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13 June 2019

Cathy Rentzenbrink: ‘Don’t try to sound like a writer – try to sound like yourself’

Cathy Rentzenbrink
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, Writing Tips

Our six-week online course, Writing a Memoir, is led by bestselling memoirist Cathy Rentzenbrink. Cathy is the author of The Last Act of Love, which was a Sunday Times bestseller and was shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize. She followed it with A Manual for Heartache and Dear Reader: The Comfort and Joy of Books. Her first fiction book Everyone is Still Alive was published by Orion in July 2021.

Here Cathy shares her reading recommendations, writing routine and advice for budding writers…

Your bestselling memoir The Last Act of Love is a profoundly honest portrayal of grief. How did you come to the decision to share this story?
Well, it was a long road. I tried to write about my brother’s death as a novel many times but would get stuck. I tried to write novels that weren’t about my brother’s death but he’d charge in and take over, usually around chapter seven. Eventually I decided just to try to write the story out of myself. I thought I would put in a drawer and hoped it might free me up to do other things. Then, of course, it did become a book – but I’m not sure I’d have been able to write the story if I’d thought about sharing it when I started out.

Notebook and Book

What do you think is the most challenging part of writing about real life?
Having the guts to do it in the first place. Or perhaps grasping that you do have to craft your words if you want your story to be read by others. Or the whole huge complex area of writing about real people. There are plenty of challenges, but I’m now really glad I took them all on, and I like encouraging other people to face them, too.

The memoir genre is thriving. What are some of your favourites?
A strong voice is essential to memoir, and that’s what I tend to look out for. The Boy with the Topknot by Sathnam Sanghera and Maggie and Me by Damian Barr were both helpful when it came to writing my own book, and showed me that someone from a non-famous, non-glamorous background could write their story. I’m keen on memoirs written by writers: I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’Farrell is astonishingly good, and Giving up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel. I’m also interested when a writer has explored the same material in fiction and non-fiction, like Jeanette Winterson and Elizabeth Jane Howard. I absolutely love This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay, which is hilarious – I nearly choked to death laughing over it – but also makes important points about the NHS. I’ve become keen on thematic anthologies in recent years. There are also lots of gems in The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla, and in Kit de Waal’s Common People.

Memoir Stack

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
When I was editing The Last Act of Love after it had been bought by a publisher, I started to freak out about writing about real people. I’d never really thought anyone else would read it and was terrified that people would be cross with me. I talked about it with Nina Stibbe, and admitted to her that this had frightened me so much I’d ground to a halt with the editing, and kept thinking I might be sick. She said, ‘Your Mum and Dad are happy about it, aren’t they?’ ‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘Well, everyone else can just fuck off.’ This was exactly what I needed to hear at the time, and it got me moving. And I did put a lot of thought and care into how to represent the real people, of course, and no-one was angry with me.

How do you start your day? Do you have any routines or rituals which help you get writing?
Yes! The most important thing is that I DON’T look at email, social media, news or even texts before writing. The best thing for me is to write as close to waking up as I can, and before I’ve allowed the noise of the world to flood into my brain. I do morning pages first, about 500 words of off-the-top-of-my-head nonsense, and then write 1000 words or do a two-hour block, if I’m editing. Often I’ll then carry on, but it is good for me to have a non-negotiable task that I have to do before I do anything else. Then, by lunchtime, I have a sense of achievement and am starving, so I eat and then usually do admin in the afternoon – there is so much admin to do as a writer and it weighs on me if I don’t do it promptly. Then I pick my son up from school and try to not to be in too much of a dream world for him. When he’s in bed I usually then read for an hour or so before going to sleep. When I’m away from home or doing other work, I have to be flexible, but that is my ideal writing routine. I do find writing extremely tiring and get a bit cross with myself that it exhausts me so. I’ve worked hard to try to feel pleased with what I’ve done, rather than angry that I haven’t done more and that the process isn’t easier than it actually is.

We’re thrilled to have you on board as the teacher of our brand-new Writing a Memoir course. What’s your favourite part of teaching?
I love showing people that their self-doubt is an inherent part of the writing process. I do also really enjoy the nuts and bolts of how stories work. I like demystifying the process and freeing people up to think that they too can write. I love it all, really. I could very happily talk about the writing process every day for the rest of my life and am endlessly fascinated with how life experience makes the journey on to the page. And I get really excited when people try out something I’ve suggested and it helps them.

Filming of Writing a Memoir Course

What was your favourite part of writing and filming the course?
I enjoyed talking it all through with Anna. I like working collaboratively. And I loved the filming as it meant I got to hang out with the lovely CBC people and the film crew. I do find writing lonely and much prefer being with other people. And the bacon sandwiches in the morning were a bit special.

Could you share your top three tips for writers who want to write a memoir?
1.) Write towards finding your voice, which just means that thing that makes you sound like YOU. Trust that your story is important and worthwhile because of your unique perspective. Don’t try to sound like a writer – try to sound like yourself.

2.) Just start. You don’t need to know all the answers before you start putting pen to paper and writing down some memories.

3.) Keep it to yourself for now, and don’t worry yet about real people. You can think about all that later. For now, just put one word in front of another and watch it grow.

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