Sunday, April 4, 2021

Stories and Memories, Flashes and Forms


When I wrote my second novel, Bellflower, I was thinking about the end of a life, making sense of events and memories. I had seen loved ones lose their sense of time and place. At the end of my grandmother's life, she sometimes thought my mother was her sister; once, she asked about a place she hadn’t been for decades. I was contemplating that phrase—"her life flashed before her eyes"—and imagining the flashes of memory that might be playing on the screen of my grandmother’s mind during those last weeks of her life.

Bellflower is a “novel-in-moments,” the story of three families told in interconnecting flashes from their lives. The method is not unlike a novel-in-stories, books like Olive Kitteridge and The Things They Carried, and a novel that was one of the fundamentals for me as a youngish undergraduate: Winesburg, Ohio. 

If life is but a series of moments we’ll remember in flashes near our end, why shouldn’t memoir take a variety of inconsistent forms? Reader, it does! And for the past several years, I’ve been seeking out both novels and memoirs that experiment with methods of storytelling. Often, the line between genres is blurry, or filtered through a questionable lens. As memory itself is. There are novels that seem to be hardly veiled autobiography, memoirs so considered in their creative approach that they seem only partially true. Writers attempting to make some sense of their own life (or to distill and express some of what they’ve experienced into a fictional story) stretch, process, and create, and the myriad of forms for memoirs (and novels) continues to expand like the colorful feathers of a peacock’s tail.

A few such books made my list of Favorite Reads, 2020—things like Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl, a memoir that imbues the natural world into Renkl’s mediations on life, love, and grief, and Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill, a novel that reads like a series of journal entries (basically, a memoir). But you can read about those at the link.

Here are some recent reads.

Constellations, by Sinead Gleason, is a study of the female body in general and specifically, it’s about Gleason’s body—illnesses, losses, and other physical changes and experiences. By telling the story of her corporeal self, she explores the intangibles of her "self."  The topics in this collection of essays  vary as much as the methods Gleason employs writing them. She writes about things like pregnancy and breastfeeding, leukemia and blood transfusions, hair and loss. Despite a lifetime of bodily trials, an appreciation for the body—with all of its imperfections—emerges.

Wife / Daughter / Self: A Memoir in Essays, by Beth Kephart, is bold where form is concerned, a read that feels very accurately like being dropped directly into someone’s consciousness. In sections that consider her relation to her husband and her widowed father, Kephart contemplates how these relationships have contributed to her life and development. Often, the result is unflinching. Uncomfortable questions are posed; self-doubt and questions remain as much as answers are found. There is little continuity in form from one section to the next and often, following the thread of Kephart’s thoughts requires a fair amount of effort. There are whole sections told in dialogue, lyrical passages brimming with visceral details, short, pointed revelations that sometimes feel apropos of nothing. As I said, it reads, perhaps, similar to how the mind functions: circuitry firing away, colors and light, flashes of a life.


The Suicide Index, by Joan Wickersham, is a memoir centered around the suicide committed by the author’s father. She recounts memories and attempts to make some sense of this incomprehensible loss. This searing look at a particular brand of grief is touching, contemplative, and strikes universal chords about love and loss.


Would you like more reading suggestions in this vein? Check out this recent Lithub post, "7 Autobiographies and Memoirs That Remind Us of the Messiness of Memory."

And watch this space for information about my summer reading project for 2021. Regular readers may recall that each summer, I choose a theme and build a reading list around it. Last summer, I read books tied together by association with France, and in 2019, I learned an awful lot about trees. Here's a hint about the focus of my reading for this summer, in the form of a quote from the first book I'll read:

"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are suppose, by some, to dream."

"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