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How Personal Should Non-Fiction Writing be? Interview with Jackie Baker and author Amelia Marriette

Updated: Aug 29, 2020

Non-fiction writing is not therapy and the reader does not want to be playing the role of Dr Freud while you the author lie naked on the proverbial couch. When dealing with subjects that are personal and painful it is helpful to know when to hold back. I wrote many pages about my redundancy and the period that led up to this moment but it will never be read by anyone and I will never go back it. It was, however, necessary to write it because it was a cathartic process and if I had not done this and then filed it away somewhere, it may well have started to bleed into my writing in a way that was not measured or controlled.

I think it is also good to know when to share things with the reader - readers are curious, but just like friends, the moment must be right. I tried to think about my readers all the time, and I hope that when I offered up personal details, they felt that I had chosen rather to confide in them and trust them than burden them.

As well as divulging personal details memorists must select which of the hundreds of thousands of ideas that are in their heads to focus on: it took me a long time to have the confidence to share my ideas about Shakespeare and art thinking that they might be of no interest to other people. Still, those sections have proved to be the most popular.

Lastly, I think that it's good to share happier moments too - I had no wish to write a misery memoir my book is about finding beauty, happiness and one's path in life - so when I realised that my weekly walks were having a beneficial effect, I wanted to share that. As this extract shows:

"The gentle wind catches the silvery-green undersides of the leaves on distant trees, reminding me that I still have a long way to go. As I step out from the shade, I realise that the sun is shining even more brightly and the day becomes increasingly sweltering. I climb further and further, the lovely cool breeze disappears and I long to rest for a few moments, but before I have time to think about it much more I hear a cacophony of sound from what seems like a hundred cowbells, but I cannot see any cows. As I round the bend, I see just three rather small sandy coloured cows quietly grazing and swishing their tails. I'm not sure how this trio managed to make so much noise, but I am very relieved not to have met a hundred-fold herd. I spy my bench in the near distance, and when I reach it, I plonk myself down on it heavily. I am dressed in only a short-sleeved top and shorts. I look at my brown legs and muse generally on my current state of health. My old, to-regular stomach aches and stress headaches have mostly gone. My walks and my new life have caused my health to improve greatly. I am also more content, and my head races less. Most happily, I don't feel the need to analyse my health, my worries and my situation all the time, just at odd moments such as this and then in a positive light. I realise that perhaps I have made some progress and my quest is now taking on the properties of a pilgrimage."

(Chapter 37, Sunflowers, Walking into Alchemy: The Transformative Power of Nature)

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