Writing memoirs – The “How To” Guide

by on 22 June, 2013

(Name supplied but withheld by request)

After September 14, it is likely that lots of current Labor high-flyers from Julia Gillard down will have lots of spare time on their hands and may need to top up the superannuation.

Writing your own history is an increasingly popular hobby for ex-politicians although overflowing remainder bins suggest that the reading public is not all that overwhelmed.

While there is always the hope by the author that a political memoir will be a nice little, or even big, earner most are driven by George Orwell’s dictum, He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

So in the interests of helping the fallen mighty, here are a few tips.

Firstly, and most importantly, get in early. Book writing next year is likely to be frenetic.

The higher your profile, the more likely you are to find a publisher and readers. Ex PM John Howard’s memoirs Lazarus Rising (2010) eclipsed sales of ex PM Bob Hawke’s The Hawke Memoirs (1994) by mid 2011 of 75,000 copies with the paperback at that time yet to come.

Naturally, since most politicians are more or less human, they like to cement their place in history and justify their own self-image as a person of principle, integrity, far-sightedness, fairness, decency and all-round niceness.

You want your book to be hailed for its introspective insight, its documentary accuracy, its unsparing honesty and its transparent self-effacement and modesty.

Ex Labor Leader Mark Latham noted in his tome that Parliament House’s culture is full of small talk and smear and then proved it by writing a 400-page book full of small talk and smear. If you want a legacy of ‘statespersonship,’ you must try and rise above that.

Ex PM’s have a natural advantage since they can write stuff like, I told the US President in no uncertain terms that Australia would… and I got no joy from sacking Fred as a Minister but his treachery forced my hand.

If you are a complete nobody who wasn’t even noticed when you were there, don’t think that in retirement anybody will want to read your ramblings unless they are actually interesting and, above all, revealing.

Thus, It was around 3am the next morning that I came across the PM and the Treasurer in the pool at the US Embassy naked and drunk fighting and screaming abuse at each other. I managed to separate them and the PM “thanked” me by throwing up all over me is interesting.

On July 17, I and my school group enjoyed a nice afternoon tea at the Canadian High Commission is not interesting.

Crossing the floor over the rural subsidies issue got me into hot water with the leadership has the potential to be interesting if some lurid detail is added but I was thanked for my 286-page submission on the canola oil industry to the party’s Agriculture Policy sub-committee… is not interesting even if you quote large slabs of it. In fact, it will be even less interesting.

Readers can see straight through whimpering self-justifications so avoid stuff like, Although rebuffed by the party room, I was genuinely touched by the reaction of people in the street who praised me for my courage, bravery and adherence to traditional values… and I am certain that had the party adopted my policy, we would have avoided the crisis only weeks later when… and I was not drunk that evening but had been taking medication and was tired and stressed from overwork…

Be careful about trying to appear central to everything, especially the successes. Avoid writing, The PM, eyes brimming with tears of gratitude, said later that my advice had turned the tide…” and “The National Executive unanimously adopted this proposal which I had floated only days earlier when I…

Don’t try and kid everybody that you disagreed with everything that that later went pear-shaped so avoid—unless you have documentary evidence—self-serving rubbish like, I quietly but firmly let the leadership know that the course they were following was fraught with disaster…” and “It is generally acknowledged now—far too late, I might add—that I had been right when I…

Be careful of the petty such as, Just why he became a Minister ahead of me when everybody knew that he was a lying, lazy shit remains a mystery…

It’s very boring in your memoirs to include stuff like; My great-great-grandfather came to Australia in 1869 seeking a better life. I have always been inspired by his example… but interesting if you can write, In 1992, declassified files proved that my great uncle had been an active Nazi spy but what I can reveal now is that he was actually Jewish…

Oscar Wilde once wrote, I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.  If Oscar wouldn’t like your memoirs, then don’t bother.



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