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Bookchat: You tell the stories your way – life writing as only you know how (and events July 23 onwards)

Is it about writing a whole life story? No, not really. What then? It’s about hundreds and thousands of stories. All yours and only you can do it. That’s what it is. The stories of your life. Little ones, big ones, other people’s stories seen through your eyes. Your opinions on things. Think of Phoebe Waller-Bridge with Fleabag. Think of Karl Ove Knausgaard. The stories will be there for your children or other people’s children. For everyone. You can make us laugh and cry and wonder at the life you’ve led. Angela J. Phillip has a look at how to do it.

Uncle Stan

Uncle Stan

How to make a start if you’re a beginner
Get a photo – any photo.
Look at it and remember what happened.
Write one sentence about it – for example:
One Sunday last September Uncle Stan got drunk.
That’s it – you’ve written your first life story. (If you leave it short, it’s flash fiction.)

Next step (now you’ve got your writing muscles activated) – write down what happened next:
He was sick in the kitchen sink all over the washing up in the bowl and I had to clean it up.

And the long-term consequences?
I told my husband that I wasn’t having Stan back next time, but he said I should forgive and forget.
‘Alright,’ I said, ‘but only if you do the cleaning next time.’
‘Hmmm…,’ he said and sort of smiled, but Stan left for Australia so we never found out.

There you go, you see, it’s easy. But, usually, we tend to take photos of nice things so the interesting bits of life are the bits that happened before the pic was taken or afterwards. That isn’t a problem. So long as your picture works to trigger your memory, that’s what is important. It’s all you need.

Where do I start?
This is the killer and this is what stops us all over and over again. You have to choose one small story and start from there. Make a list and choose one (as above) and put the rest away. You have to do it. Go on put the list away.

Start small – expand later
If  you start small – as above – you can expand it later. You can add details of the scene. You can add backstory.

Beginning, middle and end
You can extend the story as much as you want  BUT (unless you are experimenting with a new form) you need to keep a beginning, a middle and an end. The story  needs a shape. That’s another hard thing to do when you take stories from life because there is no end. And there was no beginning. But just like fiction, you have to make decisions and contain your story. Just leave hints about the before and the afterwards.

Ask someone you don’t know very well to read it through.
Does it make sense to someone who doesn’t know the story?

Don’t get it right – get it written. You can polish it into a masterpiece later.

Don't believe it!

Don’t believe it!

Will your story upset people? 
Who will read your stories? Are you going to upset cousin Christine or son Jack? If you are, is it worth it? Writing has to have that breath of honesty to make it worth doing both for yourself and your readers, but there may be a price to pay.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge who wrote and performed Fleabag has had problems like this. Her family came under intense scrutiny after the show became famous and people kept asking questions about what was going on in their lives. Waller-Bridge expressed regrets that she hadn’t anticipated this reaction.
I’m sorry Fleabag put my family in spotlight says Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Karl Ove Knausgard, the Norwegian writer, whose autobiographical novels have been immensely popular, has had dreadful personal consequences for exposing the sensitive areas of his life. ‘People close to him have leveled bitter and public accusations that he has trespassed on their privacy and damaged their reputations,’ writes Evan Hughes in The New Republic.
Karl Ove Knausgaard became a literary sensation for exposing his every secret.

Types of life writing
I had a look and saw: essay, interview, diary, blog, letters, emails, biography, autobiography, memoir. Phew! There is quite a bit of overlap with some of these but you get the range. You could use a series of letters or emails as a basis for a story. Or tell the story via diary entries. Each of these types could do with a whole post for itself but all I have space for here is to mention them.

Life-writing competitions with deadlines up until the end of July, 2019  taken from the website Mistakes Writers Make
Park Publications Article Competition
My Writing Day. £50 / £25 / £15
John Locke Institute Essay Competition
Open to students. Option of three set questions in several categories, including Politics, Law and Theology. £100 category prizes. £500 top prize.
MTP Agency Short Story Competition
Non-fiction accepted (as well as fictional forms), 3,000 words maximum. New authors only. International writers welcome. £300 / £200 / £100.
The Economist Essay Contest for Young People
Ages 16–25. 1,000 words max. “What fundamental economic and political change, if any, is needed for an effective response to climate change?”

Competitions with deadlines up until the end of October 2019
Please see the website Mistakes Writers Make/competitions

‘Spread the word’ life writing prize 2020
This is free to enter and open to anyone who has yet to publish a full-length novel. This year’s prize was £1,500. Entries for next year  open in November.
For more details, see ‘Spread the word’ life writing prize.

The Creative Writing Programme and New Writing South are running an Autobiography and Life Writing Course. For more details, click on the link.

For general information on courses run by CWP and New Writing South, please see Word of Mouth on marvellous creative writing courses.

Soul Food
It’s 50 years since human beings stepped on to the moon, but we’ve been looking at it forever and feeling its pull.

Moon through trees

Moon through trees

‘… O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
– William Shakespeare, from Romeo and Juliet (it’s Juliet speaking to Romeo)

‘The moon shines bright. In such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees,
And they did make no noise in such a night, …..’
– William Shakespeare, from The Merchant of Venice

‘Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth,
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?’
– Percy Bysshe Shelley

‘A touch of cold in the Autumn night –
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.’
– T. E. Hulme – Autumn



Hastings Literary Festival 30 August – 1 September 2019

Lucy Cooke

Lucy Cooke

Sun 1 September 10.00 am St Mary in the Castle The Unexpected Truth about Animals a talk given by tv presenter and zoologist, Lucy Cooke. The talk, based on Lucy’s book of the same name, will be lifting the lid on some familiar animals which – it turns out – we don’t really know at all. The show is suitable for children aged 12 and above.

Tickets for The Unexpected Truth About Animals are available through Hastings LitFest website or from St Mary in the Castle.

Sarfraz Manzoor

Sarfraz Manzoor

Sat 31 August 19.00 – 22.00 at Kino Teatr, St Leonards Blinded by the Light a film about a teenager of Pakistani descent growing up in the 80s and finding comfort in Springsteen’s music. It is based on the autobiographical book by Sarfraz Manzoor who will be there to talk about it.

Tickets for Blinded by the Light with Sarfraz Manzoor are available from Kino Teatr or by clicking the link on the Hastings LitFest site.

For the full programme for the Hastings Literary Festival, please see: Hastings Litfest Programme


Bookbuster 39 Queens Rd, Hastings
Thurs 15 August 6 – 9 pm £2 entry Sheer Poetry – an open mic poetry night

Printed Matter Bookshop 185 Queens Rd, Hastings TN34 1RG
Mon 19 August 6 pm Planning meet for ‘Spirit of Tressell’ fest.

The Bookkeeper Bookshop 1a Kings Rd, St Leonards
from Carol Dennard – ‘….we sneaked a peek at some of the work that is going on in the ExploretheArch House of Marcelle and,with those pictures in mind, we are thrilled once again to be selling tickets for the performances taking place from the 29th July to the 17th August.

The Literary Shed Writing Sessions run by A. Vasudevan
Two-hour weekly writing sessions in safe, creative spaces in Hastings and St Leonards
Tues 6 Aug, 10–12 am (free) at Sea Kale, 29 London Rd, Saint Leonards-on-sea TN37 6AJ
On the first Thursday of each month, there is also a writing critique group in which members share work.
For further information, please email:, subject: WRITE-INS.

Writing Courses from CWP with New Writing South
2 year Creative Writing Course
Advanced Writing Course
Autobiography and Life Writing Course
for details on all courses, please see  Creative Writing Programme in collaboration with New Writing South

Taster Sessions on Sat 7 September at Sussex Coast College (next to the station)
Autobiography and Life Writing Programme (2-year) 10.30 am – 12.45 £10
Creative Writing Course (2-year taught in Hastings in 2019) and The Advanced Writing Workshops 1.30 pm – 3.45 £10
For further information on the two-year programmes and courses go to

Well, folks, that’s almost it for this week.

A Novel set in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea

I’m furiously writing a new novel about a young woman called Aulani who has a strange life-story. The power of belief, both hers and that of other people, plays a big part in what happens to her. It is set in Papua New Guinea (where I lived and worked for 15 years, my second home) and where many people still believe in sorcery.

I’m writing it furiously because I can’t wait to get back to my Dani stories and I still have the last two novels to write in that series (the next one also set in PNG) . So why did I decide to write this one in the middle? Haven’t got a clue, it just arrived on the page i.e. on to the lappie in a google doc, possibly inspired by people’s entrenched views on Brexit that don’t seem to shift.

Entrenched views and the difficulties of changing them are prevalent worldwide but what seems evil is when powerful people manipulate the views of others for their own ends. So that’s what my new novel is about – not Brexit but the way the powerful few manipulate the crowd for their own hidden agendas. There are always victims just like Aulani, but she learns how to be tough and she manages to turn her fate around.

What are you writing? Reading? Thinking about? It’s so nice to hear from you when you get in touch. Please do post comments either here or in the Facebook Bookchat group.

Thanks for reading.

Angela J. Phillip

Hastings May Day image – Paul Way-Rider
Images from adapted by Paul Way-Rider
Images of Sarfraz Manzoor & Lucy Cooke supplied by Hastings Literary Festival.

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Posted 09:00 Tuesday, Jul 23, 2019 In: Hastings Bookchat

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