Sunday, January 20, 2013


Author Beth Kephart has a book coming out this year about writing memoirs called Handling the Truth, which I'm eagerly awaiting. She's also teaching a class in memoirs. Agent Sarah LaPolla tweeted recently, "Passing on memoirs is the worst. I mean, all rejections are the worst but memoirs just kill me. ... I love them."

So I've been thinking about memoir, the pleasures and pitfalls of this form. The pleasures include the intimacy, the depth an author can achieve when going over ground on which he or she is an expert. Honesty and insight bring out the best in this type of writing.

One of the biggest challenges is that of making one's own life interesting to other people, answering the question, "Why would anyone else need to read this?" The beginning memoir-writer has to figure out what to include, and what to leave out, and in what order to arrange things, but most of all the why.

Some of the first memoirs I read were those of high-altitude mountaineers. I read them because I wanted to know what it was like to stand on top of the world--or to try and fail. To spend so much time and effort and money, to lose friends, to risk injury and death, in the pursuit of that unusual dream. What does it bring you up against? What does it make you face? How do such journeys change people? The sense I got from most of the accounts was that, while summits and new routes to summits were always goals, there was a certain satisfaction from just being in such places and participating in such climbs. Although satisfaction is perhaps too mild a word. The highest mountains in the world are unbelievable in scale, unsurpassed in beauty.

But life-risking adventure is not the only worthwhile subject for memoir. My favorites also include Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton's account of rehabbing an old house in New Hampshire and learning to live alone; Drinking the Rain, Alix Kates Shulman's story of "living off the land" on more levels than just the literal; and Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East, by Susan Allen Toth, about a Midwestern girl's stint in an elite Eastern college in the 1950s. Especially do I love the chapter "Summa" in the latter book. It's about reaching for the utmost achievement, and what that costs, and what happens as a result. But like all good memoirs, it's about so much more.

source of recommended reads: bought


  1. I've enjoyed some great memoirs too. I'm not sure I'll ever write one. :)

    1. I prefer to put my life experiences into a blender and transform everything into fiction. ;-)