At the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, the most memorable session I attended was a workshop on memoir-writing run by Dawn Garisch. Dawn describes herself as ‘part-time writer, part-time trainer, part-time doctor’. She is a published author and poet who teaches others while writing herself and practising as a doctor. She is the type of person you warm to immediately – sincere, practical and open.
Dawn’s approach to writing is physical and visceral. She told us to think back to a scene that we would like to write about and to close our eyes and see ourselves at that time. ‘Get into your body, into the feeling. Remember how your body felt at the time. Is there a colour pervading the scene? Can you smell anything? What can you hear? Touch something and experience how it feels.’ I closed my eyes and was transported back to the country of my childhood, Zambia, and a riding lesson out in the country after a thunderstorm. The colours were vivid and the smells fresh and wet. I could feel the warmth of the horse and the motion as we cantered along. Dawn got us to write about the scene for ten minutes. ‘Don’t edit while you’re writing. Keep scribbling. Write from the body – be open, be curious.’ It was amazing how the words just flowed. If I found myself losing the feeling I merely closed my eyes, got back into the scene and detail kept emerging.
Dawn believes that writing about your own life helps you to write freely. ‘Get out of the thinking part of your brain and let the unravelling happen. Go with the energy – your mind is powerful and will take you where you need to go.’ For those wishing to pen a memoir she suggests writing about various scenes and events – not editing, just writing and writing – then later reviewing the material and choosing and arranging bits that relate to a particular theme. A memoir written around a specific topic will likely be more interesting than one that plods chronologically through your life. Once the editing and re-writing starts, remember to paint a picture rather than just tell it.
Last words of advice from Dawn: ‘Activate the play function and follow the energy. Stand up to your inner critic. Be unafraid.’
Dawn is holding Life Writing: a workshop on memoir at the Buddhist Retreat Centre from Thursday 10 May to Sunday 13 May 2018. I’ll see you there.