Splash!

1973

AS A family, in those days we sometimes did fun stuff. Occasionally, we went on day trips to places like Dunvegan Castle or Armadale Castle. School summer holidays usually meant going further afield to Glasgow and Inverness, the former to see relatives, the latter to engage in a grand shopping spree for clothes. This Autumn, we might get to pick hazelnuts beyond the Faerie Knoll again. And if the weather was really nice, we might go swimming at Aiseag Beach.

My favorite swimming haunt, though, was the deep freshwater pool at Black Park, not an adult in sight. All the kids used to go there in the summer, armed with enormous rubber tubes procured from the guys at the local garage, who were only too willing to get rid of them. We could just as easily have swum in the sea but at least at Black Park you weren’t likely to be stung by a jellyfish.

Then, of course, there was Mrs Weir. Like a whirlwind, she blew in one day with her inflatable indoor swimming pool, to make way for which our classroom was cleared of desks and chairs. I knew I looked ridiculous in my mum’s ill-fitting blue rubber swimming cap but my self-consciousness didn’t last long. I was so at home in the pool, I felt like a mermaid. A water baby.

Copyright (c) M K MacInnes 2020



A Toddler’s Tale

1968-1972

MY EARLIEST memory is of crying for my mother from a cot in a dark room. She never came. My second is of having crawled under my parents’ bedclothes and becoming trapped. Only this time my cries were heard. The third is of batting a faded green plastic telephone off the side of my pushchair. And I was a frequent visitor to the hostipal, not because I got my finger stuck in a dodgy tap, swallowed a penny, got a plastic bead stuck up my nose or chased the budgie until I fell out the window but becauss the nice doctor in Inverness made me wear pink eye patches that smelled funny. In the twilight of my toddlerhood, I thought that the light attached to the wall was a plant and that in order to understand what you were saying in another language, you first had to speak English.

Summer 1972

THE DAY we moved from our dickensian Harrapool cottage to a modern Limepark council house, I must have fallen asleep in transit. The shock of discovering stairs for the first time and not knowing how I had got to the top had me perplexed for hours. With three bedrooms and a proper bathroom, our new home was a palace.

I have very little memory of my maternal granny or my aunt coming all the way from New Zealand to stay within days or weeks of the move. But I do recall the visit to Aiseag Beach on a hot summer’s day, when I dropped a hermit crab down Daddy’s swimming trunks, and our wee holiday in Edinburgh. Daddy stayed at home, while Mummy, my little brother, Grandma, Aunt Judy and I stayed at the guest house on Castle Terrace. We rode the donkeys at Portobello Beach and watched Mary Poppins at the cinema, with lashings of yummy ice cream thrown in. In those days a spoonful of sugar really did help the medicine go down.

Grandma and Judy might even have turned up before we moved, or maybe we were still moving our belongings weeks later, for I could swear it was in the old house that Mummy taught me to say ‘Super-calla-fragll-istic-expi-alli-docious’.

6 October 1972

THE BIG lorry had a tipper on the back. On our return home from Daddy dropping off a load of sand in Inverness and visiting Mummy in hospital, my brother and I sat in the passenger seat. Whether we wore seatbelts, no idea. Probably not.

We stopped at the Cluanie Inn, where I wolfed a bag of salted peanuts and a glass of lemonade. Daddy had his usual pint and whisky, then we were on our way.

The peanuts an’ lemonade, then being hoisted back into the truck, are the last things I remember prior to all my senses being assaulted by the semblance of an almighty drill ploughing through the right side of my skull. Then the distant sight of a red Maxi that stopped to take us to the ferry … my baby brother and I sitting in the back seat clutching hands and staring out the window … the sensation of blood streaming down my neck … whimpering like a lost puppy … the ambliance waiting to take us across the ferry.

I teetered on the edge of consciousness. The lady with the soft platinum hair took my hand.

“Mummy.”

“No, dear, I’m not your mummy.”

Copyright (c) M K MacInnes 2020

As The Crow Flies

crow

MIDNIGHT had long passed and it was raining hard. Visibility was limited to that which was illuminated by the bright flecks of driving rain caught in the beam of the headlights. All else was black.

The dance was now a distant memory. Despite the conditions and a bloodstream full of whisky, the man in the brand new Hillman Imp knew this single-track road from Torrin to Broadford intimately. He had no idea he was getting sloppy but he did concede that he was feeling tired and welcomed the thought of his warm bed.

Just as his eyes were getting a little heavier, the man became aware that he was about to pass the old haunted graveyard. The realisation gave him just enough adrenalin to restore him to a state of wakefulness, for Kilchrist was a place that struck fear into the hearts of anyone that had ever been within its perimeter. The man squinted at the timepiece he pulled from his coat pocket.

Two o’clock. God, was that the time?

The witching hour. His grip on the steering wheel became just that little bit tighter.

II

HAD THE man still been in a stupor, he may have had less of a fright when the creature appeared out of nowhere. What looked like a pair of shiny black wings exploded into view, piercing the driving rain and heading straight for him.

The man slammed his brakes, veering to the other side of the road to avoid lurching forward and flying through the windscreen himself. When the car finally screeched to a halt, he sat for what seemed to him an eternity, his fingers and forehead glued to the upper rim of the steering wheel. It was only when he lifted his head that he realised he had no idea which direction he was facing. Whatever that thing was, it had pulled up and over the vehicle just in time.

But even when the danger appeared to be over, the fear persisted and his darkest imaginings ran wild. He could hear the voice of his mother rambling that this was the work of the Devil and at this very moment, he wondered if she was right. He reached for the glove compartment and pulled out the leatherbound Bible that his mother had insisted he keep with him at all times. Without his spectacles, he drew his comfort just from holding it, reciting the Lord’s Prayer until his heartbeat settled into its near-normal pace and he started to feel foolish. Putting the whole episode down to having drunk too much, he returned the Holy Book to its hiding place.

With no inclination whatsoever to get out of the car to investigate, the man had to switch off the headlights to get his bearings. He reoriented himself in the direction of Broadford and went on his way. When he crept into the house, his parents were asleep and he was quiet as a mouse.

III

IT WAS breakfast and an hour past sunrise. The man’s early morning chores up on the croft had been completed and he was on his second cigarette. His mother drew a bowl of steaming porridge from the cast iron pot perched on the range and placed it in front of him. She said not a word. Her face was more drawn than usual.

His father fixing on him through rings of pipesmoke from the opposite end of the table made the ticking of the grandmother clock on the back wall seem unnaturally loud and the man nervous. His intakes became longer and deeper.

His mother muttered some inaudible excuse and headed outside with a basket of clean washing. Once certain that she was no longer in earshot, the Old Man leaned over the table.

“Iain, is there anything you would like to tell me?”

Mid-draw, Iain stopped in his tracks. He scanned his memory to figure out if he should know the answer to the question.

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Well, how do I put it? The Old Man emitted a long puff as he tried to find the right words. “Have you done anything?”

Now Iain’s heart was beating faster. Something was clearly not right.

“Done anything? I still don’t know what you mean.”

“Did you do anything you shouldn’t have?” A shorter pause. “Last night to be exact.”

Iain’s heart stuttered. Sharp intake of breath. A cough. Murky half-faded images from the night before sought form in his head.

“You’re scaring me. If you’re talking about last night, I went to the dance. I danced, had a few drinks and came back. End of story.”

“You sure about that?”

It was hard for Iain to look his father in the eye. The only thing he could think of was that he might have taken a liberty or two with one of the wives, so the look of guilt was unmistakeable.

“Will you please tell me what you’re talking about?”

“You really don’t know ….”

“No! Now will you please tell me.” Panic was setting in. “I don’t want to be late for work.”

The Old Man drew long and hard on his pipe. He was clearly going to stretch this out.

“Well, Iain,” he said, “you must have done something. Not long after you came back to the house, there was a strange and mighty rattling sound coming from the window above your bed.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“No, you wouldn’t. You were fast asleep. Well, I got up to have a look and in the name of the wee man, if it wasn’t a great big black bird trying to get in. It was making one godalmighty commotion, flapping its wings and pecking at the glass with its beak.” He lowered his voice to a near whisper. “It was trying to break the window ….”

Iain’s fingers were trembling, his face ashen, when he stubbed out his last cigarette of the morning.

“Really?”

extract from Close Call: Short and Bittersweet, published April 2015

Copyright (c) M K MacInnes 2014

Writing a memoir

WITH a pandemic in full swing and many of us having more time on our hands than we might like, there has never been a better time to write one’s memoir. And you don’t have to be famous to have a tale worth telling. They say that everybody has a story in them – if you can extract meaning from your life experiences, then the chances are that others will also find meaning in your words.

The whole point of a memoir is that it should be written with abandon, no holds barred – worry about reactions later. Many memoirs never see the light of day because the content is too sensitive but if a greater good can be served by sharing a universal truth, then upsetting people might be a price worth paying.

Memoirs are best written after the passage of time to allow for processing and absorption into the psyche. It involves the same level of craft as writing fiction. The storytelling devices used, such as plot arc and character development, are the same, even if they are formed from memory rather than imagination.

It is important to stress that memoir is not autobiography, which charts an entire life from the beginning. Instead, it homes in on an aspect of someone’s life or a period of it in depth.
Memoir is less bound by formal expectations of chronology or factual accuracy. However, it is universally understood that, aside from some tweaks here and there, often in the name of confidentiality or simplification, in essence the story is true. Where factual deviations occur, events and people are more likely to have been removed (or fudged!). Fortunately, for writers who wish to embellish, there exists a form of memoir known as autofiction. Here the reader cares less about what is fact and how much is fiction. What is expected though in the former is a degree of candour and authenticity that might not be found elsewhere.

For the writer, irrespective of whether publication occurs, the benefits of such honesty (even with oneself) are immeasurable. The very act of organising one’s life into a coherent whole is the best way to make sense of it and even the most chaotic life looks less so when viewed through a the widest possible lens. Airing painful experiences that have hitherto been hidden is liberating and cathartic. Writing your own memoir is in my opinion the most effective source of self-healing and it costs nothing.

And the healing can be extended to the whole of humanity. Often one person’s life experience can showcase universal truths that need to be shared. Particularly when dealing with ‘difficult’ issues such as childhood sexual abuse or modern slavery, memoirs bring them into public consciousness, emboldening others to share their stories and from where real attitudinal and social change can occur. They also become a valuable part of the historical record.

Having gone about writing my own memoir, making up the process as I went along but realising later that despite some rookie mistakes, I had largely gone about it in the ‘right’ way), I have attempted to compile this guide. It combines my own direct experience, along with a handful of sources. As my own memoir is still in mid-flow, I still have much to learn but if you’re thinking of writing a memoir, then this is as good a place to start as any. At the end of the day, writing your memoir is your journey and this page only a guide.

Getting started

– If you aren’t already in the habit, start a journal. At the very least, it will allow you to keep track of any new material (thereby making writing the sequel much easier!). Also, keep your journal, or a separate notebook, with you when you are out and about or travelling. This is often when memories pop up, so you need to ‘catch’ them before they’re gone – poof!

– Whatever you do, don’t start at the very beginning! Whatever memory or insight prompted you to think of writing a memoir in the first place, start there.

– Don’t hold back. Tell the truth and be damned. Think about the consequences as they relate to other people after you’ve written it.

– Brain dump what you already know about that part/aspect of your life (and other related areas), as it comes and in no particular order, until you can’t think of anything else. You’ll be staggered at what pops up. Add dates where you can, even if they’re only approximate.

– Record as much detail as possible:
– sights, sounds, sensations, tastes, smells
– intuitions, perceptions, personal insights, realisations, aha moments
– emotions, inner as well as external conflicts
– any dialogue/phrases that you can remember
– every association you can possibly think of.

– Where your story has a strong psychological or spiritual theme, look for metaphor, archetype, symmetry, synchronicity to add more depth. The more opposites (and harmonies) you have to work with, the better.

– Don’t overthink. Even if your conscious mind doesn’t know the first thing about how to structure your story, your unconscious mind does. Let it do the heavy lifting, just concentrate on getting the raw ingredients onto paper.

– Type your notes into bullet points.

– Approaching it as you would a CV, organise your notes into chronological order.

– Use external reference points as necessary, for instance, a movie that you saw the day a significant life event occurred. Googling the release date for that movie on IMDB will refine your timeline.

– If random details pop up that you cannot place, write them down anyway along with a question mark. Similarly, some details might be superfluous but rather than delete them, put them to one side, on the off-chance that their importance might become apparent later. Contradictions and ‘holes’ early on are not uncommon.

– Home in on key bullet points and repeat the process as many times as is necessary until your timeline reaches saturation point and a story structure (and your emotional journey) becomes discernible. From this point onwards, you can start to think about removing anything that doesn’t serve the story.

– By now, you should also have a clear idea of where your story should start and roughly where it ends. The best stories start with a hook that draws the reader in before going ‘back’ to the beginning. The ending should see you prevailing somehow in the face of all odds, even if it isn’t quite the happy ending you were hoping for. Personally, I wouldn’t attempt to structure the middle too much until after you have written it. Get as much detail out of your system first, then cut later.

– You can also start to think about splitting it into sections/chapters. You may want to stick to a chronologically linear storytelling structure until you have a better idea what style suits your story best. Memoir has a life of its own, so be open to your story letting you know how it wants to be told. The most appropriate way for me to structure THE LOST SECRET was through a present and a past timeline running in parallel.

– I do not recommend attempting to flesh your memoir until you have constructed the bones. Now is a good time to read up on the craft of storytelling, which I have purposely not covered here.

Writing

– Embellishing or bending the truth will catch you out so don’t even think about it.

– If you have done a thorough job of structuring your memoir, you should already have a series of bullet points that just need expanding and be able to get through the ‘writing’ phase with relative ease.

– You can pick and choose which parts you want to start writing. If there are iife experiences you can’t quite stomach writing just yet, you can come back to them when you feel ready.

– As you write, keep a note of any new memories that crop up but belong elsewhere.

– Establish your own unique writing voice. Stick to one point of view (for instance, if you’re writing about your childhood, are you speaking as the adult or the child?).

– Choose your tense carefully, bearing in mind that it is possible to use both past and present (though don’t mix them). Keep your dates as headings. Even if you intend to dispense with them in your final edit, hang on to them for navigational purposes.

– Put readers in your shoes.

– Pace the story. Don’t ramble but don’t rush a highly dramatic moment either. Establish a rhythm..

– When sharing traumatic experiences, avoid victimhood and the language of blame. While you do want to crank up the emotional impact, your story is about you and how you dealt with what happened to you, not the people responsible. If for instance, you have an abusive ex-partner, humanise, don’t demonise them. Try to remember their redeeming qualitiies as well as the bad.

– When dealing with death, avoid being maudlin.

– For more complex works and memoirs with a ‘message’, you may need to contrive signposts along the way, so the reader gets a chance to digest any takeaways.

Finally, not only will you get out of your system that which you already know, you will learn so much more about yourself. You may well be shocked at what ‘new’ memories crop up and how the version of events you’ve remembered ‘clearly’ for years is out of sequence. By the time you’ve started fleshing out your memoir, you may even notice repeating patterns (aka lessons!). As the penny drops that your chaotic life wasn’t quite so random after all, it is as if you really knew what you were doing all along …

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Additional sources

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/6-tips-for-writing-a-memoir
https://thewritelife.com/how-to-write-a-memoir/
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/dec/14/the-naked-truth-how-to-write-a-memoir