Great Memoirs & Why they Sell
Some terrific memoirs. And I'm going to look, I could've, on any random day, I could've listed 20 completely different ones. I very deliberately, I'm away from my bookshelf, so I couldn't look at my shelves. I could list so many, so don't regard this as the ultimate list. These were just the ones that popped into my head that particular day, and what I like about sharing these is to see how very different they are. There's no one way a memoir can be. Isak Dinesen, writing in a whole different era, of course, Out of Africa. Lucy Greeley, The Story of a Face. Has anybody read that book? Everybody always talks about The Glass Castle, which was wonderful. Everybody always talks about Angela's Ashes, and they're terrific books, but let's look at some other writers' books that we don't hear about so much. Lucy Greeley was one of a pair of twins who was diagnosed with a facial cancer when she was about and the surgery to remove the tumor left her hugely disfigured. This is, as is true of my ...
book, The Best of Us, this is not, The Story of a Face is not the story of cancer. The Story of a Face is not even really the story of her face. It is the story of our sense of identity and beauty and here was a woman who had the other face always in front of her of her sister that used to be hers. It's a gorgeous book, and I consider, it's an exploration not just of what happened, but what changed her, what changed, and what changed was much more than her face. And I'll say sadly, that Lucy Greeley, some years after publishing The Story of a Face, took her life. You know, Jean-Dominique Bauby, if anybody thinks they've got an obstacle in the writing of their memoir, take a look at this guy. He was a very prominent writer and editor in France. I read the book in translation, who experienced, I forget if it was stroke or a virus. He became totally paralyzed. He was absolutely locked in his body. He could only blink his eyes, and he wrote the book by blinking one alphabet letter at a time. You know, what's your excuse? (audience laughing) I don't have time to write. I'm too busy checking in on Facebook. Okay, Bauby, wonderful book. He died shortly after that. He knew he was gonna die, but he wanted to tell his story, and I guess that's, you know, what I get from the fact that he wrote that book, one blink of one alphabet letter at a time is just the compulsion to tell our story, to leave something. He was a 45 year old man with a wife he adored and children and he knew he was leaving this planet very soon. He wanted to tell the story. He wanted to have something remaining that he had said after he was dead. Elizabeth Alexander, The Light of the World. Elizabeth Alexander was and is a poet, known primarily as a poet. Her husband died very suddenly at age 50 of a heart attack and it is an exploration of the loss of her husband. She does not go into the first 40 years of her life, particularly. This is a book you don't have to tell everything that happened. It is one particular journey she took and the journey that she took is the journey of loss and grief. Malcolm X, and this one is called The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but I consider it a wonderful piece of writing, and maybe Alex Haley had something to do with it, but I'm going to attribute some of it to Malcolm X. Certainly, the life he lived and the journey that he shaped. Mary Karr, The Liar's Club. How many people have read that one? That is one that they teach in memoir classes a lot, and they should. It's a fabulous book. It all takes place over a single year of Mary Karr's life. If you're sitting there thinking, oh, I can't write a memoir. Oh, all those years, all those things that happened. Where do I begin? Well, you begin where you want to begin. You begin where the live wire is in your life that calls to you, and it may not be I was born. (audience laughing) Russell Baker, The Good Times. I always include this on my list, because many people get the idea that memoir has to be about some trauma, and I've had people in my classes who say, I don't know if I can write memoir. I've got a big problem. I had a happy childhood. Well, it may be a little bit of an obstacle, but in fact, Russell Baker, who grew up during the Depression, family was very poor, but he wrote a fabulous memoir. This is years ago. He's dead. It's not a trendy memoir right now. It's probably number one million on Amazon, but read that book. Here's another one that's an old one. Mary McCarthy, Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood. Rick Bragg, All Over But the Shoutin'. It's a book about his mother, but he can't do a tribute to his mother, a profile of his mother. What he can write about is being the son of that mother. I didn't, you know, I'm gonna jump ahead here a little bit and mention a memoir of mine, called At Home in the World. I'll talk about it a little bit more later. Sometimes people say, oh you wrote the book about JD Salinger. How could I write a book about JD Salinger? I did know JD Salinger, for those of who have been dead for the last 20 years, asleep. The last 45 years, for goodness' sake. I knew him for one year, one year of my life. I cannot write a book about JD Salinger. I can write about me as I experienced what the relationship that I had with JD Salinger did in my life, how it shaped me. Look at me. I'm in the center again. I always put myself in the middle. Cyra McFadden, Rain or Shine. Another little known, has anybody read that book? She grew up, she's well known for a novel, called The Serial, but her father was a rodeo cowboy. She writes about growing up in the rodeo circuit, and so it's full of a place and a time and a world that we don't know, which is another great function of memoir. Take me somewhere I do not know. Show me a land I have never been. I want to know what it was like, I know what it's like to be me. I don't know what it's like to be you. Tell me. Oliver Sacks, Gratitude. It's a book, it may have been sort of published like a collection of essays, but they had a through line. It wasn't this kind of collection of essays. It was moving through the period leading up to his death to cancer. Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential. Fabulous book. It's not a book about food. Food is the backdrop to learning who Anthony Bourdain, sadly, was. Jill Kerr Conway, The Road to Coorain. Again, there's a place, there's a time, there's a world, but she's not being a reporter, or at least, she is being a reporter on herself in that world. Roxanne Gay, Hunger. Roxanne Gay wrote, she's a brilliant essayist, thinker, African American woman. She is a very large woman. In fact, I'll say fat. I will not use euphemisms. She's a huge woman. She's tall and big, and she dove right into the toughest challenge of her life, her body and her inability to match the idea of how women are supposed to look, and she wrote a book about it, a very brave, honest, book. I'm probably pronouncing his name wrong. Ishmael Beah, Long Way Gone. It's the memoirs of a boy soldier in Senegal. Anne Frank. I have to end the list with the book that was the first memoir I ever read when I was 14 years old, and I keep her photograph on my wall at all times, when I write, sometimes even when I'm traveling, I hear that voice, and there's another piece of memoir voice. We want to hear your voice, and that's a big difference between the biography and the memoir. The biography is the objective, I don't believe that there is such a thing as a totally objective report, but it is, the author is not inserting himself or herself into the story. Anne Frank, we hear that girl. We know that girl. And talk about a short period time. That whole memoir takes place over a handful of years, months that she spent in the attic, and written under almost as much duress as Jean-Dominique Bauby.