is yours.

Bronwen Griffiths is the author of two novels and a book of flash fiction. Her Childhood 'flash' memoir, Listen with Mother will be published later this year. Her story, At The Back of the Scythe Works can be found herehttps://artsfoundry.org/2018/01/18/new-black-country-fiction-bronwengriff/

The photograph is of the author and her brother sledging - probably in 1963


Griselda Heppel said...

You've shed light here on an absolute minefield. I've no idea how people can write honest memoirs about their childhood without upsetting their parents, who won't remember events in the same way and clearly had no idea at the time of the effect on their children. This won't be an issue for you as your parents have died but you may need to be prepared for a bit of disagreement from your brother/cousins! Because you're right, an entirely sunny memoir won't ring true at all. I guess writers go with the story they have to tell and weather any storms that arise. Apparently Knausgard's family are none too pleased with his series of autobiographical novels!

Umberto Tosi said...

Fascinating subject: writing a flash fiction memoir sounds intriguing - and challengeing. I'll be keen on reading it when it comes out. Meanwhile, good luck. (My grown children and I remember entirely different anecdotes about their respective childhoods - incidents they remember and I don't - and vice versa. It's all Roshomon! We do our best to telll all our stories anyway.) :D

Ann Turnbull said...

This is a fascinating post, Bronwen. I'm also trying to write a memoir (not for publication) but fear I have left it too late as all the names are disappearing from my memory and there is no one left to remind me. It's true, we all seem to remember the same event slightly differently, and I'm sure we 'remember' certain childhood events simply because we were told about them. Another thing that influences childhood memory, I think, is the existence of photographs, which seem to fix certain experiences, and perhaps crowd out other memories.

Bronwen Griffiths said...

Thanks all of you for your comments.