Writing “Home First: A Memoir in Voices”

Guest Post by Susan Siddeley

Susan Siddeley finds a tranquil writing place following my memoir workshops for her Los Parronales Writers’ Retreat.

I love writing: fashioning sentences, crafting a tale, getting feedback. A nightmare for me is to be stranded in a queue with no pen or paper, where nothing is moving, yet life suddenly makes sense.

Backing sixpenny notebooks with brown paper and scribbling about blackbirds, bluebells, and earwigs when I was eight was the start of a lifelong urge to write. The need to explain and collect — partly lest I forget — became a driving force. Later, this meant striving for the English teacher’s approval, turning the loss of three gloves and two boyfriends in as many days into comedy and noting how dads only became animated talking about big ends and gaskets.

I started collecting pieces in the mid-90’s, even put a few together and ran off copies for a bazaar. My first print run, ten! Getting a word processor and then a computer around the same time changed things as radically as washing machines and Hoovers sorted Mum’s housekeeping. Electronic cut and paste — a modern writing miracle!

Meeting like-minded people, writing from cues, subscribing to writing magazines, going on a residential course — which, amazingly, led to hosting residential workshops on our parcela in Chile — entering competitions and being short-listed. All these were milestones in the run-up to completing my manuscript, Home First: A Memoir in Voices. I realized the book had to be a memoir when attempts to change the names of my main characters altered their voices and blocked literary flow. The writing felt flat, wrong.

I belong to various writing groups. Seeing members waltz into meetings with big manuscripts and little experience used to be heart-warming. Now it’s hard to know what to say when people look glum if they don’t get a round of applause. But those who come regularly and do what it takes to get their tales right are the ones who succeed.

In my local group, I’m not the only one who’s been working on a manuscript for years. The memoirists all seem to have started out penning a modest justification of their lives for friends and family, then, with growing confidence, decided to aim for a wider audience.

My memoir project has been an anchor during a “travelling” life that took me from England to Canada, Jamaica, Bolivia and Chile. After my mother died, pulling up notes of our scribbled conversations was a great way of dealing with her passing. Writing in her voice, in Part One of Home First, I was able to see her point of view far better than when she had glared, laughed or moaned at me across the breakfast table.

The memoir template kept changing. What began as a series of stories for my children, then my grandchildren, was upgraded by cutting the telling and summarizing, and developing a narrative arc,  techniques learnt by attending workshops, including two series with Allyson Latta, at North York Central Library in Toronto and later at Los Parronales Writers’ Retreat in Santiago, Chile.

Eventually I decided to publish the book myself. It’s a family memoir, and sadly, during the years it took to write it, five cousins died. With no second book then in the pipeline (though, I have now started to write a sequel), I knew it would be hard to sell it to a traditional publishing company and didn’t want to lose more time.

Since finishing the first draft a couple of years ago, the editing — including an edit by a professional editor — proofreading and cover development have proved as taxing as the writing ever was. I’ve been fortunate to have great help and support from workshop leaders and fellow writers. This self-publishing route might not be for everyone, but I’m hoping it will work for me in these fast-changing times.

Everyone has a story to tell, an unpredictable and potentially vivid one. Deciding how to write it and get into print — that is the challenge.

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To order a copy of Home First: A Memoir in Voices, please email: motocad@rogers.com. Cheques payable to Susan Siddeley: $18.00 ($15.00 + $3.00 postage). FREE delivery in downtown Toronto, The Beach and Scarborough.

SUSAN SIDDELEY was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire and spent many years in Andean South America before moving to Canada. Her need to record the irony and drama of life on three continents has led to the publication of four volumes of poetry: When in Chile, Still in Chile, On Line and Off Line. She has also contributed to two anthologies published by Santiago Writers, is a two-time winner of Grain magazine’s Short Grain contest, and first-prize winner of the 2010 Malton Literary Festival writing competition. Susan now divides her time between Toronto, Canada, and Santiago, Chile, where, with her husband Gordon, she coordinates Los Parronales Writers’ Retreat.


  1. Jeff Goins says:

    Memoir continues to fascinate and intrigue me. I’m in the middle of The Memoir Project, an excellent book by Marion Roach Smith about the craft of memoir. I love it.

    • Allyson Latta says:

      Memoir fascinates me too, Jeff, and I’m thrilled when a writer publishes and is able to share her (or his) personal stories. I haven’t read The Memoir Project, but thank you for the recommendation — and for reading my blog.

    • Susan says:

      Thanks for this tip, Jeff. I’m always looking for reference books!

  2. Suzanne Adam says:

    I just finished reading “Home First” and couldn’t put it down. Sue has a way with dialogue that breathes life into her stories and takes you there. As a member of Santiago Writers, I can say that her energy and humour are greatly missed when she’s back in Toronto.

    • Allyson Latta says:

      Suzanne, I agree with you about Sue’s writing. She has such a distinctive and appealing voice, and humour is never far below the surface in her stories. We’re fortunate she’s able to travel back and forth between Toronto and Santiago so we can all share her. I heard her launch in Santiago was lively, and she’s having one in Toronto soon. Good luck with your memoir, too.

    • Susan says:

      Thanks, Suzanne. Glad the Con Con launch went well. Group support is great. Write on. Sue

  3. Allyson Latta says:

    Note from Ann Walker of Santiago, Chile:

    I began reading Sue’s memoir this afternoon, and between correcting tests and swimming, I am half done … I just can’t put it down! What a great book. It’s courageous, funny, sweet, and memorable, all rolled into one. Congratulations to Sue for her accomplishment. I really appreciated reading this background. Thanks for publishing and sharing this!

    Allyson, your Santiago and Tucson writers’ retreats seem so long ago. I am glad that I was able to participate in both! You kept me CONSTANTLY inspired. I hope you are having a wonderful year. Hello to the rest of the Tucson writers.

    Heartfelt thanks, Ann

    • Susan says:

      Thank you, Anne, that’s so kind. To have people enthuse about a book is always so inspiring especially when it’s your book! A couple more comments like these and I’ll be sailing into the sequel.
      Gracias! Sue

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