NüStories Magazine

10 Tips for writing life stories from Madeleine O’Dea, author of The Phoenix Years


This piece is an edited version of a workshop given by Madeleine O’Dea and hosted by NüVoices London on July 3, 2019. Special thanks to volunteers Jessie Lau, Rachel Miles, Daisy Singh-Greaves and Riccardo Cocciani.

All writing is communication, but a memoir aims for something more – emotional connection.  It aims for the kind of connection which will have readers sticking with you even when your story gets tough or painful. It works when it makes a reader not just understand, but care.

From writing my memoir The Phoenix Years, I’ve learned that details are the key to building a connection with readers. Such connections are built on the small details that ring true, connect with their experience, or have a vividness or a simple particularity that stops them in their tracks and makes them feel “this thing actually happened”.

So how do you find those details, those small vivid things? Finding those concrete details, those hooks into the past, can often seem hard. When you examine your memory of an event, even of a crucial event, it can sometimes seem frustratingly vague and hard to describe. So how do you do it?

1) Keep a journal

Almost every writing coach will say that the most important thing for an aspiring memoirist to do is to keep a journal, and I’m going to say that too. But when I say keep a journal, I don’t mean the kind of journal that has you writing perfect sentences describing your day, with one eye on publication, I mean the kind where you just jot things down, things you saw, people you met, where you were, what you did. Don’t aim for perfect writing in your private journal: it’s the surest way of NOT keeping the kind of record you need. Treat it like an uncritical friend whom you are just updating on your day. If you do this, years later you will find things in this journal that will trigger all sorts of memories, and it will contain just the kind of details you need to give a story colour and texture. How hot it was that day, or the book you were reading, what person was on your mind, what was in the news?

But if you don’t or didn’t keep a journal, what else can you do?

2) Mine your memories

As it turned out, I’ve never done much journaling so when I sat down to write The Phoenix Years I had to find other ways of mining my memories. And these following are the ones that I would recommend.

First, though, I should say you will, of course, have some vivid memories that form part of the story you want to tell and in those cases your only challenge is to choose the details that are best able to bring them to life for your readers. For example, I had a really vivid memory of what it was like to visit the home of the first Chinese artist I ever met back in the winter of 1986. I remembered little details like the fact there was only one ashtray and how his girlfriend and I had shared that while my new artist friend simply ash’ed his cigarette into his hand. I also remembered how their dishes were all piled up in one big enamel bowl as they waited to gather water from the bathhouse up the street. Such simple memories, but so vivid, I knew they had to be in the book.

I also remembered the taste of things. I remembered the green pocket-sized bottle of “erguotouliquor that his girlfriend had bought, and how the burn of that white spirit served to chase the taste of the soapy Beijing Beer we were drinking that night.

I put in those details and saw how they helped to tell the story, of the kind of poverty they were living in, but also of a headiness, an excitement of a new friendship being formed and an entrée to a whole new world.

3) Photographs: Take many and spend time looking at them

But then I also had photographs to rely on. I’d had the wit to take some that day at the artist’s home and I’d managed to keep them with me through the years.

When asked to set out a list of things that can help you to remember, and to tell your personal story, photographs are one of the first things I’d put on the list. It’s often the little details in the background that can be telling. I had a wonderful picture that showed one of my artist friend’s paintings – and that helped me to describe it accurately in my book – but it also showed the little elements of décor in the room, the little Italian flag he had on the wall for some reason, the way he stacked his canvases and stored his brushes, the few books and magazines he had. And the fact that we were all wearing heavy coats inside because there was no heating except from a small coal-burning stove.

So, photographs. Keep them, take them. Actually if you are like me and find journaling is not an instinct, taking photos can be just as good. Your smartphone is your friend here: take photos of things that interest you, little things that catch your eye as well as the people and places. They don’t have to be works of art: you’re the only audience. And your smartphone will also do some important work for you by tagging them to time and place.

Photographs can unlock so many memories and tell you so much. I am currently writing a memoir about by little brother, who died 16 years ago in a fire that he set himself. He was schizophrenic and his life was often chaotic and difficult but he was also charismatic, artistic, much loved, and lived a big and passionate life. Looking at photos of my brother is really useful in finding ways to write about him, but also as ways of discovering things about him. (You have to remember he lived in an era before smartphones, so the photographs I have are few and very precious). I have a photo one of his friends gave me which is a treasure trove of detail. It’s him in the one-room space he lived in for a time, and every inch of it tells me something about him – the bands he was seeing, the work he was doing, the image he was presenting to the world. Look out for the details in the background, not just the main subject. And another tip here: use them to document your research as you go.

4) Find your soundtrack

Music is the most incredible un-locker of memories. If you want to remember how you felt at a certain time in your life there is nothing better than making yourself a playlist of what you were listening to at the time. When I was writing The Phoenix Years I could remember hearing Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” at the first parties I went to in Beijing, and when I listened to the song again I just had a rush of memories of the people I had listened to it with, and how it became an anthem to us then and why. I ended up writing about it in the book. And then there was Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name”, which was the first Chinese song I ever learnt to sing. Listening to that brought back the times so strongly, and it also found its way into the book.

Music encodes so many of our experiences. When I was talking to the artists whose lives make up The Phoenix Years I found they often talked about music too, and spoke of how it was a trigger for memories for their memories. Guo Jian talked to me about hearing the Taiwanese singer Deng Lijun (Teresa Teng) for the first time, over an army radio he was operating down by the Vietnamese border as a young recruit in 1979. He told me how hearing her changed his life, showing him an entirely new way to feel. When I wrote about that I could bring that realization alive for my readers too. Other artists I focused on in my book spoke too about the importance of music to them in remembering. Zhang Xiaogang talked of still turning to Leonard Cohen, Dylan, and Pink Floyd to recapture the free space for creation he first felt when listening to them in the 80s, and Guo Jian talked of the importance of Cui Jian, how he was his generation’s Bob Dylan.

Other things that can trigger memories are films and books. Watching a film again or revisiting a book from a particular time in your life can bring all sorts of things back. If films and books have been important to you, I suggest you try that.

5) Revisiting places and reconstructing

I am also a great believer in re-visiting places that are important to your story. The process of going back can trigger vivid memories, even sometimes in reaction to what is no longer there. When writing The Phoenix Years I had the experience of returning to my old apartment to find the area almost unchanged, even down to the same guy sitting on the corner repairing shoes. That visit helped me to recreate the opening scene to my chapter on returning to live in China in 2004. And in doing that I thought about the weather that day. Thinking about the weather may seem banal, but just being able to say it was hot, or snowing, or raining is a great way of putting your readers into a situation.

You’d be amazed at how much you can learn about the weather on a particular day in a particular place by doing a bit of research. For example I wanted to know more about the day when Huang Rui and his friends rode out on their bikes to distribute the first ever issue of their samizdat magazine, Today. This was in December 1978. When I found out that it had been snowing, I could add visual and aural details that I knew to be true from my own time in Beijing.

6) Use objects to reflect

Finally, even if you don’t have a journal you’ve probably acquired a whole pile of other traces from your life that you can mine for memories. Objects can have great resonance. Pieces of clothing can carry memories; old magazines, letters and emails from friends can contain all sorts of clues to your state of mind. One great thing about the demise of letters and the rise of email and messaging is that you keep a copy of the things you write as well as receive.

7) Trust your memories

When doing all this, one important thing I’d like to stress is to trust your memories. Try to mine them, spark them, and not second-guess them. It’s important to keep your sense of things strong. But then if you do find a conflict between what you remember and what is recorded in some other way then don’t run away from it – think about what it means.

I’ve had that experience recently when writing my memoir about my brother. I actually have one diary I kept in my life, a diary I kept for a few months when I was 14 years old. And the diary has been great for accessing what I was like at that time, but I can tell you that I can’t rely on it as “true”. In fact I lie about how I was feeling on the very first page. My memories tell me how I was feeling about a particular momentous event back then, and yet my diary tells me I felt the exact opposite. What I know from that is that to some extent, I was putting on an act in the diary, wanting to feel things I didn’t. I’m sure my discovery of that conflict and what it means about that time will make its way into the finished book.

8) Ask yourself why you are writing

But in doing all this you, gathering all these memories and material you need to keep thinking about WHY you are writing. Is your personal experience being used as a way of telling a larger story, or are you using your individual story to illuminate larger or universal themes? Where do you enter the story? What is your place? If you are the story, what is it about that story that makes you want to put it out in the world. What do you expect and want from your readers?

I think it’s essential to interrogate yourself on this point, to find the purpose you have in writing about yourself. Depending on what your purpose is you will have different ways of approaching it. If your intention is to write a book purely about yourself, you need to think about what it is about your story that will make it worth reading, what takes it beyond the particular (however fascinating) and takes it into the realm of the universal. Almost always the answer to that will lie in the ways your story can open up realms of experience to a reader that they might otherwise not have access to, or personalize a bigger story that might otherwise seem remote and un-relatable.

9) Consider the ethics

When you do decide to write a personal story, it’s also important to consider how your story overlaps with others’. Inevitably when you write about yourself you will be writing about other individuals too, some of whom could be close to you, and some of whom might have a different perspective on what you are writing about. This is particularly the case with family stories. This is something I have confronted in my current project. For me it seemed a basic ethical requirement that I ask my family’s permission to write about my brother (luckily they gave it and have also given me access to a great deal of personal material of their own).  It is up to all writers who mine intimate territory to consider such ethical issues.

I know from personal experience that writing from a personal point of view and using your own experience as a frame can be a powerful tool for telling big-picture stories. Large events and issues can be made more real by bringing them down to an intimate level. But it’s essential that you don’t use this as a kind of a trick, where you insert yourself like Forest Gump into every scene. It’s important to be honest about your place in the story, about the things you thought and did, and also about the times you were wrong or weak. Memoir writing and personal reporting should rarely, if ever, be about making yourself the un-tarnished hero of the story.

10) Be honest

Finally, the greatest tool in all personal writing –  whether it be a personal essay, a personally framed narrative, or a classic memoir – is honesty. You have to commit yourself to telling the truth. This doesn’t mean you don’t have a choice about what you choose to reveal, but it does mean that what you do share must be as true and accurate as possible. Where your feelings are part of the story you need to be honest about them too. And you need to do your best when telling other people’s stories to be as accurate and honest as possible too. You should never treat another person’s story simply as fodder.

A personal memoir can be extremely valuable. Saying that you need to be sure of why you are writing and what you believe the reader will gain from reading you doesn’t mean that small and/ or intimate stories are not worth writing, quite the contrary. In fact intimate stories – for example, a memoir of infertility (such as Hilary Mantel’s Giving up the Ghost) or of the sentimental education that comes with learning a foreign language (as with Alice Kaplan’s French Lessons) can be the best memoirs of all, more interesting and revealing than the memoirs that tell of more famous deeds. The key is in the honesty and the vividness of the approach, and as with where we started that comes down to detail. In all your writing look for the details on to which a reader can fix and connect with, so they can feel inside the story. Finding those details takes work, work with your memory, finding the triggers for those memories, often it takes a great deal of research. And always remembering that personal writing, life writing, is necessarily intimate, revealing, and true.

Madeleine O’Dea speaking at a life writing workshop hosted by NüVoices London. Photo Credit: Jessie Lau

About Madeleine

Madeleine O’Dea is a writer with a 30-year background in journalism. Her memoir/history of post-Cultural Revolution China, The Phoenix Years, was published in February 2019 by Atlantic Books UK, and previously by Pegasus Books in Nth America and Allen & Unwin in Australia. It won the Alex Buzo Shortlist Prize at the 2017 Mark and Evette Moran Nib Literary Award and was long-listed for the 2017 Walkley Book Award. It was also chosen by the Grattan Institute for their 2016 Summer Reading List for the Australian Prime Minister. On its original publication in Australia, Tom Keneally described it as “a magnificent memoir/ history from the very core of modern Chinese society and history.” The LA Review of Books called it “a rare, vital, compassionate record”, while The Australian dubbed it “beautifully crafted and immensely readable.” Buy a copy of The Phoenix Years here.