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by Paul Anderson

EdNSW hosted an online workshop, Editing memoir: Their life in your hands, presented by Pamela Hewitt in two sessions, on 16 and 23 October 2021, over six hours.

Session one

Memoir has three related, confessional elements: universality, originality and intimacy, and is usually presented as a true story. Pamela provided some tips for success and explained how a memoir can fall flat. Also, successful memoirs are generally well-written — this is where editors can help. 

Memoir was distinguished from biography, autofiction and fiction with comparative examples. 

Memoirs have taken over from family histories and can be as provoking as fiction. Pamela explained the appeal of modern memoirs, using exemplars of the genre that “touch a nerve, [are] authentic, raw and personal”. 

Some break genre boundaries, such as the award-winning The Erratics by Vickie Laveau-Harvie (that Pamela edited). 

Trends in narrative non-fiction were explained in detail: in 2013, non-fiction overtook adult fiction in revenue in the traditional publishing sector, worldwide. 

Legal matters such as privacy and permissions were also considered — and (hypothetically) how these could be handled. However, editors should not provide legal advice unless they have legal qualifications. 

“Memoirs are notoriously unreliable,” Pamela said. Whose story is it? is a key question. She commended a related essay by Greta Lukavic, the 2021 IPEd Student Prize winner.

Breakout rooms were used twice in the first session for smaller group discussions.

Session two

Memoir writers may not be experienced writers, so it is particularly important that editors can explain proposed changes when working on memoir. “The author-editor relationship is more delicate,” Pamela said. 

Style, structure and common problem areas were the focus of the second session. Short passages had been given to participants to be completed in advance. Pamela talked through her solutions for these in the session and imparted some valuable editing strategies: adding dialogue, for example.

 “A few, short, additional passages can enliven a memoir,” she said. Given that the memoir-writer’s life is literally in your hands, editors should be honest (but never brutal) and professional (but not a therapist) when working with these authors manuscripts.

Participants received a copy of all the presentation slides. The compendium file for both sessions included a comprehensive list of references.

Thank you to Pamela Hewitt and all participants for a great workshop. Feedback included the following comments (shared with permission):

  • “[Pamela] was a fantastic trainer. She was extremely well-prepared, and a very engaging presenter.”
  • “The breadth [of issues] covered in just six hours was extensive and provided an excellent introduction to the genre.”
  • “Pamela freely shared many aspects of her editing experience. I highly recommend her presentation.”

Sara Kitaoji was the Zoom host; Susie Pilkington, Caroline Hunter and Paul Anderson assisted.