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November 2015

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Author Beth Kephart has a book coming out this year about writing memoirs called Handling the Truth, which I'm eagerly awaiting. She's also teaching a class in memoirs. Agent Sarah LaPolla tweeted recently, "Passing on memoirs is the worst. I mean, all rejections are the worst but memoirs just kill me. ... I love them."

So I've been thinking about memoir, the pleasures and pitfalls of this form. The pleasures include the intimacy, the depth an author can achieve when going over ground on which he or she is an expert. Honesty and insight bring out the best in this type of writing.

One of the biggest challenges is that of making one's own life interesting to other people, answering the question, "Why would anyone else need to read this?" The beginning memoir-writer has to figure out what to include, and what to leave out, and in what order to arrange things, but most of all the why.

Some of the first memoirs I read were those of high-altitude mountaineers. I read them because I wanted to know what it was like to stand on top of the world--or to try and fail. To spend so much time and effort and money, to lose friends, to risk injury and death, in the pursuit of that unusual dream. What does it bring you up against? What does it make you face? How do such journeys change people? The sense I got from most of the accounts was that, while summits and new routes to summits were always goals, there was a certain satisfaction from just being in such places and participating in such climbs. Although satisfaction is perhaps too mild a word. The highest mountains in the world are unbelievable in scale, unsurpassed in beauty.

But life-risking adventure is not the only worthwhile subject for memoir. My favorites also include Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton's account of rehabbing an old house in New Hampshire and learning to live alone; Drinking the Rain, Alix Kates Shulman's story of "living off the land" on more levels than just the literal; and Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East, by Susan Allen Toth, about a Midwestern girl's stint in an elite Eastern college in the 1950s. Especially do I love the chapter "Summa" in the latter book. It's about reaching for the utmost achievement, and what that costs, and what happens as a result. But like all good memoirs, it's about so much more.

source of recommended reads: bought


Thanks for the heads up about Beth's new book -- anxious to see it, too!

I've always been intrigued by memoirs and you're right -- it's tricky trying to figure out what things would be of interest to readers, especially if you haven't necessarily lived an "exciting" life. I do like May Sarton's books, which draw on her life as a writer thriving in solitude, needing solitude to flourish. So maybe there's hope for me :). I've been reading food memoirs recently. :)

Hope 2013 has been good to you so far, Jenn!

I'm looking forward to Beth's new book, and Dani Shapiro's (on the same subject, not sure about the title or approach).

It's really difficult to shape a story so that it tells the Truth of things, while also "telling the story slant." (Insert dissertation here)

I believe every story -- every storyteller --is remarkable in its own way, some more so than others. As I work with beta readers, I'm pondering what it is that makes one chapter (one memoir) sparkle, another fizzle. On the whole, I suspect (but can't yet prove) that character-driven stories with transcendent themes are more likely to be relatable, ergo published. Crossed fingers!
"character-driven stories with transcendent themes"

Well, there you go! I think you've nailed it--what makes memoir work, and why it doesn't need an action-packed plot to work. As long as we know why the struggle in the book is important, it can be any kind of struggle.
I find Sarton's work fascinating, even though (or maybe because) she writes "quiet" books, and her journals were all about grappling with solitude and the to-do list ... but also about why we write, and how we set priorities, and how we deal with our relationships.

Just proves you don't need high adventure.
Memoir is not my cuppa, but there have been a few I've enjoyed. Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls was really good. Recently, Let's Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson. Because it was such a hit, another book club friend chose, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn.

Other memoirs I've read?? I did not enjoy them at all--can't even remember the names of them! All I do remember is they were boring as hell. And thus did not sufficiently answer the question, "Why would anyone else want to read this?" IMO, of course.
Of course I had to look up those titles and add to my TBR list ...
It's critical for a memoir not to be self-indulgent. It's tricky, so difficult, to shine a light on the reader while writing about oneself. Yet somehow, the best memoirists manage it.
Glass Castle read like a novel. It was really great. Let's Pretend This Never Happened was hilarious. Laughed through the whole book. I can't make any promises about Suck City--haven't read it yet! But it sounds funny.

I think Jenny Lawson--Let's Pretend--did a really amazing job of shining that light on her readers AND herself. You never once forget she's the star of the show--and you are VERY glad it's her and not you!
Ooh, all those memoirs sound wonderful, but Ivy Days went straight to the top of my wishlist - it sounds like something I would LOVE. Thanks so much for sharing these recs!
I believe it's out of print, but you should be able to find a used copy. (I bought my own copy used.) Enjoy!