A great memoir story from Great Britain

May 11, 2011Write!

Since I’m partial to memoirs (thanks to Thin Places, and the memoir I’m writing right now), this post really encouraged me. And since I just returned from a writers conference where I shepherded memoirists, I’m duly encouraged. By far the book most people want to write is the story of their life. So, meet Harry Bingham and enjoy the story he shares.

I’m Harry Bingham. I’m British. I write books for a living – crime novels mostly now, but also non-fiction. I also run an outfit,The Writers’ Workshop that helps first time writers with their work.

Normally that kind of work is as you’d expect: slow, patient, every now and then blossoming into a wonderful manuscript and a still more glorious book deal. But still, it’s not normally the kind of thing that changes lives.

However I can’t help remembering an exception, a man called John. He was in his sixties when he called us. He’d written his autobiography for his daughter, he said. She had told him to get it published and he wanted our help in doing that.

For a while, I put John off. He wasn’t well off, memoirs are tough to sell, and we don’t seek to make money from people who can’t really afford to be spending it. But John was determined. “I’ve got the money,” he said, “and I’m going to do this.” So we agreed to help.

When we got his memoir, the first chapter was depressing. Pompous, overwritten, didactic. Unpublishable, in fact. But then he stopped talking about his story and started telling it. And what a story it was! He’d had a violent father, got into trouble, and ended up at a ‘reform school’ for young offenders in the late 50s / early 60s. The school was run by Irish catholic monks, and was a violent, brutal place.

John, whose nature was gentle, turned into a little thug himself and gave as good as he got. A classic example of violence breeding violence. And then his life was turned around. There was an English teacher at the school who saw promise in John and started giving him books to read, proper ones: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Shakespeare. John began to change.

It took him time, but he did escape the school and he did turn his life around. The violent little kid turned into a loving, law-abiding adult. And the best part about all this? If it was books that saved him, it was writing that ended up honouring him. We did help John with his manuscript, which (apart from that first chapter) was wonderful. We got him a literary agent, who got him a publisher, and John went on to see his book become a national bestseller. I honestly feel that writing and publishing that book was the final act of completion that John needed to set his ugly past behind him completely. We were honoured to have helped.

Oh yes, and I’m sure John would love it if you took an interest in his book. It wasn’t published in the US, but you may be able to find it from an international bookseller. The book is Please Don’t Make Me Go, and the author is John Fenton. If you read it, I hope you enjoy it!

Harry Bingham, The Writers’ Workshop