The Page a Day Writers Group

Thanks for the Memories

Posted on: June 13, 2010

Over the last three years, I’ve been enmeshed in other peoples’ lives.  How?  I read memoirs.

A memoir is an autobiography or an account of an author’s life.  But is that it?

  • Memoirs are the backstairs of history. George Meredith
  • Memoirs are a well-known form of fiction. Frank Harris
  • A lot of presidential memoirs, they say, are dull and self-serving. I hope mine is interesting and self-serving. William J. Clinton
  • People write memoirs because they lack the imagination to make things up. Tom Robbins

I started reading memoirs when I began mine, HOLDING ON AND LETTING GO: A MOTHER’S STORY, about my oldest daughter going off to college.  I needed a way to sort out my feelings (read: sad, depressed, catatonic) about my baby leaving.  Amy Williams, a literary agent, says we read memoirs to make ourselves feel better about ourselves.  Memoirs, such as The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr and Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs are both stories about being raised in dysfunctional families (read: understatement), and I suppose I read memoirs to make myself feel better about my childhood, my life, and the way I’ve raised my children.  I get to say to my kids, “See it could have been worse.”

But I also read them because memoirs seem more intimate than fiction, more truthful.  I know this is an illusion.  Will Rogers said, “When you put down the good things you ought to have done, and leave out the bad ones you did do–well, that’s Memoirs.”  Memories are slippery buggers and selective memories rise to the top.  Can I remember the exact conversation I had with my dad at age nine, ten, twelve about his drinking in Pacific Beach or was it Alpine?  No.  But I can write about how that memory affected me and what it felt like, and I hope I tell you in a way that makes you feel you are sitting across the table from me sipping a cup of coffee while I drink a Diet Coke.

Whether you believe a memoir tells the truth or not, all memoirs tell a story.  Here are some of my favorites:

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas.  I loved this memoir so much I have five copies to give out to family and friends, although I’ve held on to them because I’m not sure people will appreciate this memoir in the way I did. Thomas tells the story of the night her husband went out to walk their Beagle; Harry came back with his leash still on but her husband didn’t.  Richard had been hit by a car, and his head injuries which caused memory loss, hallucinations and rages forced Thomas to commit her husband to an institution.  She doesn’t abandon him though.  Instead she moves to be closer to him and gets two more dogs to keep her company.  The last page of the memoir will knock you out or as Stephen King says of the entire memoir, it will feel like a “punch to the heart.”

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls tells the story of her unforgettable parents, and not in a good way.  Walls tells her story with a good amount of humor, despite the fact her father was a raging alcoholic who stole the kids’ money to go drinking while his family ate out of trashcans.  The mom is an artist and views herself too gifted to work sending a young Jeannette to get a job instead.

The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer is a story of a boy “raised” in a local bar.  He goes there to find a father when his own leaves his family. The only access Moehringer has to his father, DJ, is through the radio.  At the bar, Moehringer finds a culture of men who provide companionship and guidance (or misguidance) on life and love.

Edge of Taos Desert: An Escape to Reality by Mabel Dodge Luhan.  It’s hard to believe Luhan, a rich socialite, left New York for Taos, New Mexico where she fell in love with the desert and the land and with Tony Luhan, an Indian from the Taos Pueblo.  But that’s exactly what she did in 1917, and what a journey it was.  Luhan is a beautiful and poetic writer and does justice to Taos, the town I’ve also fallen in love with.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is the author’s telling of the year after her husband of forty years died of a heart attack. “We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss,” she writes. “We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.”  This “magical thinking” is the kind I did when Molly went off to college.  She’d left her Toyota behind and every day I’d look at it thinking at any minute she’d barrel out of the house and get in her car.  There were times I’d drive in it just to smell her smell.

Read Part II next week for more recommendations.  Happy reading!


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1 Response to "Thanks for the Memories"

Thanks for the recommends, Michelle 😀 Two of my favorites: Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

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The Page a Day Writers Group is a diverse collection of wonderful writers based in San Diego, CA. We've been meeting monthly since 2004. Our primary function is in-depth writing critique, marketing and brainstorming, but there's usually some wine, chocolate and ribaldry involved too. We write fantasy, humor, literary fiction, nonfiction, romance, thrillers and YA. Join us on our journeys to publication and the wonderland beyond!

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