Why would anyone write a memoir?

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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.

  1. The Voices in My Head by Emma Forest
  2. The House of Sky by Ivan Doig
  3. My Life with My Brother by Nicholas Sparks
  4. Finding Grace by Donna Van Liere666
  5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson
  6. The Road to Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam
  7. Boys in My Youth by JoAnn Beard
  8. I’m All Over That by Shirley McClaine
  9. Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared to See by Mike May
  10. The Sparkled Eye Boy by Amy Benson
  11. My Reading Life by Pat Conroy
  12. A House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  13. Drinking by Caroline Knapp

One Year Later

self portrait 2flowers on side     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.

  1. Hippie Boy by Ingrid Ricks
  2. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by bill Bryson
  3. There is Nothing in the Book I Meant to Say by Paula Poundstone
  4. Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck
  5. The Olive Farm by Carol Drinkwater
  6. A Piano in the Pyrenees by Tony Hawks
  7. Hell or High Water by Peter Heller
  8. Life with Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley
  9. The wilder Life by Wendy McClure
  10. Seriously, Just Kidding by Ellen de Generis
  11. Plan B by Ann LaMott

Stepping into the Morass: MFA vs. non-MFA

Cape Cod Pochet boardwalkMemoirists in blog: Nestor, Sparks, King, Conroy, Patchett, Grealy, Beard

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

  1. SAFE HAVEN,      Nicholas Sparks — No MFA
  2. FREEDOM,      Jonathan Franzen — No MFA
  3. WICKED      APPETITE, by Janet Evanovich — No MFA
  4. THE GIRL      WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST, by Stieg Larsson — Swedish, therefore, No      MFA
  5. 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.

Life in the South of France

ECM_Goats_Eating photoTo 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.


We Came to Say 2So 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.


ECM on snowWhen you notice a blogger hasn’t written from December through April, you may presume they’re in Tahiti. Or Fiji. Or some equally remote, romantic hide away. But, no I’ve been right here, mostly, at home, writing, tending my family, and watching the pages on the calendar fly by.

I’ve started teaching two classes at the community college-one on memoir writing, and one, an overview for those who’ve dreamed of writing. My traveling has taken me to college campuses from Portland to San Luis Obispo to Boston. Oh, how I wish my senior had chosen the beachy schools! But no, serious student that she is, she’s headed to Boston.

In the meantime, I continue to revise both my proposal and my manuscript. More importantly, to you, my dear readers, I have been reading memoirs. I promise to catch you up on my favorites, but here’s a teaser: a Pacific Northwest female adventurer, writing from her journals about a trip she took in the eighties. Sound familiar? Try Wild by Cheryl Strayed, a true page turner.

  1. Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexander Fuller
  2. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
  3. Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Gilman Gold,,,
  4. The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes by Randi Davenport
  5. A Staggering Work of Extraordinary Genius by Dave Eggars
  6. In Pharaoh’s Army by Tobias Wolf
  7. I’m Not Dead yet by Dave Berry
  8. —Marriage, I’m Too Tired for an Affair by Erma Bombeck
  9. An Exact Replica of a Fragment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracker

Old Fashioned

Although Betty MacDonald’s old homestead is virtually around the corner from my home in Washington state, I grew up three thousand miles away in Holyoke, Massachusetts where I savored MacDonald’s Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books. I read the same stories to my daughter. I laughed uncontrollably at the Fred McMurray movie, based on her memoir.  So, I was a fan of MacDonald’s before I began her bestseller The Egg and I.

Written in 1945, the story has the same theme as my Of Gods and Goats –a city woman moves to an isolated mountain farm, unprepared to live with no water, plumbing or heat. MacDonald’s acerbic wit is irreverent and hysterical. Rhythmically, it carries you along with anthropomorisms which stretch from feisty Stove to the white bearded mountains. Her tongue becomes so bitter that two lawsuits for slander (including one by the famous Kettles of the Kettle movies) were brought against her. Chapters concerning Native Americans offend. If I believed in banning books, I’d ban a chapter or two.

But, Betty spins a terrific yarn as she describes how much more useful classes in chicken raising would have been than ballet, how reading is considered a lazy man’s work, and how lonely she becomes hidden away in the foothills of the Olympic mountains.  I laughed at her high brow tone from beginning to end.

Curious, I googled Betty MacDonald. She lived on the farm just four years, moved to Seattle, and then to Vashon Island. She died at the age of forty-nine. Her first husband, the one with whom she lived in The Egg and I, was stabbed in a fight over a woman in California some years later. This ending seemed especially sad after laughing through 287 pages of her sharp tongued wit.

Another book I’d heard of came to mind when I read at my writing class from my manuscript about goat herding in France. Every night my classmates chirped in unison, “High on hillside…the lonely goatherd…” First annoyed, then embarrassed, I lightened up and wondered about the real story behind “The Sound of Music.”

The Trapp Family Singers surprised me. A tale of survival and ingenuity, Singers is astounding, especially after the family arrives in the United States, penniless.  Written by Maria Von Trapp, the tale is woven with humor, history, and a deep spirituality. Written as half-memoir, half-biography, here’s a secret: THERE IS NO GOATHERD!

  1. We Came to Say edited by Theo Nestor
  2. Just Kids by Patti Smith
  3. Poser by Claire Dederer
  4. The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
  5. Blackbird by Jennifer Lauck
  6. Fat Girl by Judith Moore
  7. From Our House by Lee Marvin
  8. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
  9. My Dyslexia by Phillip Schultz
  10. Out of Sheer Rage by Geoffrey Dyer
  11. About Alice by Calvin Trillin


    • When memoirists emphasize their childhood suffering (Lit, Glass Castle, Running with Scissors, and so on), we cheer as narrators extricate themselves from unimaginably gruesome settings.  Poignant, profound, truthful, these memoirs make fascinating reads.

    But, it was a relief to read an equally honest story from a narrator who was neither abused nor neglected, and in fact, lived a relatively normal life. I felt a sense of ease as I read Poser by Claire Dederer

    Two dear friends – Kristine, from Seattle, and Connie, from the San Juan Islands, each came to me and said, “You must read this book!” Kristine loved Poser because, as a Seattle Mom, she could relate so well to it. Connie, who’d read my recent interview with Claire’s husband Bruce Barcott in The Writers Connection, http://www.elizabethcorcoranmurray.com, said she loved, “the humor and lightheartedness of it.” Connie went on to say, “She addressed my favorite subjects, child raising and yoga. I loved how she approached yoga…how she tangled and then untangled it, finding out much more about yoga and herself.”

    When I read Poser –which, by the way, I couldn’t put down –my stack of dishes grew, my cupboards emptied, and still I turned the pages. Yet, when I finished, I honestly couldn’t say what the book was about. So, here’s Connie again, “I think it was about life, about trying to be ‘good’, inside and outside, judging ourselves, and others, and then using all of it as the backdrop, to who we really are.  I had a couple people tell me that they were worried in the beginning, both of them using the word, ‘privileged.’ I never felt that…Her critiquing of life did not seem finger pointing to me, but instead she used herself as the reference point, honest and funny. I loved it! So there you are.”

    As a writer, my reasons for liking the book were more basic. “Why can’t I put this down?” I asked myself. It’s impressive to have a “page turner” when nothing extraordinary is happening. Is it just that I like her, the narrator? I also loved her use feminine metaphors and similes – references to sewing, fabric, ribbons, cooking, dough. A breath of fresh air. Ease.

    1. Falling into Manholes
    2. True North by Jill Kerr
    3. Me Speak Pretty Some Day by David Sedaris
    4. Born to Run by Christopher McDougal
    5. Wear Denim and Corduroy by David Sedaris
    6. The Kids Are Alright by Len Welch
    7. The Longest Trip Home by John Grogan
    8. A Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost by Rachel Friedman
    9. Nothing to Declare by Mary Morris
    10. Bossypants by Tina Fey
    11. Living in a Foreign Language by Michael Tucker



Who’s not intrigued by Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe? Their struggles in New York during the late sixties and early seventies, as portrayed in Just Kids, bring to life a critical era of American art. Name dropping –Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, Todd Rundgren, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix— threads throughout the book. History unfolds as I turn the pages.

Yet, Just Kids as a piece of literature? No. As a work of art, the book is inordinately disappointing. I wish Patti Smith had hired a ghost writer. But, how could a poet summon the courage to hire a ghost writer? I wish the best for Patti—her music, her poetry, her life. I appreciate her opening this private world to us. I am disappointed to say, however, that I can only recommend Just Kids for its historical value.