When Patti was fifteen, a powerful longing overcame her.
She was on a bus being driven through the suburbs to Randwick to see the Pope – her father was religious and organized them all to come from the bush to Sydney for the event.
But the longing was nothing to do with the Pope. She gazed at all the suburban houses with their front gardens and their curtains in the windows and became consumed by wanting to know; “What is life like for the people who live here?”
“They were unknown to me, and it was on this day I discovered in my nature, a longing to know what is it like to be ‘you’.” The memory of that time has remained with her ever since.
Patti Miller is the author of Writing True Stories, the complete guide to writing autobiography, memoir, personal essay, biography, travel and creative nonfiction, as well as four books of memoir and narrative non-fiction, including the award-winning, The Mind of a Thief, and, Ransacking Paris. It is my delight and pleasure to be joining her in conversation at the 2017 Bendigo Writer’s Festival.
Her desire to know what it is like to be “you”, has resulted in a number of books and teaching workshops. “I am fascinated by other people’s stories—I just couldn’t keep doing this work without this desire—I DO want to hear YOUR story.”
“I’m fascinated by the voice of non-fiction. I like the authentic voice that comes in memoirs. The voice is unmediated, like the relationship between friends.”
“For instance, I feel as if I have a close relationship with Montaigne, a 16th century French memoirist, even though his work is nearly 500 years old. When I read his work, I feel like I am as close to him as anyone I know. I like the feeling of an intimate relationship.”
She believes self-knowledge, or identity, is a fundamental urge of being human. “It goes back to the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where it is written, ‘Know Thyself’.”
In her work interviewing Wiradjuri Elders for The Mind of a Thief, she asked Elder Wayne, “What is native title about?” He answered, “Identity—it is the only thing worth fighting for.”
“Our culture, our sex, our appearance, our status—I think all of these things are the stories that we tell about ourselves. We all engage in this and it is how we get up in the morning. Without our stories, we wouldn’t cope.”
At this point in our discussion, I asked Patti, “How do you know you are writing a true story?”
“We can only know it is our true story – and even that can change. We all have different versions of ourselves each day. Montaigne writes, ‘To observe oneself is like observing a drunk.’ He thought knowing yourself was a hopeless and futile task, but he was bound to do it.”
“You can only explore possible versions of yourself and accept the flux of yourself,” Patti says.
I felt hesitant asking Patti the question I usually like to ask my interviewees, “How does creativity grow your business?”, as I instinctively felt that Patti did not view her work as “business”.
Her response to me was, “I have never thought of myself as a business or running a business. I came up with writing life stories when I was teaching at a university. People wanted to know how to write their life story, so I created a class and it was an immediate success. My life’s work has grown from what I observed—and it worked!”
Patti has never based any of her decisions on what would be good for business. “I have made my decisions about what I want to do. I want to write and teach – and it earns me some income.”
“I don’t do things so I can write about them – I live and then if something comes out of it, I might write about it. I write what I want to write, then, hopefully, I sell it. It works for me to follow my own passions.”
She reflects that she is not doing without or suffering for her art, rather she was brought up to look down on material things. “We were taught to value the mind and the spirit. What matters is what you think is right.”
Australian children’s books by Ethel Turner, and Canadian author, Lucy Maud Montgomery—who wrote Anne of Green Gables, also deeply influenced Patti’s life to become a writer of ‘true stories’.
“The books I read were about creative artistic girls who didn’t care about having a nice house,” she says. “They were always creating or dreaming and they liked to read. I can blame those authors for the way I live my life!”
“Thinking back, those books I read have shaped my whole working life. I probably would not have been a writer!”
Having Patti all to myself, I took the opportunity to share with Patti my plans for the next body of work I would like to produce—a sort of “true story”—about each of my family members who all run their own businesses. I am thinking of interviewing them and producing a story with images about their life as entrepreneurs. I asked Patti about the best way to go about interviewing people to pull out their story.
“Personal relationship between the interviewer and interviewee are important. You need to explain what you are doing, why and where the story will go.”
“Ask questions that aren’t too big. Smaller, precise questions get the bigger answers.”
Patti explains that if you ask, “Tell me about your childhood?,” the response will be, “I had a good childhood, or not”. But if you ask, “What did you do when you got home from school each day?,” you will get a more detailed answer revealing deep insights into their life and their truth.
“Before I interview anyone, I write down everything I want to ask. I imagine I am shaping a story emerging from the questions. But you also need to let the interview flow and take you to the story.”
“In my research work for, The Mind of a Thief, I learnt about stopping myself from interfering in people’s answers. I had to let the person who I was interviewing tell me their story, not what I wanted as a story.”
Join Patti and Tamara on Saturday 12 August, from 12.30pm-1.15pm, in their session “Life Lines” at the Bendigo Writer’s Festival 2017.
Patti Miller has written about her forebears, place and belonging, about a year spent daydreaming in Paris, and about the very deep joys of finding the words to write memoirs. She talks with Tamara Marwood about setting up the Life Stories Workshop and about her new book, Writing True Stories.
Tamara Marwood is the Creative Director of Create Business, delivering strategy and content for businesses to engage their audience and create attention. You can stay in touch with Create Business on Facebook and Instagram.