Pam Menzies on How I came to Write A Memoir

South Coast Writer's Centre member Pamela Menzies is the author of Port Kembla: A Memoir published by Australian Scholarly Publishing in February 2019. Many of our members are particularly interested in memoir writing and we're all interested in stories about the writing journey, so we asked Pam to share how she came to write a memoir.

Port Kembla A Memoir Pam Menzies

I started with the need to write but didn’t have any idea where I was heading and didn’t know I’d end up writing a memoir/history.

I left Port Kembla in 1959 at the age of 16, glad to be gone – in a hurry to leave the pollution and heavy industry behind. But years later the place rose to the surface of my mind. John Irving says, ‘Your memory is a monster. You forget -it doesn’t.’

It's tempting to say it was nothing, forgetting the umpteen drafts of messy crossed out sheets in the plastic container until I remember to throw them out in the recycling. I started with the need to write but didn’t have any idea where I was heading and didn’t know I’d end up writing a memoir/history.The first draft came quickly with little structure. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say. Milling around in my head was the story of three generations of my family who had lived in a town but also the town’s history. It was a long time since I’d visited and I needed to go back and see what was there. Every week or so my husband and I drove for two hours to Port Kembla. I became obsessed with the place, fossicking around, looking and not finding much of my past. On our visits I met the people who live there, particularly the women who seem to run the joint. I wanted to include them as well.

The project began with a mixture of memory and experience. A few years ago I saw a Sydney Film Festival film ‘Tender’ which is about Port Kembla. I respect the director, Lynette Wallworth, known for her innovative use of new technologies, but the topic also drew me. It was about a town initiative to start a funeral business. I was instantly hooked. I loved the people from the Port who packed out the cinema and there was even a man with a dog there. The people on the screen were full of eccentric, gutsy character and the town’s menacing industrial structures loomed over every-thing. I wanted to be part of it and leaning back in my seat told the women sitting behind I was born there. They patted me on the back.

I’d suppressed my childhood and never talked about it to my family. When memory is activated, it’s an exhilarating experience, but I was careful not to force the process. Memories floated into my consciousness at unexpected times. Vivid recall videos played, waking me up in the dead of night. I wrote it all down, higgledy piggledy. My cousins helped with their memories, sometimes testing my own. I was sure I was the only one on the side of the Port Kembla pool when the swimming instructor threw me in at the deep end. ‘No’, says my cousin she was there too. She remembers him saying, ‘Swim and see the fairies’, as he pushed us in. She became a strong swimmer, I’m still tentative.

How to describe my under-the-radar maternal grandparents who left nothing written down? I had a few material objects they used, my mother told continual stories about them through my childhood and at my insistence wrote twenty-five pages of recollections when she was seventy-five. It was through this account I learnt about the details of her early twentieth century life such as washing day, travelling in horse-drawn stage coaches and the importance of the clock winding ritual every Sunday night.

I was grateful to Trove for filling in the gaps about Port Kembla’s history. Since the mid nineteenth century, The Illawarra Mercury, Wollongong Argus and South Coast Times published accounts of wild storms, the washing away of jetties, descriptions of weddings and the energetic activity of early organisers like H.R. Lee and others who agitated for electric light, a bridge over the lagoon, a cinema, life savers, Boy Scouts, a golf course and got the lot. Journalists filed detailed reports of openings of schools and pools. Every kind of chook, carrier pigeon and jam for sale plus entertainment provided was described at the regular fairs. Through these articles my imagination found a framework for the retelling.

The scary but necessary part was letting others read what I had written and listening to feedback. I was lucky having a range of early readers whose viewpoint I trusted. Chapters were moved, I paid attention to close editing of facts and clarity of writing. I asked for permission to write about Indigenous matters. Finally I sent the manuscript to a professional editor and paid for it to be made publishing ready. I knew, as a first time writer of a book, unless I did this no publisher would look at it.

The main thing I learnt from the process is the need to write down memories before it’s too late. What doesn’t seem special to us now may be an invaluable resource for future generations in making sense of our collective past.

There will be a talk by Pam Menzies at Wollongong Library, Tuesday 14 May, 11 am. For more in-formation contact Wollongong Library on 42277414.

Written by SCWC

Posted on March 14, 2019