One of the most well-written memoirs is by the granddaddy of memoirists, Tobias Wolff. His coming-of-age memoir, This Boy’s Life, is often held up as the gold standard of memoirs.
And it deserves this place, although I think it ought to share the position with some others ;).
But if you had never read a coming-of-age memoir, and you wanted to sample one, this book would be a good place to begin.
I read this book as a woman reading the story of what it’s like to be “this boy,” and I learned what it’s like to be the son of a single mother and to be a boy in the home of a man who isn’t his father. It’s the sort of book I can imagine suggesting teen boys read. But I think teen girls should read it, too. And women and men.
Toby grows up in a home with his mother and sometimes with a stepfather, but his knowledge of his father and older brother (who grows up with the father) is sketchy at best. He does spend time with his brother Geoffrey when he’s a little older, but they are more like acquaintances or remote cousins.
Interestingly, Geoffrey, the intellectual brother of Tobias, has written his own memoir of his childhood and their father: The Duke of Deception.
In Geoffrey’s book I learned of the extreme personality and antics of their con man father. But Geoffrey’s tone is different from that of Tobias who sounds fairly well-adjusted and humble. The older brother seems a bit elitist, the sort of person who is very well educated and doesn’t let others forget it. In this respect, he reflects their father’s influence on his own personality. In fact, it is up to the reader to decide at the end how much like the father is Geoffrey. Is this resemblance Geoffrey’s fear or is it reality?
While This Boy’s Life is the book read by so many, I think reading The Duke of Deception afterward makes for an enriching experience.
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.
When I started writing my memoir, I floundered for the longest time. I had the memories, the writing style, and just enough grammar. But I could not figure out how to structure my story. Part of my story is the “child’s survival story” memoir like Mary Karr‘s The Liar’s Club and Tobias Wolff‘s This Boy’s Life. But another part of my story takes place in the present day and also involves family history which took place before I was born.
Cover of The Bill from My Father
Then I read a memoir which showed me a new possibility. Bernard Cooper‘s The Bill from My Father. In Cooper’s book, he sets the story in a very limited present-day, which covers his father’s aging and eventual death. Then he goes on excursions into the past through flashbacks, which are in some cases very lengthy.
His structure is a far cry from what my first memoir instructor insisted upon–complete chronology without flashback. And while I can understand that a story focused upon childhood or a coming-of-age story makes the most sense told chronologically, for my story it wasn’t working.
So I am trying to structure using a present-day framework which moves to the past and then comes back to the present again. It works a lot better than telling the story chronologically.
Nevertheless, I still have problems with my structure. That’s because I have to deal with excursions into the far past. Mine have to come near the end of my book. Frank McCourt’s family info is provided at the beginning of the book, and to me it’s the one structural flaw in Angela’s Ashes: the stylistically different section where we meet the parents before the narrator was born.
What creates the biggest problem for you in your writing?