Patti miller is an author and writing teacher. She has written five books including two on the process of life writing. These are Writing Your Life and The Memoir Book.
She has been teaching life writing throughout Australia and overseas for over 15 years and teaches regularly at the Australian Writers’ Centre. Patti has a fascination for psychology and memory and combines this with her love of writing and literature.
Many of her previous students have been published including Caroline Jones’ An Authentic Life, Jacinta Tynan’s Good Man Hunting and Kate Shayler’s The Long Way Home. Patti brings to her teaching personal experience of her own life writing journey.
Click play to listen. Running time: 28.18
* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability
Thanks for joining us today, Patti.
Now you have been writing for many years and you’ve been published in so many different areas including fiction and non-fiction. What led you to particularly focus on memoir writing?
I think that it was because that I found it fascinating myself. I like to know how people experience being here in the world and I was interested in writing my own experience of being here. I thought once I started teaching the life writing workshops it was just fascinating to hear people’s stories. It was so rewarding to help them get them down on the page, to make them into an interesting story.
Also the atmosphere in memoir or life writing classes is so warm. It’s so sharing that goes on. I think that it creates actually a small community. To me every class becomes a small community so there is a very powerful feeling of connection between people. I often think that if people would only share their life stories then the world might actually be a better place.
You’ve done so many courses now and you’ve helped so many students. Does anything surprise you anymore out of people’s lives?
I don’t think so. I actually said just last week in one of the classes at the Australian Writers’ Centre to someone who was a little bit reluctant to read her story out, I said, “Look I have heard everything that anyone has ever done in their life and everything that’s been done to people.”
I said, “Nothing will shock me, I’ve heard of every terrible thing and every wonderful thing that has happened to people in their lives. So don’t be afraid of writing and reading out your story because it’s something that actually won’t shock and actually has the opposite effect. It actually creates connections between human beings because if people are honest with each other then it creates very powerful connection.”
Now when did you know that you wanted to be a writer and did you dabble in other careers before you got to this stage?
I think I always wanted to be a writer from the time that I started to read and I started to read very young. In fact I can’t remember learning to read. I certainly can’t remember learning to read at school. I thought I always could read.
But I think once I knew of that world that could be created in the mind through reading I wanted to be part of creating that. I remember when I was a child writing stories and even poems when I was at home, say I was sick or something like that I would write things and read them to my mother.
So it was something that I always wanted to do and right through high school it was always something that interested me a great deal. I was one of those strange people who loved writing essays.
I love writing stories so when I left school I actually fairly quickly I did a little bit of travelling first. But I fairly quickly started doing a degree that was in the area of writing. I haven’t really done any other kind of work apart from the usual bit of waitressing on the side when you are a student or nurse’s aide or something like that. But apart from that I’ve always been a writer, a teacher of writing.
So what was your first full-time gig as a writer then?
That’s a tricky question. I suppose it would be the first book that I wrote which was Writing Your Life but I actually was teaching writing before that. I started teaching at the University of Technology in Sydney so that was my first sort of teaching writing gig. I actually had two children as well, two babies so that wasn’t until later on in my 20’s that I did the first teaching job at University of Technology.
It was from that experience that I actually started putting together the book Writing Your Life. That was the beginning of my writing career I suppose once I had left university.
Now Writing Your Life has become one of the quintessential texts on life writing. How did you approach writing that book which is a bit of a text as opposed to a fictional book which requires a different approach? Did you approach it in a different way than the way that you would have written fiction?
Yes, that’s a good question actually because it’s something that I have talked about quite a bit with editors. The Australian Publisher’s Association has a meeting of editors every second year. I talked to them about that process and how emotionally different it is.
I think that’s the main difference is that I’m Writing Your Life and the memoir book are both from my experience as a writer and as a teacher. But they are put together more from my mind, looking at the things that I understand, the things that I have learned and putting them together from my mind.
Whereas I think when I’m writing memoir or fiction there is more involvement of and more risk for my emotions. When I’m talking and writing about writing then I feel very sure of myself. I know what I’m talking about works. I know that it produces good writing. I have experienced that so many times in writing classes and I get lots of letters and emails from people and there have been lots of books published from people who’ve used the approach that I offer.
I think that I was writing that from a much more confident point of view. I think when you are writing memoir and writing fiction you’re always taking a huge risk and I think that’s a bit scarier.
Out of fiction, memoir and the texts do you have a preference? Is there something that’s your favourite or do you enjoy more?
That’s interesting because I think that I’m one of those people who really enjoy teaching. It’s not something that I think I only do so that I have time to write. I don’t feel like that at all. I actually love teaching writing. I love thinking about writing.
But I also enjoy the expanse of being able to write fiction, being able to invent. I also like the process of memoir where I’m trying to create the lived experience on the page. I think memoir and fiction are actually quite similar in lots of ways because even though one is made up and one is real or true if you like.
They are actually both about trying to create a convincing reality on the page. Whether that reality is imaginary or whether it’s actually happened it doesn’t matter in terms of the writing, you’re still trying to create this convincing experience on the page.
I think depending on the mood and what’s happening I like all types of writing. I actually think that I switch from one to the other when I’ve finished a book of fiction then I write non-fiction and then I write another fiction so in a sense go backwards and forwards.
You mentioned that you really love teaching. Do you think that pretty much anyone can be taught how to write?
That’s an interesting question. I think so if they are willing to enter into the experience of recreating the life on the page then, yes. I actually believe from my experience, and this is not just a belief that’s based on hope, but based on my experience. That everyone has that creative potential inside them.
It’s just that some people have had it locked away very tightly and it’s very hard for them to get to that space where they can actually write and create. I’m not saying that everyone can learn to write like Patrick White or Toni Morrison but everyone can learn to write confidently in their own voice.
That’s my approach I think. I know that some writers don’t think that you can learn how to write, but I don’t see why. Because people can learn how to play instruments, they can learn how to dance. They can learn how to act.
I don’t see why writing is considered to be any different. It’s the same process of gathering skills but of also accessing the creative inside you and my approach is very much about opening those doors so that you can step into that creative place inside yourself.
What do you think is the biggest or the most common block for people and how do you help them get over it?
I would say probably the most common block is a mixture of fear and an idea that they are not creative. I think that’s the most common block and I think it’s because mostly in our education in school and at university we are trained to use our intellect. So most of the people who come to the class they’re very well-educated people, they can think well but they have an idea that they are not creative and they’re afraid of that.
I use these exercises which are very much what I call the “surprised mind”. I actually surprise people into writing really well. I use exercises that they don’t have time to think about, they don’t have time to plan. They can’t use their intellect to write them.
I get them to do it in class so that they actually haven’t got time to worry about it and think about it in the way that they would if they were writing an essay or a report or a conference paper. They actually are surprised into writing something.
When they read them out to the class time and time again everyone is startled by the fact that everyone is writing well. I say, “How does that happen?” and I say, “You did it.”
You have a poem on your website that begins:
“No people are uninteresting”
I’ve often heard people say or assume that you have to be older or live some kind of really thrilling life to write a memoir. Do you think that this is true?
No, not at all that poem is by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and its one of my favourite poems especially in terms of life writing because he is affirming the intrinsic value of every single human being. He’s saying that when a human being dies a whole world dies in them because they actually contain all of that experience of being here.
For me what makes an interesting memoir is not what people have done. They don’t have to have travelled across Africa on a camel or they don’t have to have had 150 lovers and they don’t have to have had a terrible childhood. To me it’s how you see your life that makes it interesting and powerful writing.
I think that some people have written beautifully about their own backyard. I think of someone like Annie Dillard who won the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. It was just about living by the side of a creek. Nothing terribly exciting happens but it’s the most beautiful and engaging memoir because it’s about her observation of being here in the world.
That’s what I say to my students, I’m not really so interested in what you’ve done in your achievements. I don’t really care if you have achieved or not in terms of the world. What is interesting to me is how you experience being here in the world and that’s what’s interesting and that’s what makes good writing.
Whether you’ve been the prime minister of Australia or you’ve lived in your own little suburb in your own little house all your life, it’s how you see that that makes good writing.
You yourself, you spent a lot of time on the road and you teach at various places in Australia and overseas and I know that you have spent some time overseas just to write. Why do you feel the need to travel and write and what do you enjoy about it so much?
To me what’s important is what I call the sojourn which is staying somewhere rather than travelling from place to place. What I think is really important is to actually stay in one place because writers need time and space and most of us are very busy in our work and not everyone can work as a writer as I do and have families to look after.
I think and I know that it’s been very important for me to go away somewhere. I’ve spent a year in Paris writing. I spent six months before that in Paris writing, couldn’t wait to get back.
The year before last I spent three months in the South of France writing and every year out of the last four or five years I’ve been going to Paris to teach a writing memoir workshop. I think to me it’s important to be free of the demands and the responsibilities of ordinary life so that I can concentrate on my writing.
I think that’s important to everyone. Every writer that I’ve ever spoken to has said the same thing that it’s really important to actually have that time when you are only concentrating on your own writing work.
Because the creative mind has the capacity to expand into the space that you allow it. If you only allow it an hour or so a week when you are working and looking after family then that’s well and good but if you can allow it every day all day for a few weeks then you will actually get not just so much more work done, but it will have more depth. It will have more texture. It will have more power because your creative mind has been allowed to expand into that space.
It’s something that I do regularly at least every year as I try to put aside a continuous length of time somewhere away and preferably as you can tell, in Paris, where I can concentrate on my own writing.
When you do that do you generally for that time period set yourself a certain goal for that time period or do you see what happens?
I do actually set sort of goals for myself. I don’t say that everyone needs to but I actually find it very useful. I also find that I do get at least three times as much done in a week, say, than I would if I was at home. Even if I had the time each day at home, I actually get that much more done because of the fact that I have all day to think about it.
I obviously do have to feed myself and things like that but nothing has to be done at a regular time. I can write all day if I want to. So I’d do set goals for myself and I do get a lot more done when I’m away writing.
You’ve brought up Paris and we’re very excited because you’re leading a tour to Paris called “Writing Your Life” in October 2009 for the Australian Writers’ Centre. For people who are listening and they are interested in this tour, what can they be expecting out of those 16 days?
They can expect lots of writing for a start, every morning from 10:00 to 1:00. I never make the workshops longer than that because I don’t think that’s useful. I think that people can concentrate for three hours each morning when they are feeling fresh but also they’re in Paris so they want the input and the excitement and wonder of Paris.
I actually find because some people say, “Why should you go to Paris? Why don’t you just go up to Newcastle, up the coast or somewhere like that?”
But I actually find that all the other arts nourish writing. That’s something that I have found to be very true and I know other writers have said that. I remember Kate Grenville saying something like that as well.
I will see a painting and that will suddenly give me the idea of how I’m to structure my writing or I will be listening to a beautiful piece of music in La Madeleine church and suddenly the inspiration will come to me for the particular piece of writing that I’m working on. Or the architecture of a particular building that I’m walking past will inspire me.
I think that if you are open to it being in Paris can inspire your writing in every way and in every level but also it’s not just that. There’s the communion of friends and even though you haven’t met any of the people before apart from the meeting that we usually have before we go, it’s very quickly easy to become close friends.
I notice that and I notice that people making arrangements to meet for lunch and to meet after they’ve been to a museum and discuss what they’ve seen. You get all the joys of being independent in that we’re not rushing you from site to site to see all of the tourist site or anything like that.
But you also get the pleasures of having friendships, having people to meet for a glass of wine and people who are interested in the same kind of creative and open approach to being in Paris and to life in general. I always find that people that come because they are all there to write, there is actually a different attitude, a different approach. People very quickly make friends and feel very warm and trusting with each other.
I think that you get the benefits of both. You get the benefits of being in a group and the benefits of not being rushed around from site to site.
And what better place to do it than Paris?
Absolutely, absolutely, I was counting the other day and I think that I’ve been there to Paris eight times now. I’ve fallen in love with it every time. It’s like having this lover on the other side of the world but it’s a city and you fall in love with it.
I think even if people have already been to Paris I think there is no better way to go back than to go back with a writing class.
It sounds wonderful. Now one of your previous Paris participants recently released their book which they started in Paris with you. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Yes, that’s Pamela Bradley’s Nefertiti Street which she started writing, I think that she had written a couple of exercises in a class that she did with me in Australia but she couldn’t wait to keep on going with it so she came to Paris and continued on with pieces from Nefertiti Street.
It took real shape there because she could really concentrate on it and she was one of those very good students who went to cafes and wrote and kept on producing material. She ended up with this wonderful story which was about that period in a life which happens to many men and women when they have had interesting jobs and they have brought up a family but they wonder if this is the life that they wanted to live. Is there anything more to life?
She wrote about going to Egypt at that time in her life and went to Egypt about three times. She actually ended up meeting and marrying an Egyptian man who was 28 years younger than her in fact he was younger than her youngest son I think.
She came back to Australia and its now 12 years later and they’ve been living happily ever after. It’s quite an unusual story. Many people go through that kind of mid-life crisis. But not everyone goes to an exotic country and finds a husband, a new husband 28 years younger.
It’s a very well written story. Pamela has a very fine eye for detail, she’s very insightful. She’s a very intelligent woman so it’s a very interesting and very inspiring read to have the courage to live the life that you want to lead.
I think that’s one of the main values of memoir actually is that it does inspire people to lead the life that they want.
Tell us about a couple of the other books that you have guided towards publication, other people’s memoirs.
One that I have been very involved in that it started in the Life Writing classes and then I went on to mentor the manuscript is Kate Shayler’s The Long Way Home. That was about her experience of growing up in the Burnside Homes which I think are north of Parramatta.
It was an orphanage there. I don’t think that it’s there anymore but she grew up there. She actually at first self-published her story but then Random House took it up and it was a big success. Lots of people read it.
She was invited all around Australia to address all sorts of groups not just literary groups but adoption groups and various groups that were being put together for people who had grown up in orphanages.
It was a very successful book and its one that I was particularly proud of as I said to Kate I had the pride of an aunt who didn’t actually sort of have to bring the child up and do all the hard work. But could pop in and see how it was going and look after it every now and then. So I felt like I was an auntie to that book. It’s one that I was very proud of.
Another one that I worked on which was for the well-known photographer, Anne Geddes, and we didn’t have very long to work on that and it wasn’t a full life story because of course she’s a photographer so it was mainly a story through the photographs.
But I was able to help her put together a story of her life which was very interesting because she photographs babies. People often wondered why she only concentrated on babies and little children but it’s because there actually had been quite a bit of suffering in her early childhood and she had a great determination to sort of honour and protect the value of babies and little children.
There was a story behind that and I often find that with people and what they are doing in their lives is actually a story from their childhood that has determined the kind of life that they have lived. I think that it was very interesting for her being very successful in one area but then looking at the story and being able to put that down and illuminate why she’d taken a particular path in life.
The books that you have helped towards publication are very diverse obviously reflecting the diversity of people’s lives. Everyone does something completely different to what we expect often.
Your newest book, the memoir book, is a companion to Writing Your Life. How does it differ, does it follow on or how does it work?
Yes, they’re companion books as you say and Writing Your Life if you like is book one and its people sort of getting started with writing and particularly people who want to write their whole life story, whereas the memoir book is for people who might be a little more experienced with writing. It doesn’t mean that they have to have gone to a class with me or with anyone else but they are more experienced since they have done a little bit of writing themselves so they know some of the issues already.
It’s also designed particularly for people who want to write memoir rather than autobiography in that they want to write about an aspect of their life rather than their whole life story. They want to write about the period that they lived in India for two years or they want to write about their experience of bringing up their child who was deaf or something particular.
The memoir book is the one that I use for the Paris workshop because people who come to the Paris workshop often have done a little bit of writing themselves. But it’s also designed in a way that people who haven’t had much experience can also use it.
If any people who want to come to the Paris workshop they don’t have to be highly experienced writers either because it’s designed in such a way that everybody can join in to the exercises. Everybody can connect to the stories that I have chosen which have been included in the memoir book.
Even though it is book one and book two I’ve designed them in ways that people can join in at whatever level they are at the moment.
What can people expect from you next Patti? What are you working on at the moment? What can you see next?
I’m very excited because I have just finished a draft of a new memoir this time and at the moment it has the working title of Wiradjuri Story because it’s about the first post-Mabo native title claim which was by the Wiradjuri. It happened in my home town.
I was very excited about this when I found out and I’ve been doing a lot of research and I’ve been interviewing a lot of Aboriginal people from my home town and also telling my own story in connection to that. Just waiting at the moment to let it settle for a couple of weeks and then I will be back to writing the second draft of the Wiradjuri Story. Hopefully I will be able to get some more time in Paris myself to finish another draft.
Now do you generally work on one project at a time or when you are in sort of towards the end of another one you’re already starting the next one? How does that work for you?
No I stay on one project. The only other thing that I do sometimes is to write articles for magazines or newspapers. That will usually be in a week’s break from what I’m working on.
I think I am one of those people who do need to really absorb myself in the particular project that I’m working on. I think that because I’ve had to work and I’ve been a mother of two children and I teach and write I’ve got very used to being able to multi-skill and I think that’s a fantastic thing that women are particularly good at and doing a lot of things at once.
But I’ve also found that uninterrupted time is a treasure and I think that if you can give yourself that its fantastic gift that you can give yourself and you can go a lot further if you do that. It’s something that I do now more often is actually concentrate on one task at a time, that is finishing a manuscript or concentrating on teaching or writing two or three articles.
Very diverse in your life as well and we’re certainly very excited and looking forward to Paris in October 2009.
And so am I. I can’t wait.
On that note, thank you very much for your time today, Patti.
Okay, thank you.