One of Australia’s most loved books is “Mao’s Last Dancer” – an autobiography based on the life of renowned ballet dancer Li Cun Xin, who's now the artistic director of Queensland Ballet.
Despite the successful publication of the book in 25 countries, selling over half a million copies, strangely enough, Li himself never really had a strong desire to write it in the first place.
“In fact, after I stayed in America, and had embarked on this very successful international ballet career, a lot of publishers and ghost writers have asked me if they could publish or write my book and I’ve said no to every one of the request because I’ve always thought my life’s not that exciting, and there are a lot of other people with similar experiences as mine.”
It wasn’t until years after Li moved to Australia with his family and retired from ballet that the idea gained momentum. Li was encouraged by close friend, Graeme Base, who’s a children’s author and illustrator, to write not for himself but for others.
“And he said to me, then, Li, your story will inspire others. It will give people hope and courage in life. So, it was then I really realised probably it was not a selfish thing to do, but rather, if my story could inspire and motivate other people, then it would be worthwhile to write.”
Li decided to write the book himself despite initial doubts of his ability to write in English. After all, Li only started learning the language at 18 whilst he was still living in China.
“Is my English good enough? I really didn’t know whether I have the skill set and the language skill to write the book in any depth that is required to express my emotions. Also, I really felt I would be the only person, who could really express those emotional depths, because I’m the only one, who have experienced my life.”
It took Li about two and a half years to complete his international bestseller, which has since been turned into a film. Li’s also about to exhibit his life story at the Brisbane Museum.
“Mao’s Last Dancer” may have taken shape from a goal of inspiring others, but for Li, the process of writing ended up becoming a cathartic experience.
“I learnt a lot about myself, reflecting on my experiences, successful experiences or unsuccessful experiences, but, really made me see things more clearly - why things happened that way? And sometimes, I simply still don’t understand why it happened, but you just have to accept that could possibly just be fate. And it’s just part of your experiences in life that you have to live through to make the person, who you are, who you ultimately become.”
Writing a memoir can often be regarded as a solitary or self-absorbed experience, but what memoir teacher Patti Miller has seen in her students is how their lives have changed, and how they’ve become more connected and compassionate to others.
“There’s something about the pleasure of looking at your memories but also the insight that you gain into what your life’s been about. I agree with the Australian writer Dorothy Hewett, who said ‘the person who starts writing a memoir is never the same person that finishes writing it’. It can actually help people find their way in life because they’ve been looking at their life so intensely but also it actually connects them to other people because you start understanding why other people have acted the way they have. So, I think it is actually powerfully transforming.”
Writing down your memories and interpretations of others can sometimes put a strain on the relationship. Miller’s advice is to begin by asking yourself how important is this particular issue or problem you want to cover? It might be a good idea to ask the person you write about first, but Miller finds that could also have devastating impacts.
“So, you need to think about if this is publicly aired, what will happen to that relationship? Also, you need to ask yourself, can you cope emotionally with what might happen? Because you might be publicly attacked as well as privately. So, I always get people to look at those things carefully and also to ask themselves how they would feel if it was somebody writing about them? Generally, I call it the ‘Scarlett O’Hara advice’, which is ‘I’ll think about that tomorrow’, write it first, and then evaluate the problems once you’ve got it written.”
The enormity of structuring and writing a memoir can be overwhelming when people start examining the vastness and minute details of their life.
“Always break it down into the small pieces, make small pieces for a while, just concentrate on writing on this particular thing and it might just be 500 words and maybe next time, you’ll make a bigger piece, it might be a 2000-word piece. So, you make pieces for a while and then you start seeing how it might fit together.”
The deeply reflective nature of writing a memoir often confronts one’s innermost feelings about certain people and life events. And being honest with yourself isn’t always easy.
“I try to urge other people to be as direct and honest as they can because it’s those things that you probably want to hide that are the most crucial. I want them to know what kind of strength and power they have in writing when they don’t fear other people’s judgement.”
So, what do you do once you’ve completed the manuscript? According to Miller, not everyone writes with the end goal of getting their book commercially published. Some might simply want to self-publish a few copies for close family and friends, whereas, others might just want a digital version. After all, not everyone can convince a publisher to print their work.
“Even if it’s a good story, sometimes, somebody else may have already published a story on that particular thing of growing up in a Vietnamese village. They might already had a success last year so they might not publish it this year. I try to encourage people to face the reality and to keep writing the book because it matters to them, and then they can think about how to get it published.”