Monday, 16 May 2016

Nostalgia Isn't What It Used To Be

Thank heavens for some glorious weather! I’ve been making the most of it, sitting in the garden (but only after cutting the grass, I hasten to add), judging the Travel and Memoir categories of the National Association of Writers Groups competitions.

Last year, when I was judging the travel writing category, I posted about pieces I called WIDOMHs, or What I Did On My Holidays. These were obviously lovely holidays for the writers concerned, but a travel piece should inspire others to follow in the writer’s footsteps, showing them what they can do on their holidays.

I’ve found something similar with the Memoir category. I call these pieces MLIFHW, although that doesn’t trip off the tongue quite as easily as WIDOMHs did. For those of you who can’t work it out, MLIFHW stands for My Life In Fifteen Hundred Words.

In some ways I admire the writers who’ve attempted to encapsulate their entire life (so far!) in 1500 words. That is some achievement. However, as a reader (and a judge) I don’t feel that I’m really getting to know them. They’re painting an outline of a lifetime, whereas I’m looking for the intricate details of just one moment of their life. 

Memoirs are important. We need to record our lives because social history is vital. But we don’t record EVERY detail in our diaries or journals. We capture the highlights of the day, our thoughts, and our feelings.

I’ve read some amazing entries so far, and they all have something in common. They’re recounting a brief moment in time. An afternoon at a tea party. A bombing raid during the war. Moving house and saying goodbye to a much-loved childhood home. 

And there’s a story to them too. Part of growing up, or simply growing older, is about understanding and becoming wiser: learning what makes us who we are. And the successful entries are the ones that tell a story to reveal why the writer now does, say, or think, what they do. Memoir moments are those that define us.

If something happens to you today, which makes you stop and think about your actions, or encourages you change your ways, then write about it. Record your sights, smells, sounds, tastes (if appropriate) and feelings. Explain your thoughts. Not because you might one day want to enter a memoir competition (although this will help), but because as writers we need to records these feelings, emotions and experiences. What perfect material it makes for a short story, or perhaps even the basis for an article (nostalgia slots exist in many magazines).

And if you do want to enter a memoir competition, think about specific incidents. Don’t write about your school days. Instead, write about that one afternoon when you came face to face with the school bully. Don’t write about your career in nursing: write about your first day as a qualified nurse … or your last.

Don’t try to cram your entire life into 1500 words. After all, hopefully, we’re all living lives that are worthy of far larger word counts.

Good luck.


  1. Great post Simon - bound to trigger more than just a handful of 'lightbulb moments' for those considering writing anything even remotely autobiographical. It's also good to hear what makes judges tick - what they look for (or would rather not see) when considering entries of specific categories. Thank you for sharing!