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

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.