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Writing Your Memoir in English

Posted On : January 07 2018

Writer : Kris Advaya

Bookaholicanonymous cannot thank Kris Advaya enough for this exclusively written piece...

Kris Advaya emerged from the void in Yugoslavia in the spring of 1976. After crawling his way through a stint in the military, and already multilingual, he spent five years studying French, Russian, and literature at the University of Ljubljana. Always artistic, he spent most of these years writing songs and abusing an electric guitar while playing with his alternative rock band. Soon afterwards, life took him to India and its enticing ways, and he’s been trying to cure himself of nomadism ever since. 

Writing Your Memoir in English

How do you write a work of prose in English if the Germanic-Romance hybrid isn’t your mother tongue? That’s the one-lakh-advance question.

Well, by ‘writing’ I mean writing it competently enough to get noticed by an agent or an editor who might feel the aforementioned bundle of advance rupees would entail an easy commission and no crawling in front of publishing moneybags. How do you do it in an age of massive overrepresentation of dubious talent and dwindling attention spans?

Easy. You get excellent English education early on. And then, ideally supported by erudite parents, you begin traversing mountains of decent literature sooner rather than later, focusing on those rare peaks whose qualities you should be emulating (you know, without losing the uniqueness of your ‘voice’). Couldn’t, be more straightforward. If, however, you could never participate in participle classes as a little kid and could not even learn to describe your errands with gerunds, there’s still hope. This writer’s path can offer a couple of perspectives.

Exposing oneself to non-academic spoken English from an early age—from the better among American, British, Australian films that don’t limit their vocabulary to what an illiterate brain-damaged boxer might be able to evince—was a reasonably pleasant place to start. Being granted a chance to listen to Marlon Brando bragging about making offers that can't be refused was an offer that, well, couldn’t be refused. And neither should it be in your case; it can be a beginning of a beautiful friendship with visual storytelling. More, it can provide you with the kind of fodder that makes thinking in English much more fluent and effortless than if you were regularly numbing your mind with mainstream action films or (in my case pathetic) movies filmed in your mother tongue. And yet, films with anything resembling eloquence are getting rarer and, more importantly, can never provide the required lingo for a genuine work of written art. So back to reading materials.

Even if the early schooling in English was unavailable, I was able to learn it three times a week between the ages of ten and eighteen. With my oddly built American dialect now supported by the stiff pillars of grammar, possibilities opened up.

At first, all I could muster were song lyrics. Just as with films I was blessed with being able to find artists that didn’t abuse their expression with moans about a lack of round behinds or claims of gratifying the said behinds masterfully. And while most peers found their hunger satisfied with half-cocked versions of choruses, my own forays into the world of alternative rock always included trips to the local photocopying shop where A3 sheets of paper already awaited the relevant album sleeves and their full texts on angst and anger. Their lyricism might not quite have been Wordsworth, but they were at least words worth copying.

Having also been learning Latin and French at the same time—the languages that provided about sixty percent of modern English vocabulary—another important realization was that studying any language can improve your grasp of any other form of symbolic communication. Even better if the two have a working passive-aggressive relationship. So if you want to write your memoir in English, you may want to give becoming a French exorcist a go. No?

Something defined as a language (hint: it is often politicians and not actual scholars who have the right to distinguish languages from dialects) is not the only object of linguistic knowledge that you can profit from, though. Listening to how people speak—how they construct sentences or which parts of the anatomy they consider you worthy of when upset—is another useful, very Zen kind of learning process. For my memoir (‘The Buddha of the Brothel’) it was nothing less than essential. There’s a great variety of the forms of English Indians speak, so I felt it would be truly embarrassing if my real-life Indians spoke like nondescript versions of The Simpsons’ Apu or parodies of Rajnikanth. While essential particularly to non-fiction, I guarantee you’ll never write a single decent dialogue of fiction if you don’t pay attention to how a chaiwallah bemoans the rising prices of milk or a jeweler—the astronomical prices of silver.

In the age of increased pervasiveness of high tech, there are other tools of knowledge that can serve you (or vice versa). But even though linguistic software can be of great assistance (I mean, how else could you come up with the amount of humor an auto translate conjures up?), reading high quality literature as soon as you had graduated from world-weary song lyrics is essential.

But which authors? Goodreads is not the best of friends in that respect and neither are most other websites. Would you want a mechanic to recommend a top-level surgeon? Well, based on my experiences I just might give the grease monkey a shot, but you shouldn’t (nor should you probably use the word monkey when referring to people as casually). But while ratings shouldn’t be your guide (cheap pseudo-mythology crap often has higher ratings that insightful classics), an intelligent review written with the kind of knowledge that permits critiquing the book solely on its literary merit can sometimes nudge you in a direction you wouldn’t have even noticed on you own.

With my non-English studies having incidentally included lots of French and Russian literary courses (the 2 European heavyweights), finding the right books was not really a problem for me. And with some patient effort it shouldn’t prove an insurmountable obstacle for anyone. Now all you need is to read in English almost exclusively, to do some of it aloud to get a feel for the rhythm, and within ten to fifteen years you should be able to type in the words ‘chapter one’. As I said: easy.

Oh: and don’t forget about that chaiwallah and milk prices!

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