Behind the Memoir with Mike Cavanagh

Written by Amy Fairall.


Ever thought about writing a memoir? Everyone has a story to tell, sometimes we just struggle to find the right words. Local South Coast author, Mike Cavanagh believes everyone should document their life stories in some way. Mike’s a memoirist, and he wants to help you find the words to be one too! Alongside the SCWC, Mike will be hosting a memoir writing workshop to help you get your story onto the page.

Mike grew up listening to the wild stories told by his father, of the years his parent’s spent living on a plantation on the island of Samurai, New Guinea after the war. As a child, Mike’s most common response to these stories was ‘Yes, Dad, we’ve heard this one!’ The magnitude of the stories clearly lost on someone so young.

When Mike’s dad passed away, he realised that all of those stories were gone with him too. “Made me think we really should write down some sort of record of our days before we go.”

So that’s what he did.

Mike has written two memoirs- the first, ‘One Of Its Legs Are Both The Same’ about his years living in the old picker’s cottage in the Southern Highlands between 1972 and 1979. The second ‘A Pocketful of Days’ is about his relationship with his first wife Jo, and her struggles, triumphs and failures in dealing with a whole range of demons and crises.

Mike claims the first step to writing a memoir is to get over yourself.

“I learned to see that my self-doubts about writing a story about me, was actually a false humility. Every single life ever lived is worth remembering, is worth recording. It’s got nothing to do with your ego; it’s about shared experiences and providing a unique view, yours, on stuff that happens to us all. Sharing these experiences by writing a memoir is a way of contributing to all our shared knowledge and emotions – a gift if you will, for whoever might choose to accept it.”

But writing a memoir is not without its challenges. Recalling past events and memories is no easy feat! But Mike says that getting the facts exactly right isn’t the most important thing.

“Truth isn’t necessarily fact, and a memoir isn’t an autobiography. What matters, in the end, is less about getting the ‘facts’ right, and more about getting the feelings, emotions and characterisation of the places and people right. It’s a challenge getting to the heart of these, and a very rewarding one when you get it right.”

But with a lifetime of memories and stories to share, how do you determine what to include and what to leave out?

“Personally, nothing is sacrosanct – if it makes for good copy, as they say, it goes in. The tricky part is what to include or exclude where events and conversations deeply involve others. Respect and compassion are paramount in helping to decide, as is, of course, asking the other person’s opinion. The other aspect is being true to the story you’re telling, and being parsimonious along the way.”

Delving back into the past can be both daunting and exciting. Mike finds that looking back, he often realises things about his past that were lost on him at the time.

“Someway into the process, something magical happens – I forget the ‘me’ here and now, and find myself back in the ‘there’ and ‘then’, remembering the places, people, hearing those voices again, experiencing, smelling, tasting, as if I was back there. I’ve learned to get lost in those moments and just let the words, the memories, flow. I find myself laughing, smiling, crying and sometimes realising things about those experiences that escaped me at the time. Writing a memoir can be a deeply experiential event, even if after writing it you lock it up to never see the light of day until after you die.”

We’ve loved supporting such a talented writer and passionate story-teller- and it seems he’s enjoyed spending time with us too!

“I’ve only been interacting with SCWC folks for less than two years but in that time I’ve felt so supported and appreciated that I really couldn’t express my thanks enough. If it weren’t for SCWC I dare say I’d still be sitting gazing at my navel, like a Microsoft operating system lost in some never-ending system-dump loop, arguing with myself about what I’m going to do about promoting my memoirs. It’s a treat to deal with such a dedicated, passionate group of people who are also willing to listen to, and go with, my crazy ideas!”

Mike’s Memoir Writing Workshop will be held at the Wollongong City Library at 1pm on Saturday August 17th.

Places are still available! Tickets are $15 for SCWC members and WCL members (participants can join on the day). $25 for non-members.

Book via 4228 0151 or

Written by SCWC

Posted on July 31, 2019