Live to tell the tale
We all have a story to tell, don’t we? Eve Makis and Anthony Cropper certainly think so, and have written a new book to help you share yours.
The Accidental Memoir, published this week, is the ideal tool for writers and non-writers, teachers and students, full of inspirational exercises and motivational prompts under headings like 'What's in a name?', 'Truth and lies' and 'Taste' to help in putting your life stories onto the page.
Eve has written four novels and taught creative writing for six years. She originally had the idea for the book when looking for a practical solution to a present-buying problem for her father, who's almost 80 and retired, having spent 50 years running a fish and chip shop. Inspired by the idea, Eve called on the help of her friend and collaborator Anthony, formerly head of creative writing at the University of Nottingham, to develop the project.
We spoke to Eve and Anthony about how The Accidental Memoir came to be and how it can help benefit older people, as well as asking them to set us a writing task in which you could win 1 of 10 signed copies of the book.
How did the idea for the book come about?
Eve: 'I was trying to think of a present for my father. He doesn’t like expensive, boring, practical things and needed cheering up. He has rheumatoid arthritis and I could see him rapidly taking root in his armchair, so I wanted to give him something that would make him feel better, make him feel treasured, and something personal. The idea came all of a sudden to create a notebook filled with life writing prompts that would get him to write about his life and get him communicating, because he doesn’t talk much. I know he’s had an interesting life, as most people have, so I wanted to get his stories from him, and thought this would be a good way. It made me think, “Who wouldn’t want a book to give to a parent, or a child, or any relative or friend, to learn about their life?” And that’s when I called Anthony.’
Anthony: ‘We’d been working together on various projects for a number of years at Nottingham Trent University, and before that the University of Nottingham. I was sitting at home one day and Eve phoned up saying, “I’ve had this wonderful idea” and I thought it was fantastic. We started working togethera on the sorts of prompts that would go into that journal, which we developed and Eve then gave to her father.’
How did your father react to his gift?
Eve: 'I bought a notebook for £4.99, filled it with the prompts and gave it to my dad, thinking, “If it works with my dad, it will work with anyone” because he’s never shown an interest in writing. About a month after Christmas, he brought the book around to my house and he’d written in it, and not only that but he’d written these remarkable things. I’ve got an example, which is in response to one of the prompts, which asks: Is there a person you miss, a parent, close friend of sibling? When’s the last time you saw them? What do you miss? Here’s what he wrote…
The one and only person I miss is my brother Andreas. He was always there when needed and ready to give advice. He was kind and thoughtful and would do anything for anybody, even strangers. I saw him last in 1974 just before he was captured in the Cyprus invasion, and then I saw him dead at a place in Nicosia where they kept all of the missing persons’ remains. It was ironic but it felt like he was there in person. I felt a shudder go through my body; I felt he was going to talk to me.
'What you’ve got there, apart from a perfect piece of flash fiction, is a powerful story from some very simple prompts. When I saw that it worked that was our greenlight for going bigger with the project, so we applied to the Arts Council for funding.’
How quickly did the book come together?
Anthony: ‘We tried a few different versions of the book, and the initial ones didn’t quite work. When we applied for the Arts Council grant, we spent months trying to take as much text out as possible, because most creative writing textbooks are quite text heavy. Having been teachers for years, we know that people want easy access to information.’
'Being a novelist has helped me to create this, because Anthony and I discussed what you need to know about someone when you’re creating a character. What do you need to know about their background? All of that knowledge we’ve acquired over the years allowed us to produce this book relatively quickly.
Anthony: ‘It was quick to make but has taken years in development in terms of us accumulating the right experience.’
What other benefits do you think that writing has for older people?
Eve: ‘It’s massively empowering for a retired person to discover they’ve got another skill. They might have gone through their schooling thinking that they can’t write, and then years later they discover that they can. Everybody can do life writing because everybody has had a life and everybody is an expert on their own life. There’s nothing more heartfelt than life writing.’
What’s your dream goal for how you’d like people to use the book?
Eve: ‘It depends what you want to achieve. There’s no ideal way to use the book – everyone can use it in their own way and on different levels. You can dip in and out of it whenever the mood takes you; you can write a little bit every day and establish a writing habit, or you can cut and paste your own memoir by putting together all of the sections you’ve written from the prompts, like a collage.
Anthony: ‘Because life is like a collage…’
The Accidental Memoir is out now and published by Fourth Estate.