Tracey Holland’s Narrative is a Family Affair.
Tracey Holland is one of my fellow classmates who, like me, has been doing her BA in Creative and Professional Writing at the University of Nottingham as a part-time degree and as a mature student. So we have known each other for quite a few years. When Tracey decided to do a memoir for her final project, I asked her if she would share some of her experiences of her project.
Why do a degree in creative and professional writing now, and not when you left school?
Because I wasn’t ready, it’s as simple as that. I think sometimes you have to live a little, and I’d always wanted to write. Even as a child I never had my nose out of a book. My father’s form of punishment for me was to send me outside minus the book. So I’d get outside and there’d be lovely weather, but without that book in my hand, it was like losing an arm. I got round this by getting my sister to go into the spare bedroom and when I could see her, I would throw stones to attract her attention and she would throw the book out of the back window. Then I’d hide the book in a lilac bush at the bottom of the garden where I had a little den. I think my father knew, but because my sister was so ill, he liked the idea of us sticking together and helping one another. So I think he turned a blind eye to the idea that I had a stash of books in a plastic bag at the bottom of the garden.
I came by creative writing by chance. I had to choose a job in the area of Sheffield I was raised in, secretary or working in the Co-op. On our estates that was all a woman could strive to be, unless you got married. It was only when I moved out of that area that I realised I didn’t have to be a genius to write stories. All I needed was the ability to put the stories across. When I moved down to Nottingham I suddenly found I had nothing to do. I’m fortunate in that I live just round the corner from South Notts College. I saw a big poster advertising South Notts College saying, ‘Come and apply for our courses’. I thought it sounded good, there was a bit of jewellery making, and I would be able to put upholstery on those old chairs, but there was also a writing course. So I thought ‘Why not?’
I went and a lady called Hilary Marsden was teaching us writing. The first thing I wrote was about a memory. I’d been talking to somebody about my dad and it was just the right time at the right place. So I wrote about it in that day. Hillary read this out in class and said to me afterwards, ‘You’re a writer’. When the course was finished she took me to one side and asked me if I was going to take this any further, and suggested university.
I told her I was too old, I couldn’t afford it and it was too much work. She persisted in asking me to take a look. I did and realised because, it was all done in modules that I could take them and, if they were too hard, I could quit. The trouble was, once the writing genes clicked in I couldn’t stop. It was as if a light came on and that was it, I couldn’t stop writing.
Why did you decided to write about your family for your final year project?
During the first year I realised I wanted to write for children. But the story is about my childhood and my family kept cropping up in all of the courses. I realised by the third year that I’d done more of my memoirs than I had the children’s book I was working on. That’s when I thought I ought to be writing a memoir. I’d show people the stories and they would laugh. Some of the stories would even make them tearful.
So I started reading memoirs. I loved Angela’s Ashes, and The Diaries of Ann Frank.
Why did you like these particular books?
The Diaries of Ann Frank is the best one. When read the book at school, I was automatically on Anne Frank’s side. I felt sorry for her, because of the way her life went. I thought her parents were cruel and that the poor girl was suffering. But reading it again as an adult put a different light on it. All of a sudden she came over as a petulant little child. She had no idea the suffering that her parents were going through to try and keep her safe. It was the same with Angela’s Ashes. The boy in it saw things that were going on around him very innocently. That’s what made me realise sometimes that the way a child sees terrible things is different to the way an adult sees them. This may be why children can sometimes weather adversity better than adults. Some things can scar adults more than they can scar children. That’s when I realised I wanted to write a book from the perspective of a child and not an adult. That’s why I chose first person and I’ve tried to keep it as the way I remembered the situation as a child. You could talk to my family and they might tell you it didn’t happen like that, but that’s how I saw it as a child and that’s what impacted on me.
Children also see things in black-and-white. Everything in life is so clear cut. That helped me decide on the voice that I was going to use to tell the story in. So I started to rewrite some of the stories in a child’s voice, and all of a sudden the whole thing clicked. It was as though the story was actually starting to come alive. I’ve not stopped since and have continued to write things down, from my point of view, which is why I chose a memoir for my project. The problem with a biography would have been that you have to be extremely accurate with history and the times. But with the way I’m writing a memoir, I wanted to be as though you’re looking in a photo album. As you look at a photograph of two children and an adult, at that moment frozen in time, there’s a story. So I’m not bothered about what happens before or after the story, I’m more interested in portraying that instant memory and feelings.
This is why I started writing my memoirs as short stories, because I felt that the stories would meld together, a little bit like Cider with Rosie. It was the fact that you could read one story and come away with just that one story, but if you look at them all together they’re not linear. They’re just glimpses of memories that Laurie Lee had and that’s how I’m doing my memoir. There may also be two or three stories in one chapter. But it will be a bit like a journal where there’s going to be a beginning and ending, but it melds together. At the end, the book’s going to be like a mosaic, because when you get to the end it gives you an idea of what it was like when I was a child and how I became me.
You had a very interesting childhood, because your parents had you later on.
My mother was 46 and my dad was 47. My mother always said, when she was in hospital they used to put the old mothers together in one ward, because having a child later on in life was frowned upon for some reason. If you got into your late forties it didn’t seem the thing to be having a baby. I also remember my mother telling me that, out of the four children born I the hospital there were three boys and one girl. The three boys were born with Down’s syndrome. So this may have been why it was a bit of a stigma to having children later on in life. But my mother was a very determined woman. When she told the doctor she was pregnant he laughed at her, because he didn’t believe her. But she said ‘It’s going to walk.’ She was right, because she was pregnant with me.
It did create a lot of problems. She told me she had to walk behind all the Privet hedges she could find to hide the bump. Sheffield had a lot of Privet hedges. My mother said later on that she never realised she could get pregnant that late, but there were 12 years between each of the children and my father always joked it took him 12 years to run round the bedroom and catch her. There must have been some sort of fertility problem, but this wasn’t discussed.
So there was a gap of 24 years between me and my brother and 12 years between me and my sister. There were actually four generations in one house. When my grandfather arrived that made me five generations. He was in the Boer War. This made the household a very unusual setup, but absolutely brilliant at the same time. I had so many generations running through one house, that my taste in music and reading is diverse. It’s given me a really wide outlook. We used to watch MGM musicals, but my father liked the opera. Then we’d read the newspaper, but we’d also liked Star Trek. My brother was dressed in rock ‘n’ roll clothes, but my sister was all flower power, and I came along with all my 1980s clothes. So all of us had this perspective of being able to glimpse what went on in different generations, instead of just one generation, which is what would have happened if you’d just brought up with your mum and dad.
This is what I wanted to put over, because there’s been a lot of negative press lately, saying the elderly parents are bad for the children, because they’re not going to be educated. Apparently there’s research that says they’re going to be below average.
You had a very close relationship with your father, and reading was a big part of it.
My dad was disabled, he used to work in the furnaces. It destroyed his lungs and left him with emphysema. This meant he couldn’t work, so my mum had to go out and work. This meant my dad was a housedad. He couldn’t take me out and run me round, because it would take him all his time to stand up. So we had to find different things to do. One of the things was reading the newspaper to him. Reading became very important, because it was something that really occupied my dad. My mother wasn’t a great reader. So reading was something that belonged to me and my dad.
If I came home from the library with my six books, I would sometimes sit and read them to my dad. If he had read something political or interesting from the newspaper, he would sit and talk to me about it. There were no restrictions about the subjects, or that was too young to know. My dad felt very much that everything was open for discussion. We were very close. Even doing his bets on the horses on a Saturday became something that we did together. Because I was young I got used to the role reversal, which I thought was very normal because my mother had to be the provider of our food, but my dad was the provider of all the mental nurturing traditionally associated with the mother.
Why was writing your memoirs for the project so important?
For the family really, because my mum, dad and sister are dead, and I’ve now got great nieces, who ask me about my family. I realised that have nothing to give them and these things must be passed down. Each family is unique. It’s not just the historical things that make memories, but it’s also the silly and outrageous stories that always seem to be remembered the most. They’re the memories that last. These are the sorts of stories that should be passed down, because then the younger members of the family realise that’s where they came from.
How do you think you going to produce his book for them?
I would like to get the book printed and then an e-book. I’m not averse to e-books, it’s just that the printed book is something that is solid and you can get hold of. I remember, as a child, how excited I was by the feel of a book, the pages, the smell of the book. So I want the first representation of my memoirs to be physical.
I think it’s also the challenge, because it’s easy to put something into an e-book, than to actually get it on a library shelf, or in a bookshop. I would like to be able to say to my nieces ‘Here you are. Here’s the book’ and physically hand it to them.
You’re always up for a challenge and when you’ve done this you’re probably going to get back into writing your children’s stories, but you actually did an Arvon Course. What did you learn from it?
That not every critiques a good critique. That you have to toughen up. I was one of those people who would take every critique personally and try to accommodate everyone’s opinion. This happened to such an extent that I virtually deleted my own stories, so they were no longer mine and lost their meaning.
The students loved my stories, but the tutors on the course didn’t and I got very large list of things that needed to be changed, which I started doing. Then I realised I wasn’t a part of my own story any more. My story had become theirs. So I’ve stopped doing that. I’ll now take on board what people say, but I think I’ve been writing degree long enough to be able to have that gut feeling to say ‘Thank you for the critique, but I don’t agree with it. This is what I want to write and what I want to put across, and I’m going to fight for it. If you don’t like it, then don’t buy the book, because someone else will.’ That’s what I learnt from the Arvon course.
I did make some excellent friends on that course. I bought the books and watched the progress, which has been great. I think everyone has a different experience of the course.
You said the university degree had helped you to recognise where you’re writing sits. What has the degree course done for you?
I’ve gone from thinking ‘This is a part-time course to keep me amused in my old age’ to giving me the confidence to think I can write. I am better than I thought I was. I had a lot of people in the past telling me that I could write but I didn’t take them seriously and now I’m beginning to listen to them.
The degree is really good because it stops you from making the types of excruciating mistakes that you make when you hand your first piece of work in. A few weeks ago I was tidying up all the work I had done putting it in folders, so I could be organised, because I’, terrible at being organised. I actually found my first piece of work that I wrote on the degree and read it and cringed.
I have a friend who’s just started writing. She sent me the first chapter of the work to look at. Even though the story is quite good, if she’d sent it off to a publisher it wouldn’t have got very far.
It’s small details like the formatting. Because I’ve done that, I’ve learned how the submission should be laid out. I’ve also learnt how to write a synopsis. It’s those little bits of insider information that you get on the degree that gives it a better chance of being taken from the envelope, being opened and passed onto someone who could do something with it.
The degree has also been extremely useful for networking, because this is important in the publishing industry. We’ve been very fortunate to have lots of agents brought in while we were doing the degree. The first thing I do is look them up and learn everything I can about them, to see if what I’ve written is appropriate for that agent. If I think that the books that they’ve taken on are like the one I’m writing, I look for them on Facebook and Twitter and start following them, so I can learn more about them. This can also help you get known by the agents and give them an idea of what you’re doing.
The networking experience is not only about the people I’ve met that have come into the University, but it’s also the people who’ve been on the course with me and have left the course (because I did my degree part-time it’ll take me six years to complete) and furthered their career. Hopefully one of them may, in the future, be looking at my work, if they become an agent or start a publishing business.
For potential writers it’s about half talent and half being in the right place at the right time.
You talked about formatting and presentating, the degree is not entirely about creative writing is it?
No it’s a BA in Creative and Professional Writing. That’s what makes it stand out, from other creative writing degrees or courses. If you look at your work in a raw state and take it on a professional writing course, then look at it again when you’d finished the course, the difference is shocking. Work can read better once you got the presentation right. I think a lot of potential authors who may have the potential be really good writers, but for the lack of professionalism in presentation, might never be seen. I would like to see this taught in schools.
You do see the lack of professional presentation in some e-books that haven’t been carefully edited and formatted, and it’s made me cringe. It’s actually put me off reading a story that could be quite good. Because we’re having a flood of people self-publishing e-books at the moment, a very large number of them are really poorly laid out. This leads to people thinking self published books are generally poor quality.
You also had an opportunity to work with children while you were doing the degree and I remember you mentioning about working in a school where one child was having trouble writing, so you told them to draw and got what amounted to a graphic novel. How did this make you think about your approach to encouraging children to write, and how you approach your writing for children?
Children are very visual, they see everything playing out in their minds. So when I write my stories I try to visualise the scene, to see if it works. If it does, I keep it.
I remember, as a child, whenever I liked a book I would constantly be drawing those characters and scenes. They had, in effect, become real to me and stood out so much in my mind that I gave them form. This is why the best books always seem to sell well as merchandise. Children want to touch and feel the characters. If you can see your characters fitting into merchandise I think you are onto a winner.