Autobiographical Stories - Q&A with Emma Decent

Emma Decent is a writer and performer who has over fifteen years of experience writing moving autobiographical pieces about the relationship between parents and children. She has appeared at open mic events all over the country and has been a guest poet at events in Manchester, Preston, Wakefield and beyond. She also delivers workshops in performance and creative life-writing to accompany her shows, where she encourages others to tell their stories. 

She is performing for us on Friday 12th October with her piece I Don’t Know What I’m Supposed to be Doing which explores the relationship between herself and her mother, a librarian, who had Alzheimer’s for a number of years before passing away. The show goes on a journey through time, mother-daughter love and life re-evaluation. It will be a funny, moving, inspiring tale using poetry, theatre and library books. 

We interviewed Emma to find out a little more about her work, as well as learning more about the piece she will be performing at the Joinery this October. 

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Where are you from?

A: I live in Todmorden, on the Lancashire Yorkshire border. I love the land round here and being out in all weathers walking. I was born in Canada and spent most of my childhood in Hertfordshire. I’ve lived in the north of England most of my adult life, first Manchester (my Mum was from Lancashire), now Calderdale. I really like it.

Q: Was your family very literary? How important was storytelling in your childhood?

A: Mum was a librarian by profession and an avid reader. She was great believer in books and education. She was always bringing me fabulous new novels for children and young people that she’d discovered. My Dad worked in publishing, but rather dull academic books about computing! They both loved stories and culture though, in its many shapes - books, film, theatre, good TV. I got that from them, which was a gift. 

Q: How did you get started as a writer and performer? 

A: I liked drama from a young age, my Dad was into it too. He had trained as an actor and was a member of the local amateur dramatics group in Hertfordshire. I got involved in the youth theatre which I loved. I did an English and Drama degree at university but was struggling at that age and it lost its sparkle for a bit. A few years after graduation I found myself getting back into it through open mics and performance nights in Manchester where I lived then. I joined a community drama group and began writing and performing with them, and later the performance poetry scene. That was probably about 15 years ago. The work I do now as a solo writer and performer developed from there.

Q: You both write and perform – is there a style that you prefer, and if so, why?  

A: My main work to date has come directly from personal experience, so I guess I feel I am the only one who can write it and tell it. I also like that kind of work - solo autobiographical story-telling and performance. I find it very exciting and powerful, the individual telling their story. 

Q: Can you tell me a little about your show “I Don’t Know What I’m Supposed to be Doing”?

A: The show came out of a long personal process - that of being my mother’s daughter, especially during the last years of her life when she had dementia. ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing’ was something she said early on, which struck me as both funny and profound. 

She had dementia for a long time. In that time, she changed and my attitude to her changed. When she died in 2015 I was much more at peace with her, I had reconciled a lot of the difficulties that existed between us when I was younger. I felt a new love and respect for her.

A show began to emerge, from poems, diaries, the testimonies of others who knew her, photos, film. It is made up of fragments of memories, which is also what it is about. I try to parallel my and my Mum’s lives as women - childhood, adolescence and adulthood - the different opportunities and frustrations we had, and the similarities between us too. For example, she gave me her love of books. I show some of the harsher challenges of mother-daughter love - and dementia. But I hope that ultimately it reads as a love story from me to my Mum, and to all our elders, who we don’t always cherish enough, yet who we are becoming ourselves every day.

There are some laughs and nostalgia trips too - Mum outraging our South East suburban neighbourhood with Vote Labour posters in 1979; watching Maya Angelou together on Channel 4 in the 1980s. People cry but they also laugh I hope.

Books and performances about Dementia and Alzheimer’s seem to be increasing in number in recent years – why do you think this is? An increase in awareness or something else? 

I think with the ageing population dementia is a lot more common and more people are having these experiences and are willing to talk about them. So more people are writing about it and people can relate to books and shows about it. I think that’s a good thing, that there is more ‘art’ out there, to help people process life - often very tricky parts of our lives. I think people are more willing to talk about things in general these days - things that in the past may have been more hidden or taboo. People with dementia often breach the social niceties and there is a lot of grief and shame about it. It can be very difficult to talk about, the weird and awful things that can happen with dementia. But it helps to take things out of hiding - that is one of the big things people say to me about it - that it helps to see their story in mine. 

Q: What message would you like people to take away from your sho

A: I would like it to inspire people to make the most of who and what they have in their lives. Time runs out. 

Your previous show “Beyond Dreams of Aberystwyth” was about your father, how important has it been in your life and career to write about the relationship with your parents? 

I know! It just seems to have been what I have done so far. They say everyone starts with an autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) tale. I guess I am just putting that on the table! I sometimes wish I could get to the bottom of autobiographical subjects and do something else, but I am not too bothered about it at the moment. You do what you are drawn to. Life to me is about trying to come to some sort of peace with yourself. I have used art and other tools for that, which includes thinking about my parents. I am fascinated about how story-telling can change the story you started with - even your own story - and create healing and transformation for yourself and others.

Q: Is there a reason you have chosen performance rather than, for example, writing a book?

A: I’ve just found it easier. I’ve always considered myself more as a writer for the stage than the page, though I would love to do books too. It’s been mostly to do with time and opportunity - it’s been easier to get a show together and to reach people that way - than to go to all the effort it takes to get a book published. Plus there is nothing like being in a room full of people and connecting vibrantly and directly with your audience there and then. It's the real thing. 

Q: Do you have a favourite book?

A: Favourite book, thats always so hard... One book I always like to return to is 'Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!' by Fannie Flagg. It's about a woman who is reluctantly forced on a journey of self-discovery, about her roots, fame and success, and it's very funny.

Emma’s show, I Don’t Know What I’m Supposed to be Doing is on Friday 12th October at The Joinery in Settle and the show will begin at 7.00pm. Due to the nature of the event, it is suitable for people aged sixteen and over. Tickets are £14 on the night, or £12 if you purchase in advance via our website. Click here to purchase tickets now. 

Blog written by Charlotte Furness