Bestselling author Cathy Rentzenbrink shows you how to tackle the challenges of memoir writing
Want to write but feel there’s something stopping you? Author Cathy Rentzenbrink’s new book Write It All Down offers readers (and wannabe writers) a guide to putting your life on the page. This is a kind, encouraging and stimulating book that explores the nature of memoir writing and offers helpful guidance on how to write your life on paper.
Perfect for both seasoned writers as well as writing amateurs and everyone in between, this helpful handbook will steer you through the philosophical and practical challenges of writing the self. Go on, share your story.
Did you find it difficult to put your thoughts on a page initially? Did it get easier?
When I was a child I was always scribbling but I lost my desire and ability to write when my brother, Matty, was knocked over. I was 17 and he was 16 and I adored him. I was with him in the road shortly after it happened, and then in the ambulance and at the hospital where he had emergency brain surgery. I just couldn’t believe what was happening. We’d been lucky enough to have a happy childhood with parents who loved each other and loved us and I still remember that stunned feeling as though I might be trapped in a really horrible dream. I couldn’t grasp the reality that Matty might be badly hurt, that he might even die. As it turned out, he didn’t die, but nor did he regain consciousness and he lived on in a persistent vegetative state for another eight years before we could finally have a funeral and mourn the loss of him.
How important was it for you to write your own story?
I had a few attempts, over the years, to try to make sense of what had happened. I had this urge that it would be good for me if I could do it, but it was all so overwhelming. I worried that it would make me too sad, or that I might go mad, or that I just wasn’t talented enough to do Matty justice. I kept giving up and it was only after the birth of my son, Matt, who I named for his uncle, that I found the stamina to keep going. It took a couple of years but when I was 42 I finished the story of Matty and it became my first book The Last Act of Love. I felt a huge sense of achievement that I had wrestled all the complex events and emotions on to the page. As the book went out into the world I was profoundly moved that people loved Matty and understood the horror of losing him and also that readers wrote to me and shared their own experience of love, death and grief.
If someone doesn’t consider themselves a writer, what’s the best way to start?
You need to start small. That is what stopped me for so many years; that I thought I had to have all the answers. Since starting to teach writing I’ve met loads of people bogged down in worry about the big questions. They fret about what people will think, or how to structure it. But the best thing is to park all those problems and just get going. You could buy a notebook, use a prompt of ‘I remember’ and then just see what happens. It can help to set a timer. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve in five minutes if you only have five minutes, at how quickly your writing will grow, and how you’ll increase in confidence and purpose.
How does writing about an event after the fact help you?
It’s our secrets that make us sick and if we have bottled up sadness, guilt and grief it can be a great relief to get it out of us and on to the page. These days I do try to write about difficult things as they happen. Like everyone, I had a few really challenging and heart-wrenching experiences during the pandemic. I didn’t want to reach for my pen, but I made myself do it and I did then feel better. I don’t write with the idea of anyone reading it, and I don’t worry about whether or not the writing is any good. I just slosh a few words down and try to capture a moment. It does steady me. It reminds me that I do know how to keep going through hard times and that I will be able to cope.
How important is storytelling for you?
It’s everything! It’s how I live, and learn and have fun and understand being a human being.
For many, writing can be viewed as therapeutic – would you agree?
Yes. It depends a bit on how you define writing and how you define therapy, but the basic act of having a private space to communicate with yourself can be very helpful. My daily writing – just a few minutes of loose thoughts into a notebook — is an important element in my self-care, along with eating well and getting outside as much as I can, especially in the winter. I do a bit of yoga to stretch my body and a bit of writing to stretch my mind. And I try to laugh.
Have your Irish roots had any impact on your writing would you say?
I don’t always know what is Irish and what is just my dad being himself, but I definitely take after him and have always been more emotional that my English friends, quicker to both tears and laughter. I certainly don’t have a stiff upper lip!
There’s a lot of emotion in my work which can confuse and embarrass English people. I sometimes think my Irish half writes my books and my English half is a bit ashamed of them!
Dad is a fantastic storyteller. He only learnt to read and write as an adult, but he is a great talker and I hope I’ve picked up a bit of that from him. He’d say I’ve got the gift of the gab.
Dad also has a knack of finding something funny, even in the direst of situations, and that’s the kind of humour in my books and in my life.
Write it all Down: How to Put Your Life on the Page by Cathy Rentzenbrink, Bluebird, £14.99