Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My Summer Reading: Memoirs

I know, I know.  Every body's reading "The Help" this summer. And  the recently released "A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-To-Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life"  is a hot read right now, too. While I do intend to get around to these  two tomes (and many others. And there are sooo many others! I'm especially anticipating curling up with a copy of Danielle Evans' critically acclaimed "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self") it looks like they will have to wait until fall.  Personally,  reading memoir has been my motivation  this summer. I intend to write my own memoir one day real soon and I figured the best way to get a feel for what works and what doesn't in this genre - what makes a good personal narrative that people want to read - is to, well, read some.  So I have read some.  And pondered them. And thoroughly enjoyed (most of) them. And written briefly about each below.

“Migrations of the Heart” by Marita Golden
Marita Golden is writer I could only ever wish to emulate.  When reading her work her story comes through but so does her clear love for the written word. She constructs her sentences with care and uses the art of description to successfully transport the reader (me!) through her experiences as a college co-ed during to the civil right movement to an American living in Africa via marriage to a native man.  Culture clash cannot begin to describe what she experiences but her admirable storytelling skills allow the reader to accompany her on the journey she willingly takes. 
This book is told entirely in first person-there are no gimmicks, no shifts in perspectives, not fancy use of punctuation- yet it manages to completely engage by using anecdotes about her parents to enrich the story and explain why she is the woman she has become: rebellious, educated, determined, in love with love. 
Reading this book from a writer’s perspective—as I did with each book - it was difficult to pinpoint exactly how I would “use” the techniques utilized by the authors to make my writing more effective except to just let it sink into my subconscious and hope it shows up on my page. Of course writing requires much more than that—passion, practice, accountability—all emotions which Ms. Golden describes here in detail, revealing that although she was in love with this man who took her on an adventure to Africa, ultimately it was her work, her  her writing she loved and was therefore unable to compromise  or compress it for her husband.  Overall,  this was a book that provided me with moments of sheer awe and admiration.

“Lit” by Mary Karr –The title of this book, I assume, has a double meaning.  The author can be referring to “lit” as in 'she was drunk most of the time and reveals in this memoir how she fought her battle with alcohol'. Or she could be referring to “lit” as in a piece of literature, since the author is a well-respected poet and literature professor, was married to a writer and poet for years,  obviously has a high regard for literature and is highly regarded in the world of literature. I’m assuming the title is a reference to both implications as the book itself is a two-in-one; a very well written memoir disguised as a self-help/how-to book on how to beat the bottle.   There is not debating that Mary Karr is a great writer and although she can be candid I felt some of her sentences were over wrought, intentionally written to be impressive. And some of them are quite impressive. I was particularly impressed with her gift for metaphor.  She made me acutely aware of how powerful a well-written, well-placed  metaphor can be when describing a person, place, or situation. I intend to practice wiring metaphors myself and paying more attention to them in my own writing although unlike Ms. Karr, I am no poet.  Nevertheless, reading her book, I discovered there are similarities in our stories. Women. Mothers. Writers. Academics. Lushes. Reading “Lit” reiterated the reality that anyone can relate to a well-written memoir. Each story is a human story, a human experience and even though the writer and I come from different backgrounds, her ability to share her humble past in contrast to her husband’s affluent reality was on point. Still I found her style of writing a bit scattered.  She told the story in flashbacks and elaborated on some aspects of her family while totally avoiding others. But the writing was great so I kept turning the page although  there really was no “story”—no suspense, no real plot. She was the main character and while I found her interesting I would have like to have known more about her father. To her defense she has written two previous memoirs so I can safely assume that she elaborated on both of her interesting parents in the previous books. There is only one way to find out! So I guess I’ll be reading more of her work. I just hope the others are not as long-winded and pointlessly  pretentious and as this one.  
“The Kiss” by Kathryn Harrison
A very skilled writer, she keeps it simple and just tells the story. Yes there are great sentences but she doesn’t seem to be “showing off’ with her writing abilities (as I found Ms. Kerr to be doing from time to time). She knows this is not necessary. I must admit I was struck by the way she never really totally blamed her father for the affair; after all it does take two to tango. And although he was older, they were both adults for the most part although she the much more naïve and impressionable one. Nevertheless, she takes responsibility for her actions.  Told in first person, there is nor bitterness or blame here—there is just the story, the situation and the ramifications.   I think the author’s choice to use first person was a wise one.  She could have gone back and forth from the father’s perspective to hers but I think she understands that this is her story; this is what happened to her. Although admittedly she could have attempted to get into the character of the father’s head—what was he Thinking? What was his Problem? - she knows she cannot ever really answer those questions. She knows she can only answer her own questions. When considering my memoirs I was not sure which route to take—tell it from the mother’s perspective, my perspective? I even considered having one of my other siblings be the narrator. But in the end I can only tell my side of the story as I lived it and how it affected me.  Obviously my mother’s perspective will differ from mine. Her side may actually be more interesting because she has the juicy details that only grown woman can accumulate. But, again, the story is about how her choices affected me as a child and as a woman.  The book “The Kiss” helped clarify for me the reality that the best way to tell your story is to make no broad assumptions about other people’s motivations, to tell your own experience from your own perspective, because in the end that is all you really know.

“Floor Sample: A Creative Memoir” by Julia Cameron
 I chose to read this book because I’ve learned so much from Ms. Cameron’s bestselling tome “The Artists Way” that I was sure her memoir would also be of great value.  Not so much.  Although she prides herself on being an artist (which she most definitely is: an author, screenwriter, playwright, songwriter, composer, workshop facilitator) it seemed to me that she told her story in a non-dynamic kind of way. Her wonderful life was complicated and even scandalous (she was once married to director Martin Scorsese and suffered through his affair with Liza Minnelli. Who knew?) But she is so matter-of- fact about it that I didn’t feel the true emotions of the situation. ‘I went here did this then this happened’, she shares. But I wanted to know what she felt! Even when describing the aforementioned affair she doesn’t really reveal what she was feeling. Obviously she was hurt, disappointed, humiliated, embarrassed (who wouldn’t be?)  But obviously being betrayed brings up feeling of self-doubt and  pain; a complicated perspective of one's life choices. She doesn’t divulge those details here she just moves forward with the circumstances of her life with no real explanation. She moves to L.A. then back to N.Y. then back again-- a victim of wanderlust. She moved so much I started to think that maybe she was crazy until—bam!! -- she has a nervous breakdown later in life after her second marriage fails without fanfare.   Sometimes I felt that she was just putting the details down to full up the page, which was disappointing. I personally enjoy reading memoirs because I want to get to know a person better—not just what they did in their lives but why they did it.  I will definitely keep that in mind when I make my attempt.  More details of the emotional nature! Lastly, I never figured out why she named the book “Floor Sample”. She wasn’t a fashion designer.  Did she feel like a work in progress? Something being sewn together piece by piece? She was never clear about this and neither was I, one more reason this book left me a bit dissatisfied.


Roberta Lynell said...

Graet suggestions. I read LIT and loved it too. Def gonna check The Kiss--sounds good but disturbing ugh!!! Still you should read the Help its a good book.maybe post a review here??

Anonymous said...

been thinking about doing a memoir myself so this was helpful.