Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Adventures in Memoir

A couple of weeks ago, I finished the first draft of a YA book I didn’t intend to write and so, it comes as no surprise to me that the next project vying for (and currently winning) my attention might be some sort of memoir, another unexpected project. One of the things people often tell us when they find out we’re writers is that they, too, have an idea for a book. Frequently, this idea involves telling—in full or part—the story of their lives. Why? Because this life—its successes and failures, joys and heartaches, fateful events and surprises—is all we have, really. And when things happen to us, they seem full of meaning because they are, right? Or at least, isn’t that why we’re alive, to find meaning in the things that happen to us?

Reader, I have no answers! Only questions.

  • I’ve been thinking about the roles we play in life, and how they change from season to season, year to year. I’ve been thinking about the different phases that sometimes, go along with these roles. Sometimes, not.
  • I’ve been thinking about how these chapters of life line up, shoulder to shoulder, hyper-aware of each other.
  • I’ve been thinking about family and how it’s defined by intent, sentiment, and presence. And the strongest of these is presence (literal and imagined), which proves the other two.
  • Related: I’ve been thinking about DNA, the imprints in our very machinery.
  • I’ve been thinking about reportage as a way to honor yourself (myself!).
  • And...I’m interested in finding ways memories can be translated into words. How can we relay our experiences in a form that feels like life?

Lately, I’ve been reading more in the memoir lane: traditional memoirs and other books that don’t look and sound like traditional memoir, and yet... I share some of them with you here.

The Glen Rock Book of the Dead by Marion Wink (2008)

Shoutout to Prof. Danger for pointing me towards this book. Basically, Wink writes short pieces about people she knew who died; in these snapshots, an autobiography of sorts emerges. I keep thinking about this book, and thinking about it…

The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography by Deborah Levy (2018)

The author writes about her life, post-divorce, touching on universal themes relevant to all women: the conflict between nurturing your creative self and others, feminism's goals and failures, the death of parents. From the Guardian review: “Instead, what Levy gives us is an account of her internal world, a shape-shifting space where past and present coexist, where buildings are not so much bricks and mortar as extended metaphors and where identity is in a radical flux of unraveling and remaking.” Yep, this book hit close to home in topic and in method, was probably the turning point from which I had no choice about writing something memoir-ish.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (2018)

I wrote about these powerful essays in my Favorite Reads of 2019 post.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell (2018)

The author recalls seventeen occasions in her life that brought her near death. I found some of these quite poignant, others less so. I’m not sure the book had the cohesiveness I would have liked, but the form and intent were interesting.

Inheritance by Dani Shapiro (2019)

One of the traditional memoirs I’ve read recently. Shapiro was in her mid-fifties when her Ancestry.com DNA test pointed out a startling truth about her family. I also heard the author speak about the experience, and her story is personal and moving but also raises all sorts of ethical questions for our times.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung (2018)

Another story of biological family lost and found. When Chung was pregnant with her first child, she began a search for her Korean birth parents. This memoir explores ideas of family, identity and culture.

In the works for 2020 reading:

And more:

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (2019)
Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinead Gleeson (2020)
Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl (2019)

I’d love to hear your ideas for memoirs, especially the non-traditional sort. By all means, point me in the right direction as I begin this journey.

"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka