by Miriam Landor
When I took early retirement from the day job, I was free to go back to my early love, creative writing. My first non-academic writing project was a memoir / family history, triggered by a visit to my great-grandparents’ Stolpersteine in Bavaria and a gift of letters written by my father as a young man. I began by taking a twelve-week course run by the Canadian organisation Memoir Ink, and was supported by a wonderful mentor, Jean Rafferty, provided through the NUJ’s development programme. And my reading now has a fresh steer, as I devour anything to do with the second world war, its aftermath, and the whole genre of memoir. I’m trying to read as a writer – ok, I still dash through a book, absorbed in the story, but then I try to go back through it more slowly, picking out two or three features of that writer’s approach as my focus, perhaps to plot construction, character introduction, or setting as personality, and so on.
To give an example, I’m re-reading Esa Aldegheri’s Free to go, following her appearance at Orkney’s St Magnus Festival last month. She was a warm and witty speaker, holding our attention with her slides and reminiscences of the motorcycle journey she and her then newly-wed husband made about fifteen years ago. According to the back cover, Aldegheri is a multilingual poet, writer and academic, with a PhD in community education and migration studies.
I was first struck by her use of descriptive language: ‘Stories arrive through your eyes and ears and skin; they settle among your bones as you sleep, and when the time is right, you let them out so they can be free to go and grow.’ There is a rhythm and cadence to the phrases, emphasised by the repeated initial letters (ears and eyes) and by the rhyming vowels (time is right, go and grow), which point to her skill as a poet. It makes it a pleasure to read the words aloud. Open any page at random and the same elements can be found: ‘Scotland’s late summer light shines golden through the grasses above my head.’ I need to ensure I include enough description of settings in my own writing, and will try to consciously learn from her example.
Another lesson I am taking away from my second reading relates to structure. This book is divided into three parts, titled Free to go, Free to leave, and Free to return. These three freedoms frame the story she tells, and remind me that her area of academic expertise is migration: ‘ …aware as never before of the fortune that I have taken for granted: the freedom to cross borders and return to see loved ones without challenge or fear.’ I’m pleased to see that it’s ok to use short scenes and multiple storylines. In Free to go Aldegheri switches between the chronologically told story of the motorcycle journey across the world, printed in plain text, occasional ‘Technical interludes’ marked by spanner icons, and the italicised story of the recent past which narrates her family’s experience of the covid years. In these latter sections, we’re made aware that her husband, as a frontline medic, wasn’t free to return to his home, whereas she and her small children weren’t free to leave their house, or to see her family in Italy where the virus took terrifying hold. The author switches between these sections frequently, and the length of each section varies considerably, yet the reader is never confused. In my work I too have multiple interweaving timelines, and wonder now whether I need to signpost them more clearly.
Not least, I am grateful for her generous inscription in my copy of her book. Thank you for all the inspiration, Esa Aldegheri.
Free to go: across the world on a motorbike Esa Aldegheri, 2022 JM Originals