Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Who Are You? Memoir

What I love best about the genre of memoir is that I get to experience someone else’s life. The books I like best are a blend of the familiar and the unusual.

Heather Sellers’ You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know is the story of a woman at times very familiar to me. Nevertheless, she possesses an unusual trait–one I had never heard about until I read the book.

She has prosopagnosia, or face blindness, meaning that she can’t recognize other people by their faces. Instead, she has to learn how to recognize people by context, setting, clothing, and hair style. 

In this memoir, the reader gets inside the world of a girl growing up with an invisible and (for a long time) unrecognized disability. Sellers didn’t understand what was wrong with her. Neither did her family.  Her parents had some serious problems of their own, and they were of no help to Sellers. Rather, they made clear that they considered her crazy.

As a reader, I was thoroughly engaged with Sellers’ story and was sorry to see the book come to an end.

As a writer, Sellers did something in this book that has shown me a possible way to handle what can be a problem in writing a memoir. She wrote the story as if she were an only child. I only remember one place in the book where she mentions casually that she also had a brother.  In essence, she wrote him out of her story:

Readers will no doubt have noticed that my brother is not much mentioned in this book. He grew up with a very different set of circumstances from me, often under a different roof. Out of respect for his privacy and his own point of view, I chose to leave him out of this account almost entirely. His story is his own to tell, or not.

I found this fascinating because when I read Sellers’ book I had just begun to grapple with how to include my brother in my story. He is eight years younger than I am, and he was adopted and I was not. In many ways, he had a different upbringing than I did, and he wasn’t around for my formative years. I feel strongly that I cannot speak for him.

After reading this book, I brought up the dilemma to an instructor who assured me that I could follow the same plan and not put my brother in my book. But I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with that either. It would feel unnatural and as if I thought his presence in my life(story) had no value.

That’s what made me wonder if Sellers’ brother really did not want to be in her book. Maybe she had to leave him out for legal reasons. I would have liked to see how having a brother helped or hindered her in her relationship with her parents and in negotiating her own disability. I would have liked to see her brother’s reaction to his sister’s disability.

What I learned from this book is to look to published memoirs to decide how to handle issues that come up in the writing of my own book. And that although my brother can’t be in every chapter of my memoir, I would find it difficult to erase him out of my story.

Sellers speaks frequently about prosopagnosia. Check out her website for more information about her writing, her teaching, and her speaking engagements.

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An Assault on the Reader (And That’s High Praise)

When you end up feeling devastated for the little boy who was Robert Goolrick you will feel like it is THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT, the title of his coming-of-age memoir.

It’s hard for me to write about this book.

Goolrick’s memoir is lyrical and beautiful and tantalizing and glittering. It also presents two viewpoints of the same characters–a sophisticated intellectual family–and the bottom-of-the-barrel people that they became. But the way Goolrick balances these things, you don’t realize what is coming.

Then he slams the reader with betrayal and brutality.

Yes, I mean that the reader is assaulted. But Goolrick does so to re-enact how he, as a little boy, was assaulted with betrayal and brutality.

What I learned from this book (aside from the fact that there are books so amazingly written I can’t even hope to follow their model) is that it is possible to withhold something important until way way way into a book.  It’s not only possible, but it can be stunning.

I walked around feeling stunned two, maybe three, weeks after I finished reading this book. A few years out, I still feel a little stunned. Now that is a memoir.

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Spend Some Time on the Cover

A few years ago I took a course from Emily Rapp. Although sometimes I steer clear of reading the work of instructors–at least while I am taking their classes–this time I read her book right away. That’s because I was so taken with the photo on the cover.

Emily is a little girl on a pretty bike with training wheels. Her red hair is long. She looks like a fun but girly girl wearing white lacy socks and white sandals. But there is one thing amiss in the photo–the girl has an artificial leg.

I read Emily’s book not long after reading Lucy Grealy’s memoir. Both are about childhoods filled with surgeries and medical problems.  In this case, Emily’s foot was amputated by doctors as a treatment for proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD).

This memoir pulled me in because the voice is that of a friend, and she tells her story with honesty, humility, and intelligence.

What I learned from this book is that some writers can make a memoir look easy to write. Her book is so graceful and appears as if it has written itself. But I now know better. A lot of hard work went into making it all look simple. She didn’t spend that much time writing it either. And her degree was in theology, not writing. She graduated from Divinity School at age 23.

And I can’t forget why I read this book. Note to self: spend some time choosing a cover for your book because it truly can help sell it.

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See, Mom, I AM Normal!

I’m taking a break from the regularly scheduled program–One Thing I Learned From Each Memoir I Have Read–to say thank you to a fellow writer and blogger, Ellen Morris Prewitt. She kindly wrote a post yesterday about Writer Site (yup, this blog) on her cain’t do nothing with love blog.

The title of the post is “The Allure of Normal.” In the midst of my gratitude toward Ellen, I did chuckle quite a bit about being presented as the poster child of normal.

After all, I did just write this passage the day before yesterday in a (first draft) scene for my memoir:

The therapist I’d seen years before had pointed out that normal was a setting on a washing machine, not a word associated with people. Maybe my teen hormones had blown things out of proportion.

normal

When I was a kid I lived in the mindset that I was just outside the bounds of normal. Not distressingly weird, for sure. But definitely if-they-only-knew-that-I-am-weird weird. My best friend and I used to call each other “weirdo,” just to reinforce our placement in the universe.

But now I’m all grown up and so normal. 😉 Unless you ask my husband. But that is a subject for a future invisible post.

Let me tell you something about Ellen. She’s got a super impressive bio, including Pushcart Prize nominations and a Special Mention. Her website is found here. One of the many intriguing facts about Ellen is that she has an essay published in Sue William Silverman’s memoir how-to book Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir (which I own!). How cool is that?!

Ellen has another blog, too, found here.

Thanks, Ellen, for your kindness to a fellow blogger!

I hope you stop back Monday to hear about the next memoir on my shelf.

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The Right Place at the Wrong Time

I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve taken quite a few memoir-writing courses. In five or six courses, the instructors assigned “The Fourth State of Matter,” an essay from JoAnn Beard’s memoir The Boys of My Youth. I had to read it over and over. But there’s a reason why so many instructors assign it. Wow, what a piece of creative nonfiction! I’ve written about it in a previous post. What occurs in the story is what happens when Beard was in the right place at the wrong time.

I’m not trying to be cryptic or coy. It’s best to let the essay speak for itself and take you by surprise.

This book is actually a collection of essays, but I call it a memoir because the essays are memoir pieces loosely placed together. Oddly, the effect is that of a more traditional memoir, although the book does not give the impression of one complete story.

THE BOYS OF MY YOUTH

THE BOYS OF MY YOUTH

From this book I learned that memoir can be shaped the way the story needs to be told, rather than following a predetermined format. A memoir can be a story collection. By constructing a book out of publishable essays, a writer can send her pieces out without waiting for the entire book to be complete.

From “The Fourth State of Matter,” the stunning essay at the heart of the book, I learned that several story threads can be woven together to create a rich tapestry. If you write creative nonfiction, be sure to read this essay!

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The Unique Big C Memoir

A few years ago I took a one day writing course with Tania Katan at Arizona State University’s Piper Writers House. We sat at the big rectangular seminar table. Tania gave us writing prompts and we had timed periods to write.

I’ve always responded well to tests (except when I flunked my first driving test, but that’s different  wink wink), and to me these were just timed tests. So I flung myself into each timed episode, writing furiously to beat the clock.

After Tania said to stop writing after the second or third assignment, she looked down the table at me and said, “Luanne writes like it’s a full contact sport.” I thought that was hilarious and, like a lot of humor, true.

That’s what My One-night Stand With Cancer, Tania’s memoir about having cancer at the age of 21, is like: humor that springs from a deep well of truth.

By the time she was 31, Tania had had cancer twice.

But it’s not just Tania’s young age as a cancer survivor that makes her book so unique. It’s also that she’s a lesbian and at 21, as she was faced with losing her breast, Tania was just figuring out her sexuality and her identity.

From Tania Katan’s memoir I learned that humor can bind wounds for both writer and reader. Also, it can bind people with few commonalities together in that moment of reading. In this memoir, humor is a way of looking slant at tragedy. By this off-center viewpoint, the poignancy is enhanced, and the triumphant penultimate scene of the book made me sob.

If you want to read more about Tania, you can visit her website!

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The Tender Neighbor

Eight years ago, I had major reconstructive foot surgery and was trapped in a hospital bed in my living room for months. I had a TV in front me, but never watched a show, as I found it difficult to concentrate on television for some reason. Instead, I listened to Billie Holiday and chatted by email and on online forums on my new laptop. And I read. But the reading is the miracle.

Seven years before my surgery, my husband and I had bought a house and began remodelling it. Before we moved in, a neighbor approached me as I exited my car. He began yelling at me about how our contractor was getting dirt on the street in front of our house. He didn’t even introduce himself before he lit into me, and he never once looked me in the face. I faced him and watched him shout while he directed his shouts 90 degrees to my right.

It took quite a lengthy period of good neighbor conduct before Henry and I started to speak to each other, beginning with “hello.” My husband and Henry began to converse on the sidewalk every couple of days.  Eventually Henry came into our home, and we became good neighbors, trading the contact information of service people, sharing the stories of our past lives (he had been a businessman and banker and came to California from New Mexico, where he had grown up), and, yes, gossiping about the other neighbors.

We were several decades apart in age, and Henry had a widower’s life while we were raising our two children. I learned that his wife had died not too long before he had gotten mad at me about my contractor’s work habits.

Then came the tumor in my foot, and the first person who showed up after the surgery was Henry. He had a book in his hand, The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer. It was a memoir that he loved and wanted to share with me.

I had recently been going through a spell where I wasn’t reading for pleasure any longer. I’d taught literature for years and was burned out from a schedule that required me to read and re-read on demand. I no longer had the desire I’d always known for cracking open a new book and devouring it as if it were chocolate cake (or baklava, more specifically).

But here was a gift from a man whom I had gradually come to value, and he was the first person to give me a treasure after a pretty harrowing four months since the pain began and through belated diagnosis and finally surgery.  I had to read what he had given me.

That’s all it took.  I began to read Moehringer’s story and was transported to his childhood as he was “raised” by the men who hung out at the “tender bar.”

The Tender Bar has become a memoir classic, and rightfully so.  What did I learn from this book?  That tenderness can come from the most unexpected places. And getting over “burn out” from something one loves happens in an instant.

Henry was diagnosed with cancer more than once. In October 2012, he passed away before anyone expected. His decline was swift, and he didn’t have to suffer long. I’m sure he would be thrilled if you read the book he loved.

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A Responsive Reader

In my last post I shared what I learned from Lucy Grealy‘s Autobiography of a FaceReading that book was not one of my best “moments.”

Not long after I read that book and experienced the feeling that I didn’t completely connect, I read a companion work. Truth & Beauty, by Ann Patchett, is a memoir reflecting on the writer’s friendship with Lucy Grealy.

I fell into this book completely.  No reservations at all. And it did make me wonder if Grealy’s very difficult personality (personality disorder? and addictions) weren’t something that I picked up on and made me wary when I read Autobiography of a Face. It will be hard to go back and re-read that book as if I don’t know the extent of her “use and abuse” of Patchett.

Then, again, this book is Patchett’s version. Grealy is gone and can’t comment on it. She can’t write a “response memoir.” So why am I so willing to believe Patchett’s version, but hold myself at a distance from Grealy’s version of what is, in essence, her self?

Oh, this memoir business is a tough business.

What did I learn from this book? That the hard truth can be presented in beauty if it is accompanied by compassion.

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Here’s a thought. I suspect I didn’t like Grealy from reading her book. The question would be: why not? Maybe it was her lack of compassion for others. I just didn’t see any at all. Would that be because she was born with a personality incapable of feeling compassion? Or would it be a learned response to life, based on her difficulties?

It’s easy to see why Patchett and Grealy were friends. Patchett had enough compassion for them both.

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An Unfeeling Reader

Lucy Grealy‘s Autobiography of a Face is on most short lists of best memoirs. Grealy became modestly famous from her story at the time it was published.

While I can’t say I didn’t enjoy reading it or sympathize with the girl who suffered so much, it didn’t affect me–reach me or touch me–the way it seems to affect most readers. I slightly pulled back from Grealy at times as I read the book. That’s kind of horrifying for me to think about because what happens to the young Grealy in the story is tragic: Grealy had cancer as a child and lost part of her jaw to the disease, growing up with a disfigured face.

Photo by Wikipedia

Photo by Wikipedia

As I try to look through the book to give you an idea of why I felt lukewarm, I can’t find any clues–although it seems to me that the world through her eyes didn’t seem like a world I know or a way that I connect with the world. Skimming the book, I realize I need to read it again. Maybe it was me. I want to be fair. I want to be accurate. I’ll toss it on the pile of unread books!

What I learned from this book: sometimes you need to read a book more than once to understand how and why you respond the way you do. I want to learn more about what makes a book engaging or important to me.

Has anyone else read this book? If so, were you completely drawn in?

Stay tuned for Wednesday’s post where I share what I learned from Ann Patchett’s book about her friendship with Lucy Grealy!

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Most Recently Read Memoir

I just finished Catana Tully’s memoir Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity. This book makes for fascinating reading, in part because Tully’s story is so unique. She was a Guatemalan child of African origin adopted (sort of) by a German family living in Guatemala. Raised to be a socially polished European woman, Tully belatedly desires to learn more about her origins. The book not only chronicles her search, but how she comes to terms with the loss of her birthright.

What I learned from this book: While the various cultures that Tully inhabited piqued my interest, what I learned for my writing was most valuable. This memoir does something rare: although the first half of the book is engaging and an excellent read, the second half gets even stronger.

Why do I say that is rare? Most memoirs, even those by the greats (Tobias Wolff, for example), tend to weaken in structure in the latter portion of the books. It’s very hard to pull a memoir to a close, and so often they don’t seem tightly structured, except (oftentimes) by chronology. What Tully does is structure the book so well that the book increases in suspense in the latter half.  I could not put the book down once I got into that part of the book.

That doesn’t happen by accident, but by carefully planning the interactions of the various scenes. I suspect that in the first half, she “set up” all the “threads” so well that after a certain point, the reader is prepared to just follow the protagonist as she learns more and more.

Note: I love to read memoirs with good structure because (and I’ve said this before) structure is the most difficult part of memoir writing.

On Monday I posted a review of this book on the blog my daughter and I write about adoption.

For more from Catana Tully, you can read her book blog here.

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