“Why Should I Read Your Memoir?”

Why Should I Read Your Memoir?”

March 2014

Several months ago, a rather blunt fellow in the book business in Vancouver asked me, “Why should I read your memoir?” I was taken off-guard, and didn’t have an answer that satisfied him. Or me.

I do now.

Why should you read my memoir, Coastal Lives, published by Pottersfield Press and on the bookshelves any day now?

Have you ever been single for some years – and really hated it?

Have you ever been lonely, and wished you could share your life with someone who sees the world as you do?

Have you ever been scared out of your wits, almost frozen in place – and changed your life anyway? Has the word home ever confused you – I mean really confused you!

Have you ever said, I need to go home – and realized you had at least two homes you needed now?

Are you passionate about the place(s) you call home?

No matter where you were raised and now live, have you ever felt that you were a Come From Away – someone new to a region who sometimes has to scramble to keep up to new ideas and realities?

Have you ever lived far, far away from your family and old friends– and missed them terribly?

Do you love learning – about history, music, new cultures, geography, weather and food?

Do you have dogs and horses in your life?

Do you live to go horseback riding?

Do you you need oceans and rivers in your life?

Are you an adventurer?

Have you lost a beloved sibling to addictions, or a spouse to early death?

Have you ever been so sad and discouraged that everyday life was a struggle?

Have you ever been so injured you were unable to walk – or to even turn over in bed?

Have you ever healed from a bad injury – but still had fears of re-injury to deal with?

Do you accept the inexplicable or even magic in human lives – or do you fight it?

Do you like a fast-paced memoir?

Do you like drama and surprise?

Do you enjoy a good laugh?

Do you like “hybrid-memoirs” – memoirs that blend different genres to tell a story?

Do you demand “a good story”?

Well, I hope you’ll find these features and others in my memoir. Why should you read Coastal Lives? Why should you read any memoir? To enjoy a good read – and visit someone else’s life, just for a short while. With luck, to come back to your own life, with new insights and gratitude. Or perhaps, you may decide to change your life, take on some new adventures and experiences. You may even decide to write a memoir of your own.

Olivia Chow, My Journey. (In loud praise of the memoir ghost writer/memoir project manager.)

This blog post is in loud praise of the memoir ghost writer/memoir project manager.

Olivia Chow – member of Parliament, would-be mayor of Toronto (yes, please!) and widow of former New Democratic Party leader, Jack Layton – has written an appealing and moving memoir, My Journey. I particularly enjoyed learning about Chow’s country and family of origin (Chow and her parents came to Toronto from Hong Kong when she was 13 years old), and how Olivia and Jack met, merged and married. These personal details are not as well-known as the couples’ political lives, and the battles, losses and victories therein.

I recommend the book as a smooth and entertaining read – and a heart-breaking one. Most Canadians are still so sad about Layton’s untimely and difficult death from cancer in 2011. He could have been our Prime Minister! And a splendid one. But how much more would his soulmate wife still miss and mourn him, these scant three years later … Chow’s writing on loss and re-invention of self after it, will touch any reader, not just those who have lost spouses.

There is a particular point I want to make about the book, though. It has little to do with whether or not you, the reader, may pick it up to read and enjoy, and everything to do with how the memoirs of busy and brilliant people sometimes come to be.  I’ll hand the mike to Chow herself here, who addresses this subject in her acknowledgements: “But for this book project of mine, I needed a great deal of help and professional assistance. I also needed a plan. With a demanding career as an MP, and many personal and political commitments, I had limited time to conduct research I would require to accurately recount all the key events of my life and career. My real forte is organizing and strategizing, as I have for countless political campaigns in the past. So I pulled together a team and set a process in place.”

Heading the team was none other than bestselling author and journalist Lawrence Scanlan – who has ghost-written/memoir-managed for other Canadian memoirists, Margaret Trudeau, among them. What Scanlan is particularly brilliant at is helping the memoirist find and keep their own voice throughout the book. He’s also a dazzling researcher and a dogged project manager: the people he aids, finish excellent books.

Here’s Chow on his contribution: “He waded through mountains of material – electronic folders of my files from my time as a school trustee, city councillor and MP. Old articles and reports. Transcripts of interviews with myself, Layton family members and close political colleagues. Larry spent many months working round the clock, enduring my late-night e-mails. Without his assistance, this book would not have been possible.” (bold, mine)

Brava, Olivia; and bravo, Larry. ( Lawrence Scanlan, I love your books: The Horse God Built;  Wild About Horses; Little Horse of Iron; Big Ben, etc), and am amazed at your skill in helping others write theirs.)

Seaworthy – A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea, by Linda Greenlaw

Reader alert: If you are against commercial fishing of all sorts – read no further. If you have tolerance for some well-regulated and sustainable fisheries, such as the swordfish fishery on the eastern seaboard of the U.S., then keep reading.

I have all of Linda Greenlaw’s books – except the cookbook she co-authored with her mother, Martha Greenlaw.  In total, there are four memoirs: The Hungry Ocean; All Fishermen are Liars’ The Lobster Chronicles; and the most recent, which I finished last evening, Seaworthy. I was so hoping that Seaworthy would be as good a read as her first memoir, The Hungry Ocean.

It is not. And I really dislike saying that. I guess when you’ve been dazzled by a writer before – lifted right out of your quiet life and flung down atop lashing waves and roaring winds – you’re hoping you can feel that level of excitement again. Remember the movie The Perfect Storm (2000), with George Clooney? Remember how terrifying it was to watch? How that last sky-high wave swallowed the swordfish fishing vessel and all her crew? Well, Linda Greenlaw was featured as a “character” in that film, and also in the earlier, eponymous non-fiction book (1997), by Sebastian Junger. The only woman swordfish captain on the Eastern Seaboard, Greenlaw was also a “high-liner,” or high producing captain, respected by her seagoing male peers and crews alike. You went on a boat she captained, and you made money. Lots of it. You also came home safely, unlike the captain and crew aboard the Andrea Gail, another sword fishing boat out of Gloucester, MA, which disappeared in the “perfect storm” of late autumn 1991 – never to be seen again.

I spent many years in and around the commercial fishing world in British Columbia. I worked on trollers, and I wrote about the entire fishing fleet, both the commercial fishermen and later, the sport fishing world. So I know a bit about the men and women who fish for a living in northern waters, and about the vessels they go to sea in. I am happy to tell you that in some parts of the book, Linda Greenlaw entertains me wonderfully well. This is one “fishy” (successful) captain; she knows fish, is fascinated by them, and oddly, respects them. She has spent a lot of time thinking about the ways of fish – and also about the term “lucky,” which she both accepts and rejects, as it is applied to her career. It wasn’t “luck,” after all, that made her decide to return to port and miss the deadly storm that sank the Andrea Gail … it was a carefully calculated decision, which put safety ahead of monetary gain.

I may not have been shaken up by Seaworthy – but damn, I still liked sharing time with Linda Greenlaw again. Her passages about the feelings that fishing evokes – elemental, immense feelings, which go straight back to earliest times, man against “beast,” look, see, there’s the harpoon raised high and descending – were as exciting and as precise as ever. There is an undeniable thrill to “the hunt” – if not to the killing and then “butchering,” or cleaning of fish. If you haven’t fished in this way, I may be leaving you cold and queasy by now. If you have fished this way … yeah, go ahead and read the book. You’ll enjoy it.

Greenlaw is a dependably crisp and evocative writer. She is also candid when she writes about her quirky and competive nature. Uncommon people living uncommon lives are always interesting – to me, at any rate. I enjoyed even the quietest of her memoirs, Lobster Chronicles. She always reminds me that well-written memoirs, like the best of fiction, are the ones we remember.

Audtion, by Barbara Walters

It’s been odd lately how I keep finding memoirs at Value Village that I’d considered asking for at Xmas last year. I am glad I hesitated too, as they’re not all that good.

Just finished reading Barbara Walters’ Audition. I can’t really recommend it. Or I can, but not particularly for its writing. I can say it was interesting to learn about the early days of television and the world of television journalism. There’s no doubt that Walters is a pioneer for women in television, and apart from that, an excellent journalist who’s had a fascinating career.  I also enjoyed learning more about The View, the TV show that Walters developed and stars in.  And of course it was titillating to learn more about the rich, famous and influential.

I just don’t think this book will “stick” with me for very long. For that, the writing has to sing. This one hums.

A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamill

A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamil: If I were teaching this month, I’d be holding up this memoir to the class and saying This is what it’s all about- look no further for the kind and grace and beauty every memoirist strives for.  The book is wonderfully detailed, evocative and searingly honest. I’ve also never read such a sophisticated examination of the addict’s life. He really looks at the drinking life of his generation and scrutinizes alcohol’s gifts and curses, and how a hard drinker is made, not born.  The making is day by day, event by event; it does not happen overnight. It’s like the whole apple of addiction’s course, not just a slice. Fascinating. And did I mention the writing is a dream?

Not Quite What I was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs

…which according to Vanity Fair magazine, “…will thrill minimalists and inspire maximalists.”

Maximalists…is that truly a word?

Anyway, this book, which is edited by another magazine, Smith Magazine, looks like good fun. A friend gave it to me some time ago and on this dark and dreary June afternoon, I am going to start it. This may give a whole new meaning to the editor’s maxim: “When in doubt, cut it (the copy) out.”

It could also be good fun to ask participants in a memoir writing class to try and sum up their lives in six words!!

Paul Quarrington, Cigar Box Banjo

Today I am including an interesting email from my brother, Dr. Geoffrey Simmins, an architectural historian and associate dean at the University of Calgary, Alberta. Have a listen to the audio files he includes as well.

“…but you would have to have a heart of stone to read Paul Quarrington’s memoir, Cigar Box Banjo, and not be moved by his self-deprecating honesty responding to the news that he has terminal cancer. It’s a great memoir, Marjorie, at least by what I have read of them, and might be a new(ish?) genre–the mortality memoir? I liked it better than his fiction, e.g., King Leary. (Didn’t read anything else by him though, e.g., Whale Music: maybe I should.) Certainly it has a poetic perfection to it all–Roddy Doyle writes the preface, and friends write the epilogue because, well, Paul dies in the writing of it. But not before he writes a damn fine memoir, and also a couple of great songs. Rage, rage against the…etc., or at least pour another glass of whiskey. I am going to try and send you the audio file with the song. “

“Hope you can access this file; if not, try this site–which is the same version: http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/01/28/are-you-ready/

And maybe even if so, have a look at the slower version of the co-authors–Dan Hill (yup, that Dan Hill) and Martin Worthy–a bit slow for my taste:


And here is Paul singing jazz and talking: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJh55O6GuEk

Here’s a tribute to him: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qP52Pkkji5M

and…if you still have the energy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzNHUFzqG4Y&NR=1


Some recent memoir publications

Memoirs – expect the unexpected, that’s for sure. A recent “memoir” critiqued in The Globe and Mail is An Exclusive Love, which is a memoir about suicide – someone else’s.  Two someone elses. Author Johanna Adorjan writes about the dual suicides of her grandparents; the grandfather in failing health and wishing to exit his life, the grandmother unwilling to live without him.  The critique praises Adorjan’s book and calls it, fittingly, a “memorial” to the grandparents. The overall description of the book sounds fascinating. I would read it in a wink.

Another recent review in The Globe and Mail, done by columnist Leah McLaren, discusses “widow lit,” which while it is a term I hadn’t heard before, it’s certainly a genre I’ve been assiduously avoiding (just cannot even open The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion). I am married to an older man – quite a bit older than me. I don’t want to even think about any of this.  Anyway, it’s poor old Joyce Carol Oates who wrote a recent “widow lit” memoir, when she unexpectedly lost her husband of 47 years, Raymond J. Smith.  Says MacLaren: “A Widow’s Story is more than an individual tale of woe. It’s also a seminal text in an emerging literary genre. First there was chick lit, then came mummy lit. Now we have widow lit – a wave of books unleashed by the experience of losing a loved one.”

Gentle readers, you go right ahead and enjoy yourselves with this genre. I’ll pass. But I did want to note its emergence and perhaps its looming pervasiveness.

One last memoir from recent G & M gleanings: Inside Wikileaks, by Daniel Somscheit-Berg. Well of course, you could see something like this coming. Make money as you can, from someone famous, now fallen on hard times. “Disillusioned insider’s take on the rise and fall of Wikileaks is much like reading a 21st-century version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm,” writes reviewer Colin Freeze.  “Both books feature a rag-tag handful of insurgents, whose teamwork garners them initial success. And both portray a charismatic autocrat as the group’s leader, a figurehead who publicly denounces tyranny, even as he privately imposes it.”

“People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like” –  President Lincoln once said.

Yes, exactly.

Rockbound, a classic Canadian novel by Frank Parker Day

No, it’s not a memoir. Now and again I just have to read a bit of fiction. Rockbound won the “Canada Reads” contest in 2005, bolstering its long-standing reputation as a Canadian classic (in this case, of Nova Scotia’s South Shore). Donna Morrissey, one of Canada’s finest novelists, was a fervent promoter of Rockbound.

Now that I’ve read it, I understand why.

When novels get picked apart, section by section, theme by plot by style, as they always do, they never make a perfect reading experience. So I could tell you there were aspects to Rockbound that bothered me (the tidy and forced romantic ending, for example). Overall, I am just glad to have read the book, which did what I require novels to do, and that is fly me away to other times and places and permit me to live there a while. I loved the South Shore dialogue (some might refute its accuracy, I don’t know), sustained throughout. I loved the insider’s view of a hardworking people (to put it mildly) and how they shaped their lives with this work on and by the ocean. It is not a kind life nor are they kind people. But I did enjoy their connectedness to the natural world and their strange, confrontational dependency on each other.Their world is a long, long way from microwaves, Facebook and the World Wide Web. Hell, it’s a long way from electricity and the Sears catalogue!!!