Last week I asked for recommendations of good memoirs for me to read…since I’m writing another one which I desire to be good. Who knows if my new memoir will turn out to be good, but recently my wife Channa gave me excellent critiques, on two levels.
So there’s hope!
One level of Channa’s advice was structural. That is the easier critique to address. The other level posed a greater challenge. Her advice was conceptual. Here's the advice. Take out anything—and she pointed to some things—take out anything that is, in the end, self-indulgent.
Hoist with my own petard!
When I mentor writers who struggle to produce their own memoirs, the first exercise I assign to them is to tell me what their memoir is about--in a single, short, snappy sentence. I don’t want their story at this point; that’s not what I want to hear. I want a billboard, not a book report.
In my experience, this is the single hardest piece of writing for many of them undertake. Me, too. However, when successfully undertaken, that single, short, snappy sentence becomes the memoirist’s lodestar. ANY writing that DOES NOT fall under its direction—however delightfully personal and engaging to the taste of the writer—is SELF-INDULGENT.
It must be taken out!
And here I was writing happily along while being guilty of that same fault! Bah!
Good on Channa!
You readers answered with suggestions—in Comments and on FB, or when we ran into one another during the past week—for which generosity, I thank you! Last night, one reader expressed curiosity about the list of books, so I said I’d present it in this next post. I’ve edited it a bit. Several of you listed one book among your lists…some strange book whose title begins with The Time Mom Met Hitler.
I’ve excluded that one. I wasn’t looking for lurid histories about discreditable social events!
What I also received were delightful statements from you among your suggested titles. For example, here’s a favorite--
Regarding the list of suggestions, one person characterized them as “All non-whiny memoirs of challenging childhoods with deeply flawed but not cruel parents.”
How enticing a blurb is that!
So here’s the list. (So far: you’re welcome to send more suggestions, anytime!)
Jesus, my Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir of Sorts – Ian Morgan Cron
All Over but the Shoutin’ – Rick Bragg (mentioned twice)
Through the Eyes of a Lion – Levi Lusko
The Fire of Delayed Answers – Bob Sorge
As Soon As I Fell – Kay Bruner
A Man Called Ove – Fredrick Backman
Educated – Tara Westover
Don’t Let’s Go the to Dogs Tonight – Alexandra Fuller
Glass Castle – Jeanette Wall
Liar’s Club – Mary Karr
Just Mercy – Bryan Stevenson
…and add one historical fiction – Becoming Mrs. Lewis – Patty Callaghan.
I write memoirs in order to bring religious seekers closer to God and to gratify believers who wish to be re-enthused.
Most readers of my recent memoir are Christians, but some are not. The same applies to readers of my blog posts. Some are; some are not.
My point is that, irrespective of the religious stance of readers, I write from the perspective of a believing Christian who happens to be a Lutheran by denomination.
A memoir is a variety of writing that differs from, but is a sub-category under, autobiography. At a higher level, each is non-fiction.
Autobiography is an organized, factual, narrative recounting of the events that comprise the writer’s life, usually presented in order as they occurred. On the other hand, while a memoir also draws from the writer’s life, the word memoir has been traced back to a Persian term for “that about which we ponder.”
That Persian word is mermer.
The person who writes a memoir does relate factual events, indeed, but he or she devotes attention not so much to the events themselves or to the order in which they occurred, but to the ponderings which arise from the events.
The ponderings may be happy or sad. The pondering reveals the book’s theme.
The reader of memoirs experiences something that is more subtle and more nuanced than the reader of autobiography. Memoirs are closer to poetry than they are to general non-fiction. The reader of a memoir is engaged with the writer’s mind, imaginings, and soul.
During past centuries, published memoirs generally were written by persons of high achievement, or who had encountered some event of great significance as viewed by their entire culture. Near the end of the last century, and into our own, with self-publishing available, memoirs have exploded as a variety of published writing.
(My Amazon search just now, using the single word memoirs, pulled up over 60,000 titles…of course, my search was not nuanced, but that’s a lot of books that Amazon’s algorithm categorizes as having some relationship with memoirs!)
What is lamentable in our age of social media me-me-me-ism is that many persons who have lived their lives are stirred to write and to publish their memoirs, whether of general interest or not.
As a man who has written one memoir (and who is nearing completion of another), I am aware that I might be chided for deciding on my own authority that it is important to the world that I ponder in print on the truths of my life.
Who do I think I am, after all?
All I can say is that, manifestly, some memoirs rise above the ordinary into the significant. Since I write anyway, and am always working on another book, writing memoirs ought at least to be worth a try.
As a writer of memoirs, I am hungry to read them. What I want to gain from the reading of any memoir is two things. One, what is the story about? Two, how does this writer do the memoirist’s job?
I ask for your suggestions. What should I read?
As I select memoirs, especially I like to read--
I am eager for suggestions from you regarding memoirs you recommend, memoirs which have moved you, memoirs that are significant. Please give me a title or two and a sentence about them.
Particularly, coming from those of you who are Christian readers, I’m interested to read the “almost theres.”
In my language, an “almost there” is a memoir written by a serious-minded, skilled writer, who is pondering on the page about the nature of his or her life. Often there is a tone of anxiety. There may be an illness, or a relationship problem, or something else that produces a sense of wretchedness or emptiness of the writer’s soul.
A Christian reader of such a memoir may have a sensation that the writer suffers from lack of hope.
As a Christian, that reader has hope due to redemption provided by God through Jesus Christ. See, for example, 1 Peter 3:15, which speaks of that same hope.
When I finish reading an “almost there”, I may admire the writer’s skill, but I am left with sadness. The book is over. The life that the book depicted does not climax with the hope that is in me as a Christian, and which is available, through Christ, to all.
Of course, anything can happen for the Lord’s glory, and Channa and I ourselves came late in life to Jesus Christ. To those who knew us beforehand, perhaps our progress would have been judged unlikely, too.
I am left only with hope that another memoir might come from that same writer, whose craft I admire. I would welcome a new memoir that would reveal that the writer is no longer almost there, but there.
And still pondering….
So, my friends, what should I read?