ON READING ONE HUNDRED MEMOIRS IN ORDER TO WRITE ONE
“Writers think they’ll start off writing with a piece like ‘Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.’ That’s not how it works. You need to begin with Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’” I’ve misquoted author Jamie Ford, but you get the gist. Learning how to write well, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, or poetry, is a long, arduous path. Writing is an act of passion, and to succeed you need to persevere, read critically, and write, write, write. There’s no one way of establishing the habit, no one rule which applies to all writers, which is why I’ve loved interviewing authors about their paths in The Writers Connection www.writersconnection.org
My path began with classes at the community college (long after I earned a Masters in Social Work), and continues to this day with as many classes I can afford. My method was introduced by Carlene Cross in Theo Nestors’s “Generating Memoir” class: read one hundred books of your genre. That, I did. Here postings with lists of memoirs I wrote in order to write A Long Way from Paris.
- Possible Side Effects Augustin Burroughs
- Writing is My Drink by Theo Nestor
- The Story of The Trapp Family Singers by Maria Von Trapp
- On the Road Jack Kerouac
- Truth and Beauty Ann Patchett
- Diary of a Drug Fiend by Alister Crowley
- Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelden
- When the Heart Waits by Sue Monk Kidd
- Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Hays
- Without a Map by Meredith Hall
I sometimes wonder why on earth I wanted to write a memoir. Why would anyone want to delve into personal tragedies, pain, struggles. Or, be honest. Be vulnerable. Who wants that?
When I first pitched my story about living off the grid in the mountains of southern France, an agent said, “Oh no. It must be more – how you grew; what you learned from your experience; what it meant to you. So I dug and I dug and today, six years later I am so sick of this f***memoir.
So, again, why write a memoir? Purging is no reason. Information dump is not a memoir. At the very least, hopefully, one can grow from another’s experiences, learn from other’s mistakes, and feel a sense of empathy from another’s words. And aren’t we all figuring out that empathizing, the “walking a mile in another’s shoes,” is about as important as anything we can do?
“Was it worth it?” my friend Pam asked. “Reading one hundred memoirs in one big surge?”
Absolutely. Mostly, because the project led me to stories I’d never have read otherwise. Take, Tobias Wolff’s Pharoahs of the Army, a collection about war. But, actually, it’s not about war; it’s about people. People who react humanely in an otherwise inhumane setting. It’s about people with war all around them.
Like every school child who grew up during Vietnam, I watched the nightly television news and saw gruesome images of severed arms, bloodied legs, napalmed children. I did not wish to read about war. Any yet, I can’t recommend Pharoahs more strongly.
- The Voices in My Head by Emma Forest
- The House of Sky by Ivan Doig
- My Life with My Brother by Nicholas Sparks
- Finding Grace by Donna Van Liere666
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
- The Road to Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam
- Boys in My Youth by JoAnn Beard
- I’m All Over That by Shirley McClaine
- Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared to See by Mike May
- The Sparkled Eye Boy by Amy Benson
- My Reading Life by Pat Conroy
- A House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
- Drinking by Caroline Knapp
I’ve reflected on the most powerful memoirs, the ones that stick like oatmeal, those memoirs I’ll always remember. I loved discovering new books for this project, like my new favorite author, Geoff Dyer. His memoir, which only loosely fits the genre, is Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with DH Lawrence. I like Dyers wit, and in fact, his wit and insight carry the reader, since he often skips over silly devices like genre and plot.
I wouldn’t have read The Jaycee Dugard Story, the gut wrenching saga of a young woman raped and kidnapped, and then freed because of a keen eyed security guard at UC Berkeley. The story cried tabloid press to me, fodder for voyeurs reading her story in People magazine at the checkout line at Safeway. But I read it, skipping most of the rape, and finally, I understood that this tragedy, being stolen off the streets, could happen to anyone, at anytime. Anyone of us can intercede as well, if we look sharply enough at a situation which seems “off.” That’s all the security guard had for evidence to start the investigation: “Things looked off.”
A more poetic memoir, The Sparkling-eyed Boy by Amy Benson, moved me. Awarded at the Breadloaf Writers conference, this lyrical story tells of a girl who becomes a woman, entwined with summer friendship, summer romance, summer confusion. It’s beautifully written, and I felt myself rise and fall with the narrator who tries to understand what was and is her life.
But when it comes to beautifully written and gut wrenching, no one compares to Joan Didion. Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking is unequaled in its brilliance as Didion figures out how to accept the sudden death of her husband and the illness of her only child. We, readers, befriend her in her grief, and yet, keep just enough distance to breathe, plow through, and feel empathy, yet not get bogged down in it. I know of no memoirist who surpasses Joan Didion.
- Hippie Boy by Ingrid Ricks
- The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by bill Bryson
- There is Nothing in the Book I Meant to Say by Paula Poundstone
- Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck
- The Olive Farm by Carol Drinkwater
- A Piano in the Pyrenees by Tony Hawks
- Hell or High Water by Peter Heller
- Life with Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley
- The wilder Life by Wendy McClure
- Seriously, Just Kidding by Ellen de Generis
- Plan B by Ann LaMott
Now that I’ve Read 100 Memoirs in order to write one, I’ve begun to understand the range of memoirs in America’s literary world. I’ve also seen divisions, a blurred definition of “literary,” and people asking if memoir has any value as a genre at all.
Some cite St. Augustine’s Confessions as the first true memoir. My own introduction was Theo Nestor’s hopeful How to Sleep Alone in King-Sized Bed, which begins when she puts a chicken in the oven for a traditional family dinner. By the time she takes it out, her world has turned upside down. Not only is King-Size Bed a must for anyone going through a divorce, it engages readers with its easy slippage through time. We’re moved by Nestor’s life, but also inspired, that we can overcome our own challenges and crisis’ in a topsy-turvy world. This, I believe, is what the best memoirs should do.
Though Nestor has an Masters of Fine Arts , she writes a compelling story. “Though?” My premise is that many writers walk away with their MFA not knowing how to write a story. There is a split in the literary world between MFA and non-MFA. The question, does a writer need to earn an MFA to write compelling stories, has been covered in a slough of articles – (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2010/11/mfa_vs_nyc.html by Chad Harbach; http://www.thereviewreview.net/publishing-tips/mfa-or-not-mfa-question Robin Black; http://dismagazine.com/discussion/32434/brad-troemel-mfa-critiques/ Brad Troemel, for example. Many articles were written in 2010. Is that when people woke up with a jerk, realizing they were $40,000 in debt with no job in sight? And that the $40,000 wouldn’t go away? It would grow over time?
Anelise Chen compared–again, in 2010 –the authors admired versus those who actually sold books. http://therumpus.net/2010/10/on-blowing-my-load-thoughts-from-inside-the-mfa-ponzi-scheme/ Anelise Chen
New York Times Hardcover Fiction Top Five -2010-Week not identified
- SAFE HAVEN, Nicholas Sparks — No MFA
- FREEDOM, Jonathan Franzen — No MFA
- WICKED APPETITE, by Janet Evanovich — No MFA
- THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST, by Stieg Larsson — Swedish, therefore, No MFA
- THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett — No MFA
Versus –New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 List with Age and MFA Breakdown
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 32 — Johns Hopkins
Chris Adrian, 39 — Iowa
Daniel Alarcón, 33 — Iowa
David Bezmozgis, 37 — No Writing MFA
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, 38 — Iowa
Joshua Ferris, 35 — UCI
Jonathan Safran Foer, 33 — No MFA
Nell Freudenberger, 35 — NYU
Rivka Galchen, 34 — Columbia
Nicole Krauss, 35 — No MFA
Yiyun Li, 37 — Iowa
Dinaw Mengestu, 31 — Columbia
Philipp Meyer, 36 — Michener Center
C. E. Morgan, 33 — No MFA
Téa Obreht, 24 — Cornell
Z Z Packer, 37 — Iowa
Karen Russell, 28 — Columbia
Salvatore Scibona, 35 — Iowa
Gary Shteyngart, 37 — Hunter
Wells Tower, 37 — Columbia
My own addition: Tao Lin, 27 — Disowned by NYU
Clearly, the literati are drawn to MFA’s and Iowa and Columbia in particular, while the general population prefers something else.
As a result of my Don Quixote quest to Read 100 Memoirs, I read many books I wouldn’t have glanced at ordinarily. Takes, Nicholas Sparks, #1 on this list. I read Sparks memoir, Three Weeks with My Brother, having never actually read a Nicholas Sparks novels in my life.
Besides being entertained and moved, I learned of Spark’s his absent professor dad –absent first, because of night school and work, and second, absent staying late grading papers. I also discovered how Sparks succeeded as a writer. He worked at his meaningless day job to pay for food, rent, shoes for the kids, as well as therapy for his child with a disability. And he wrote at night. Like most writers, his first book landed in the garbage. His second book was a collaboration, and his third book, his first published with sole authorship, hit the big time. The Notebook became Sparks first published book.
Consider Stephen King. Again, I don’t read his books ordinarily, or the horror genre, but I devoured his memoir, Memoir on the Craft of Writing. I’d recommend Sparks and King’s memoirs as inspiring for writers as well as interesting reads. How did Sparks and King become best-selling authors? They wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote, and read, read, read, read. They fed their kids. They did not get an MFA
Why discuss MFA versus non-MFA? Because many of the memoirs I read scream MFA in that they don’t have a story. One of my favorite writers, Pat Conroy, wrote in his memoir, My Reading Life, that we live in an era where books do not need to have “story.”
I hate to dis any authors because we have all worked so hard and many of us have failed to write the book we wish we’d written. A moving voice does not a story make. If the purpose of a memoir is to like the author, to empathize with her, to feel her feelings, I am left cold. I like Pat Conroy’s stories “better.”
Am I saying I like men’s memoirs better than women’s? I hope not! I loved Ann Patchett’s story of her relationship with Lucy Grealy in Truth and Beauty. And Lucy Grealy’s memoir about her own disfigurement in The Autobiography of Face. Patchet and Grealy were both roommates at –yes, Iowa! The MIT of writers. So I’m not against either women memoirists or MFA’s or the best of them all, Iowa. I’d just like to keep “story” in my books. You know—wonder what’s going to happen next? Be emotionally aroused? Laugh, cry, think deeply. And for that, you need to write well-not earn an MFA.
To my new readers, this blog reflects my reading 100 Memoirs as an exercise in writing one memoir. “To write well,” my instructor stated, I should “read one hundred books in my genre.” I’ve completed my memoir currently titled, On the Mountains of Languedoc, which I revise and revise. In the meantime, my reading continues.
I’m up to eighty-three memoirs. The more I read, the more categories I discover. Some memoirs ooze with raw, painful, honesty while others hop and skip with irony and humor. Some offer clarity and insights while others reflect chaotic memories with shallow musing. Some memoirs are worth reading. Some are not.
Since my book is set in Southern France, I’ve read three memoirs with this setting. I’ve learned it is not “Southern France,” however. It’s “the South of France,” which apparently conveys more spark, romance and pizzazz.
1.) The Bible of “life in the south of France” is A Year in Provence (1989). Named Best Travel Book of the Year (1989) by British Book Awards, it turned Provence into the world’s most exquisite destination overnight. Peter Mayle was named Author of the Year (1992), and for this and other books he’s written about Provence, the French government named him Mayle a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur (Knight of the Legion of Honor). Impressive. But wait! There’s even a TV series, A Year in Provence.
Does the book deserve these accolades? Yes.
Many adventurers write memoirs because they’ve lived an “interesting” life, even though they’re incapable of writing a compelling memoir. Mayle is an exception. Emerging from the advertising world, he writes with skill, talent, and passion.
Mayle’s book fascinated me –here’s the writer in me—because there’s virtually no plot. Does a memoir need a plot, if indeed, it’s all about setting? Mostly about setting? Apprerently not. You move to France, you spend a year building a house, you meet some true characters, and that is all. Yet, Peter Mayle’s strong writing pulls it off. We become armchair travelers, smelling the lavender, growing the garden, impatient that the house building continues ad infinitum. Mayle’s characters endear me; his descriptions mesmerize, and his tiny bit of plot intrigues me. As a reader, I live with him and his wife and his French neighbors, and that is enough. The book testifies to great writing, neither mawkish nor overly sentimental, but light, fascinating, and fun.
2. Tony Hawks, a comedian and actor from Britain writes mischievous e-mails to fans who mistake him for the famous skateboarding Tony Hawk of video games. A Piano in the Pyrenees, Hawks memoir about buying a house in the south of France, meeting locals, and trying to dig a swimming pool, zips along, as though its humor will carry the readers. Rather than being effusive about the surrounding beauty, he brushes over it with lines like, “The scenery from my window-Did I say the scenery?” Although I like Hawks, as he tells his punchy story at racehorse speed, I wonder if I’d read the book if it weren’t for my goal of reading one hundred memoirs. No. Am I reading this only because the topic is the south of France? Yes. Not as funny as say, Bill Bryson, or as descriptive as Mayle, it’s hard to recommend.
3. British actor, Carol Drinkwater, writes about the south of France in The Olive Farm, the first of a series. If you love scenes and setting, if you like being an armchair traveler, if you’re wondering about visiting Provence, this book shimmers in that lush and lovely world.
Like Mayle, Drinkwater purchases a dump, which she scrubs inside and out to discover the proverbial diamond in the rough. Always a world traveler, she decides to settle down, to make this her permanent home with her lover, although work and finances tear them away most of the year.
How do you differentiate between the Olive Farm and Provence? Like with any book, we must fall for the protagonist, the memoirist. As a woman, Drinkwater is more reflective, especially about her relationships. Provence feels lighter to me, a little happier, and a bit stronger. The books are similar enough, I’d bet if you like Mayle, you’ll enjoy Drinkwater as well.
So many books, so many superb memoirs. I recently read two classics, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, a Pulitzer finalist, and In Pharaoh’s Army by Tobias Wolff. Both men write with clear, distinctive voices which most writers dream of acquiring. Both have a subtle sense of humor; both are earnest and self-effacing. A third memoir that seeped compassion from my bones is The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes by Randi Davenport. Though raw, painful, I felt privileged to read this crystal clear, honest book.