The Power of the Personal by workshop leader Barney Bardsley


MEMOIR – or creative non-fiction – is enjoying a gathering popularity among contemporary readers. Why should that be? Because everyone loves a personal story, powerfully told.

Despite the old-fashioned tinge of the word itself – ‘memoir’ – this form offers great imaginative possibilities to writers. Less constraining than straightforward autobiography, yet holding within it the power of a real-life experience, memoir can draw us into the world of another, in a unique, and often deeply poetic way.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, a magical re-imagining of Ted Hughes’ Crow, which explores the pain of childhood loss, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald – an intense narrative of her relationship with a bird of prey, in the wake of her beloved father’s death, are two stunning, and completely different, examples of the genre. Both these books describe a visceral and transforming relationship with the natural world: they show how nature, in all its raw power and vitality, can revive us, when we are at our lowest ebb. Trees, plants, animals and birds, sea, sky and earth – the very world around us – can make us well again, in body and mind.

Seven years ago, I wrote a memoir called Old Dog. Like Porter and Macdonald, my inspiration came from the animal world. Not birds this time – but dogs. And one particular rescue dog, who came into my own family, and proceeded to “rescue” the beleaguered humans she lived among: gracefully, tenderly, and with huge canine spirit. My subject was the dog herself, called Muffin. My subtext was grief, bereavement and loss. How do we find strength when illness and death come calling? How to find beauty in an ugly situation? In this case, it was an ordinary little dog who shone the way.

Creative non-fiction, much like the novel or short story, resonates best when it is focused around a powerful event. A birth, a death, a life-changing moment. It comes to life when it hones in on a particular relationship – like that of Macdonald and her hawk, or me and my beloved old dog – and explores that relationship in a searching and honest way. The atmosphere of the world described is all important. Sensory and precise descriptions of scenes and places – inside the room of a house, or out in a particular wild place – can make a memoir come fully alive in people’s minds, making an impression – an emotional mark – that never completely fades away.

Old Dog is due to be re-published soon, and I find myself re-reading the original and adding contemporary material, reflecting on the recurrence of themes touched on in the book. What I learn from this process is that life is cyclical. Themes and experiences emerge again and again. Constantly we re-invent and rediscover ourselves, as we tread through the sometimes difficult pathways of our lives. In the final paragraph of Old Dog, written not long after her death, I imagined her running beside me, on one of our familiar walks. She seemed very present, very alive. “And that, for me,” I wrote, “is where she will be now, like the puff of a dandelion’s head seeded lightly in the breeze: dancing, somewhere in the undergrowth and over the bumpy dirt tracks of this simple little wood. On, on and on. Forever.”

Memoir may touch on deep and even searing experiences – as Maggie O’Farrell’s recent, astonishing account of her many brushes with death, I Am, I Am, I Am, goes to prove – but to reach the reader, it must also be robust, vibrant, even jubilant. This is, after all, a human need: to see some light – to revel in it, even if that light comes from a very dark place.

Recently, I have taken to walking those woods again, after a long absence. The bluebells are about to bloom. My memories are sharpened. The dog, somehow, still alongside me. Those words still carry truth. They are rooted in reality, are intimate and personal – yet tap into something elemental, even universal. The things we love, never leave us. Not if we hold them in our minds. Not if we write about them, clearly, honestly, from the heart.

Book tickets for Barney Bardsley’s “True Stories” workshop, on Sunday 2nd June at the Northern Short Story Festival, here.