I can’t remember the first thought that led to me deciding to write a memoir, but I remember the first memoir I sought out to read as a model.
I’d been hearing for a long time about Frank McCourt‘s Angela’s Ashes, which was published in 1996. I can’t count how many reviews I’d read, skimmed, or bypassed about the book. The reviews had piqued my curiosity, but I long-delayed reading the book because I was teaching English and all my reading was focused on have-to-read books.
Book reading for pleasure didn’t exist for me any longer. Besides, McCourt’s book sounded so bleak that I didn’t see the point in subjecting myself to a tragedy that had happened decades before.
In 2005, when I retired from teaching and went through a medical ordeal, I began reading again. I read in all different genres, but I particularly caught up on my beloved mystery novels.
Four years later, I took an online memoir writing course because I thought it sounded interesting. I ordered McCourt’s memoir and a memoir written by my first memoir writing instructor, but I read Angela’s Ashes first.
Like a lot of readers, I got caught up in the rhythm of the story, with its repetitive and tragic events. McCourt’s father was a terrible alcoholic, and he put his family through severe neglect and abuse.
Angela’s Ashes won the Pulitzer. It certainly deserved to win major awards; it’s hard to get the story out from under your skin once you let it in. But it was not the right memoir to read when I was trying to learn how memoir works.
My instructor was trying (but I was a slow learner) to teach me the notion of the double eye in memoir–the perspective of the narrator when the events took place, layered over with the reflective eye of the writer who has learned from her experiences.
McCourt doesn’t use the reflective eye much at all. Most of the story is told as a novel is–as if it is happening at the moment. It thrusts the reader right into a momentum that it’s hard to get away from, and one way he does that is by doing away with quotation marks for dialogue.
I learned the hard way that McCourt’s book is not a good model for memoir. Because he omitted reflection throughout most of the book, a lot of burden was placed on the beginning and ending to provide background information.
The writing style wouldn’t work for my memoir, that’s for sure. But it works well for Angela’s Ashes, which puts great emphasis on Irish culture. The style is reminiscent of that of James Joyce, albeit much less difficult.
The best part of this memoir is how it immerses the reader in the life of the little boy Frank. All these years later, I feel as if I lived in Ireland with his tragic family. I can smell and hear the place still.