Writer Melanie Benn specialises in memoir, both writing her own and teaching others - and I’m very pleased to have nabbed her to run a workshop for the Rochester Literature Festival in October!

Melanie and I first met at the coFWD workspace two years ago, when she subsequently became one of our Guerilla Poets for an afternoon. Since then, I’ve been attending Melanie’s monthly memoir writing group in West Malling (there’s a lovely alliterative sentence for those of us so inclined) in which she’s helping me focus on my individual project, a fictionalised account of my parent’s lives.

As with most creative types in the area, Medway’s cultural vibe resonates with Melanie.

I know Medway very well because my mum lives in the area and I’ve also studied with the local Adult Institute and the University of Kent. I’ve got some good friends here too. I’ve been along and supported some of the wonderful events the festival’s put on - I love the vibe this area has. There’s a real arts movement here which goes back a long way and seems set to continue.

So what motivates you to teach memoir?

I’ve been in a process of creating my own memoir for a while or ‘wool gathering’ as it’s sometimes called. When I got to the stage of looking at what choices I wanted to make with the material I had, I began to research the genre itself. I’ve always been fascinated by personal narratives and found I was naturally drawn to reading memoir and listening to people’s stories about their lives. I felt there was quite a lot I naturally understood, probably by the sheer volume of personal narratives I’d absorbed over time but what I did want to do was gen up the mechanics. As I did my homework I started to wonder how many other people were wondering how to put their story together or get it ‘out there’ – and if I could help them at the same time. I set up a group to see if there was any interest and found there was.

Have you always written non-fiction?

No. It’s been a mixture. I started out studying prose and different aspects of creative writing, deciding to specialise further on in writing for children. I left the cosy environs of Bridge Wardens at Chatham Dockyard for the lofty spires of Winchester and took an MA, where I could have made my final dissertation an analytical examination of children’s literature but instead I opted to write a creative piece. I studied part-time as I was a mature student with two young children and working weekends at a City law firm. It took two years instead of one but I loved every minute of it. I was asked if I wanted to stay on and do a PhD and although the scholarly aspect appealed to me, I was keen to see what I could do creatively. As it happened my home-life took a down-turn and I would never have had time for a PhD.

So is your memoir for children?

No, it’s not aimed specifically for that audience but there’s nothing to stop a young adult reading it and enjoying it! In fact I realised when I was writing fiction that the child in me was coming through, at various ages. She was not only narrating this time but she had other stories to tell. Whenever she came through the story seemed to get picked up and noticed, sometimes even win a prize and I was genuinely surprised to see that autobiographical element coming through. It was only when my home life imploded that I realised I needed to find a way to write authentically. I felt drawn to keep a journal, something I hadn’t done since I’d been expecting my children. They were also times when I spontaneously wrote about the physical and mental changes going on inside me. I think there’s a natural gestation period that happens in creating something –of giving birth to a project. Journaling became a dialogue I had with myself. I needed to make sense of what was happening and journey to a deep place inside me – a forgotten place. As I began to listen I began to make changes. I decided to work closer to home. I turned down the offer of a teaching post and kept life as simple as possible as I opted to work as a Countryside Warden at a country-park next to where I lived. I jokingly call it ‘my year in the forest’ but it did help ground me during a turbulent time. I fed the ponies, repaired foot-paths, gave talks to visiting scout groups and walked on the North Downs with my little dog. I remember coming across a nest one day that had come loose. As I examined it I could see how it had been constructed – the delicate mesh of twigs and bedding and left over feathers gave a hint of a family that had lived in it. I thought how like life this was. As my own life was unravelling I was being forced to look at it.

Were the journals helpful when you came to write your own memoir?

Definitely. Writing down our own story – or even a slice of it – can be very powerful. I think the process itself is just as important as the final project. It can work on many levels. We can gain a new perspective of who we are and find ourselves reframing the way we look at our lives. We might even find a purpose. Certainly it’s a way of connecting to a deeper part of ourselves. Memoirs themselves have often been a way of capturing a unique time or bygone era. But as we unravel a part of ourselves and our history it can also be a way of tying up loose ends and passing on lessons learnt. You can see this in the television adaptation of Call the Midwife. The author, Jennifer Worth, apparently had a real desire to make a difference to the lives and the hardships of the people she saw. That wish to pass on some sort of legacy is not unusual in this genre and you don’t have to be nearing the end of your life to want to want to share a message. You only have to look at the phenomena of teenage bloggers. I was touched recently to see a young woman giving testimony to being a rape survivor. In a series of photographs she held up cards with short messages written on to them. She wanted to speak up for those like her she said, who had been through a similar experience. Who were afraid or knew what it was like to be vilified for telling their story, particularly to the police. Yet witnessing can be an integral part of healing and when your voice has been taken away from you I think it takes incredible courage to find that again. Everyone’s voice is unique. I recently visited the Forest of Dean and a local beauty spot where one of my favourite authors came from. Winifred Foley was 60 when she started to share her anecdotes and write descriptions of a time gone by, growing up in the Forest and establishing her own family. Her stories are warm and humble but it was voice that was captivating. When I came across a bench with her name on it I felt as if I was almost shaking hands with her. A good writer can do that. They can invite you in – and make it look easy.

Is it easy?

Some aspects are easier than others. There are those stories or parts of yourself that you know well – and then there are those that you discover. I find that fascinating. Sometimes you find out something you didn’t know, maybe about a family member or an ancestor and that throws a whole new light on how you think of yourself. I think the early stages can be very emotional. But once you’ve mined your story there comes some decision making. How much do I share? Do I want to protect the identity of some people still alive? Is this going to be a fictional account based on a true story? What’s the theme of my story? Once you know the answer to some of these you can move to the structure; plot, characters, scenes, dialogue. The girl with the cards I mentioned earlier is almost using a form of ‘flash fiction'. She’s using the minimum of words to tell her story but still managing to get a powerful message across. She also reminds us that with the internet it’s not necessary to have something traditionally published to share your story. But there is an immediacy that can be dangerous. Are we giving ourselves enough time to self-edit or to let our story settle? There’s a chance we might share them too soon, at a time when we’re still vulnerable perhaps and leaving ourselves open to unwanted criticism. There’s a lot that can be gained from marinating our ideas, especially if we can come up with other ingredients later on. I don’t believe in ‘one cap fits all’ either. I think it’s good to try different approaches.

Is that an approach you take generally? You mention working at a law firm in London and then working for a country park? Is it true you rode a quad bike?

Yes. That was one hat – or helmet – I didn’t enjoy wearing. It made my head hot! When I took my helmet off my hair was almost pasted to my head. But I’ve learnt to be very adaptable over the years! When I first left school after the sixth form I carried on with a Saturday job I had for a while, working for a hotel in their coffee shop while trying my hand at being a disc jockey for a sound and lighting company. I was reminded of it when I went to work for a radio station some years later. But I’d managed to stumble across the only London radio station that didn’t allow female presenters. It was a personal hobby horse for its owner at the time, Lord Hanson, who was very keen to copy the model of some of the easy listening stations he’d heard in the States. ‘Less talk, more music’ was the idea – and in his case, that meant male voices only! It’s since been sold and re-branded as Magic FM and it sounds like it’s had a change of policy since then. In between time I worked for nearly four years for a team of psychologists who were studying the early mental development of young children. It sparked an interest in psychology which I’ve continued to have but I actually left there to go and study drama. I took a few LAMDA examinations and had some fun acting in plays they put on. When I finished I happened to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I loved the atmosphere and the chance to see so many productions but I quickly got an idea of what an actor’s life could be. Just sharing a house with some of them it seemed exceedingly grungy -  and no one had any money. We had been quite poor at times growing up and I wasn’t sure how long I’d want to live like that. I gave it a few more years and ended up settling down at the radio station. As a Station Assistant I got to meet actors again, this time coming in to record commercials. My husband at the time was in musical theatre and continued with it for a while before heading his own band. I tried using the connections I was making to plug his music instead.

Didn’t you also work at an animal rescue centre?

Yes, as a volunteer. My shifts at the radio station meant that I could start later in the day and I used to spend my mornings walking the dogs and stroking the cats. It’s funny, we speak about the relevance of drawing up a time line when we’re constructing a spine for our story. It’s a very quick way to see some of our Turning Points and it was around this time that I decided to buy my first house – so I could have one of the dogs I’d fallen in love with. He had been in the centre for a year and needed to be fed a special diet. It looked like no one was interested in him. By the time we had a home of our own I could take him. We had rented up until then but there was a strict ‘no pets’ rule and it looked like we would have to become house owners if we wanted to have animals.  I remember bringing our removal van to the rescue centre and loading it up with two dogs by this time, and a cat who didn’t have long to live. She managed to live another year, bless her. It was harder in those days to get publicity for unwanted animals, there wasn’t the internet and I had to build a rapport with the local newspaper. They began to cover my plea for publicity if I pitched the story, often using my copy and if they didn’t have a photographer handy that day I’d take the pictures too. It’s funny how one thing leads to another. It’s sometimes when we look back that we start to see a pattern. I realised later on that I wanted roots and a happy home much more than any fame and fortune.

One of my children is studying Fine Arts now at university. She was showing me a video presentation she had put together the other day and wanted my opinion on the music she was thinking of using. I got a lump in my throat when I heard it. It meant something to both of us. She’s planning to leave home soon, to fly that nest we spoke about earlier. The song was ‘Planets’ and in the words of the inimitable Kate Rusby .. ‘I can see, the planets are aligning for me, but I cannot read them for the future’s gone, and all behind me ..Through this world, I am wandering, wandering. A soft breeze blowing, I am wandering now. Through this world, I am wandering, wandering. These are the days I live now.’

I think life’s like that for many of us. We set out with one or two ideas, trying to make our way without a map in our hands to guide us. What I’d like to give people is a chance to create their own map. What I hope to do with the workshop is look at our life in reverse. Plot where we’ve been, retrace our steps and look at those moments that changed everything. From there we can set new co-ordinates. In time we’ll give our map a name and maybe we’ll be ready to share it with others. We might even create a new map, but this time with a deeper sense of who we are.

All are welcome to join in the memoir writing sessions, the next one being on Sunday, August 23 from 2-4pm, at the Clout Institute in the High Street, West Malling ME19 6QH (free car park just across the road). On Saturday, September 26, the group will be joined by guest speaker, Linda Muddiman Rose, speaking about her very special memoir,  Spiralling Home Turtle Dancing. A £5 donation to cover costs would be appreciated. You can contact Melanie via Meetup.com

Melanie’s workshop for the Rochester Litfest is at Sun Pier House on Sunday, October 11 from 1-3pm. Tickets are £5 and can be bought at www.rochesterlitfest.com