Life Writing Master Class at Winchester Writers’ Festival

I’m late. These new buildings at Winchester are confusing but the yellow T shirts on legs direct us efficiently to where we should be. On the second floor, I see through the glass door that the room is full – one seat left.

‘Are you Sathnam?’ I now know I may have mispronounced his name but if I did he gives no sign.

A nod and a smile and I feel at ease. And relief! He hasn’t started.

This is the Friday Life Writing Master Class of the Winchester Writers’ Festival weekend in June. My new notebook itches to be opened, christened with words of wisdom and pearls of advice. My pen hovers.

This is make or break for me. I have one overladen memoir and another on the brink of completion. I want to go away and be published.

Sathnam Sanghera joined the Financial Times in 1998 and worked as its chief feature writer and a weekly columnist before moving to The Times in 2007. He is the author of The Boy With the Topknot – A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton. He is our tutor for the day. I’m told he’s the best …… and he is.

Getting to know you? Hmm I’m an ex-teacher of 35 years with countless staff development sessions behind me. I have suffered many indignities in ice breakers. I’ve had to tell a neighbour my most embarrassing faux pas or tell the group what fruit I resemble.

But I’ve never done this one. Two truths and a lie. That’s new.

A useful ploy at writer events is to ensure you are remembered. I take care with my dress not wanting to be invisible but not so garish that I look common. This could be my first marketing opportunity after all.

So what did I say? I have a deaf sister. I grew up in London. I live in Swanage.

This allows me to correct several people before they get to the truth. Why they all think my lie is living in Swanage surprises me the most. So they switch to the ‘deaf sister’ fact. Sorry I DO have a deaf sister. She is the mainstay of my memoir of growing up with a deaf sibling. Eventually they discover the lie is that I grew up in London. So I say I grew up in Harpenden – the essence of my memoir of growing up in the fifties.

Sathnam  tells us how he got published. I love talks by authors where they disclose their journey to publication. His book of growing up in Wolverhampton in a Sikh family sits in front of me waiting for the author’s signature. He tells us his dilemma was what to write that would be acceptable to his large and extended family. Luckily his parents didn’t read but he did sit down to interview his mother. The family history was dark and he needed to rustle up a fair amount of sensitivity. Procrastination followed, then an Aarvon Course. He read books and emailed writers. All this time his brothers and sisters were having arranged marriages but he resisted the pressures to follow suit.

Fascinating exercises followed. The first one was Your First Day at School. Some delegates could not remember so they fabricated what happened. I fell into this category. My account is coloured by the fact that my sister attended boarding school so none of the teachers remembered my older sibling which seemed to elicit some favouritism for some especially if the brother or sister was one of the brighter pupils. My account, which appears in my memoir, demonstrates my horror on not experiencing the same type of school as that attended by my sister. I look for beds, wonder why I haven’t brought a large case and my soft toys and cannot understand the lack of carpet and awful, smelly, outside toilets. It reads as how I might have felt than what I actually remembered.

The aim of this exercise was to teach us that we often cannot remember key dates and events in our lives and the importance of asking members of our family for their memories of us and how we behaved. Sadly, for me, I have no relatives left except my sister but she has memory problems and so my resources are limited. Reading other memoirs, we are told, may give us a frame of reference, a structure or enlighten us on what certain events might be like. Using newspapers and day-by-day encyclopaedias allow us to include world and national events.

In the afternoon, a lively debate on ‘truth’ and writing our obituary gave us plenty to think about. The discussion about titles of memoirs also led me to rethink my own book title. I left the room simmering with ideas.

Sathnam’s memoir The Boy with the Top Knot now has pride of place on my bookshelf. It is signed with the encouraging note ‘one day you will write something better than this’. I am not sure about that. However, the book has opened my eyes to aspects of Sikh culture and I am hoping my book of growing up with a deaf sibling, Sharing the Silence, will provide similar insights into the world of the Deaf.

Roll on Winchester 2015. I just can’t wait.

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