Jeannie Van Rompaey




I guess it’s an age thing. Looking back, remembering incidents from the past, key moments in childhood, adolescence and adulthood, reviewing life.


I have always been adamant that I would never write a memoir. For one thing, who would read it? I’m not famous enough for the name on the cover of an autobiography to attract unknown readers. And what about those I do know, family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances? Would they be interested in reading my version of my life? I say “version” because any memoir is told from one perspective only, that of the writer. Others may remember the same events but respond to them differently.


If I did write such a memoir I would want it to be an honest one. Any writing involves selection and I could choose to withhold incidents I found too personal or sensitive to share or those likely to hurt other people. Or even out of fear of being sued for defamation of character! But if I felt obliged to censor my work by the omission of certain events either to save the feelings of others or to hide my own emotional response, the result would not only turn out to lack honesty but also be excruciatingly dull. After all, don’t we all read biographies or autobiographies in the hope that they will reveal personal details about the lives being explored – details that we didn’t know, or only suspected, before?


No, if I were to write a memoir it would have to be a candid one. It would take courage, I realise that. I would try not to flinch from revelations that might place me, or others, in an unfavourable light. I would endeavour to be faithful to my memories and record what I believe happened and how I felt as truthfully as possible. If not, the memoir would not be worth writing.


As I jot down these thoughts, all kinds of memories come crowding into my mind, jostling for permission to be included in this imagined autobiography: my first day at school when I lay on the floor screaming, arms and legs awry, refusing to be pacified – the precursor of more fits of temper to come; my mother’s remark at my degree ceremony that there were so many of us lining up to collect our scroll of waxed paper that degrees must be two a penny, yet I’d so longed for her to be proud of me; the mixture of pain and relief I experienced the day I overheard a conversation between my cousins and realised that I was adopted, a reason at last for why I had always believed myself a misfit.


Love affairs – wonderful or disastrous – the break up of relationships, betrayal and loss – all would have to be chronicled. Flaws in my character too: that wicked temper that took me years to learn to control; a propensity to be over-critical of others; a tendency to be self-centred, a belief that my passion for literature and writing poetry was more important than household chores. Amusing incidents too, or those that appear amusing after the event: my first wedding night when my new husband spent half an hour on hands and knees in his Y-fronts, picking up every scrap of confetti that had fallen out of our clothes – a sure passion-killer, an omen perhaps of trouble ahead.


As I write this list, I realise that, as a fiction writer, I already make use of such episodes and emotions in my work. The confetti incident found its way into a bittersweet poem. The death of my daughter, Vikki, at eight months old from an unknown disease, is always with me and my feeling of loss surely informed the events in my novel, After, although the loss suffered by the fictional parents took place in different circumstances.The fact that I am adopted and also adopted a daughter, has led to several pieces of writing on the subject but the story or play is presented in a different context.


Yes, I do draw on my own experiences to write. What fiction writer doesn’t? Consciously or unconsciously, we all explore the baggage of our past, to inform our work. Readers can speculate on which aspects of my work have come from my own experience; but they have been woven into a story about invented characters. Happenings in my life are considered, changed, viewed differently, divorced from the actual, but hopefully retain a sense of truth.


Fiction gives me the chance to write from different perspectives. I am not bound to one viewpoint as in a memoir, unless the story demands it. The content, the structure and the style of fiction offer me more freedom of expression than a seemingly candid assessment of my life in a memoir. I can think ‘What if this or that happens?’ and my imagination soars.


No, I will not write a memoir. But I will continue to use the rich experience provided by my memories and use my imagination to transform them into fiction.


Unless of course, one day, I change my mind and embark on that journey back to the past and decide to be brave enough to expose the secret crevices of my life….