Musings on Memoir, December 2008-January 2010

22 January 2010

Taking two Master’s level courses instead of the one, is keeping me busy!

Luanne’s memoir, Blue Valley, A Ecological Memoir, arrived yesterday. It will be fascinating to see how she re-configured the thesis-memoir into the commercial memoir.

I still haven’t listed some of the memoirs I’ve read this past read. Need to make a list from my now-overflowing bookcase, and add these missing books.

12 January 2010

I finished Luanne Armstrong’s memoir/thesis, The Ecology of Identity. It was excellent – both parts. Something to live up to, for sure.  Or come any near, for that matter. I am in the process of ordering her commercially-published memoir, In Blue Valley: An Ecological Memoir, as now I have to see how she re-configured the academic memoir into this other form. Be fascinating to read.

L., meanwhile, is off to Chile till the end of the month. I gave her a second CD Rom copy of Luanne’s thesis, alerted her about the Yagoda book and generally updated her on my progress.

Now I must get serious about my two courses at MSVU – when all I really want to do is start writing my own memoir/thesis. All in good time, I suppose.

It will take quite a while to transcribe all my notations in the Armstrong work into either this journal or a related one. My head never stopped buzzing when I was reading the thesis part. So much to think about! I won’t even bother trying to short-form it here.

24 December 2009

I forgot to mention in my last entry, that I read Linden MacIntyre’s novel, Bishop’s Man, this past month. It is a fine book and deserving of its Giller Prize win. I thought it might be wretchedly detailed about the sexual abuse of children; instead he writes only enough on this subject to make a person momentarily queasy. It’s not that he downplays the seriousness of the crime or shies away from its complexities. It is more that he is interested in the psychological meltdown of one priest in particular, the “bishop’s man,” who obeys and serves his bishop for a very long time, before being overcome by the immorality of his tasks, and their wicked effects on people he comes to know and love.

MacIntyre also skilfully works his plot, throwing in some unexpected and oh-so-true-sounding twists at the conclusion. As with Causeway, his excellent memoir, MacIntyre know whereof he writes in the complex worlds of Catholicism and small-town Cape Breton. He fictionalizes his story, which he sets in Creignish, but there are even insider jokes about popular children’s names such as Ashley and Natalie.

The Bishop’s Man was a grand read and I enjoyed every bit of it. More and more these days I am thinking about the the telling “lies” for a story to ring true. (Hmmm, it may be the I need to re-read The Telling of Lies by Timothy Findley, rest in peace.) What I mean by lies is fiction writing, of course, where writers fictionalize their lives and the people in them, to get at the heart of various truths, as they understand and feel them. The lines between fiction and memoir are thoroughly blurred for me now – and this needs much more thought. How can people even pretend to “remember” their lives – especially the very early years – when we forget by sundown the conversations of any given morning?

I am grateful I have also used fictional devices in my memoir essays. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know how to record the stories. My gut knows the stories are truthful. And when I am very lucky, a wisp of remembered words or actions is there for the taking, to build a story around. I know my auditory memory is keen – far more so than my visual one. Even still, it may be faulty….

Do we write the memoirs we need to write – or the ones which were truly our lives?

19 December 2009

Thanks to my brother-in-law Ken Cameron, I was made aware of a superb new reference book on memoirs: Memoir: A History, by Ben Yagoda. I am most fortunate to have learned of this book; it has answered so many questions I had about memoirs over the centuries and has done a significant amount of research for me! I will be using this book a lot in months to come.

It was also a very good read. Yagoda is a lively, approachable writer. He did not lose me for so much as a single paragraph. His other titles sound interesting as well. He is an academic with a lovely sense of humour and a light, deft touch. I was regretful to finish the book.

My friend Denise Saulnier lent me one of the best-selling memoirs of the twentieth century: Night, by Elie Wiesel. The NY Times calls it “A slim volume of terrifying power.” I concur. I wish it was longer though. It was apparently much longer in earlier, unpublished forms. It’s as though it was edited down to pure essence of terror and starkness. There are no frills or fillers. As such, we can barely take in the savagery man practices on man. WW II may be long over but the savagery hasn’t ceased, in so many parts of the world. It is the staggering numbers of WW II’s losses that remain so disturbing. And dead-centre, the Germans’ and the world’s preoccupation with a genocide of a people, the Jews.

There were many moments in the book that stirred strong emotion. You could cry from start to finish, though I did not, held back perhaps, by Wiesel’s commanding voice and his cold assessment of his own part in various tragedies. (He is wrong, of course. His transgressions were small – mostly selfish thoughts – and his judgments as harsh as any stern God’s.) I did cry at the book’s end notes, which in fact was his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, awarded to him in 1986. Wiesel had said said, in his narrative, that he had lost his faith during this terrible time in his life. In his speech, he speaks of God again – and it is from a heart that once again believes, once again prays, once again has committed itself to the complexities of living a spiritual life. I wept for the human heart’s ability to heal and function again, after the most cruel and complete breakings. That is the presence of God to me.

2 December 2009

Just finished two novels by Donna Morrissey: Sylvanus Now and What They Wanted. I read them because a) I love Morrissey’s writing and b) Morrissey is quite candid about all her novels being heavily autobiographical – more fictionalized memoir than “pure” fiction (whatever that might be). My god the woman can write. From start to finish with the two novels I thought: Authentic! That’s what we love best when we are reading: the authentic voice! Morrissey’s voice, her very being, is right there in every word choice and every phrasing. She is 100 percent Newfoundland-outport-raised self, and the resulting prose is charmingly original and slice-and-dice harrowing. I wept over the second novel, which details the horrendous death of a beloved sibling. She has already lost three other siblings, at their births.

30 October 2009

(From an email to my sister, poet and writer Z. L., who teaches creative writing at Kwantlan College in Vancouver.)

Dear Z

Don’t have Monsoon Diary – or any of these others, but look all look great, don’t they? Far as I am beginning to understand, there is a whole sub-genre of memoirs with recipes included in them. These are what I decided to  call “hybrids,” as are those that are illustrated or somehow personalized with art forms other than prose. Someone else could well call them something else.

The one I had in my own library is:  Wong Family Feast  – Our Recipes and Stories, by Joanna Claire Wong ( The book was self-published.

As for the Bronte siblings “memoir,” yes, I’d heard about that, but was glad to have the reminder it was out there. It’s something I should read and it’s good to know you enjoyed it. I am not sure what to call these sorts of memoirs – fictionalized memoirs, I guess. Sally Armstrong wrote one about her great-grandmother, a fabulous “character” who was an early settler in NB. What a life she had! It’s a great read (The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor). I’ve included the link to the Bronte book here; it also has the Jane Austen book you mentioned.

I’ll pop this whole email in my memoir journal, as today’s entry!

21 October 2009

Two weeks of family time, and so am behind on all fronts. The above tally for memoirs reads is inaccurate. Once I reviewed (and re-organized) my working library, I realized I had read more than the books I’ve listed in this journal. Just forgot to write some down – or, read them just prior to commencing the journal. Will amend the list soon, to include these other books.

I met Donna Morrissey last evening. I love her work – I’ve read the first two novels, Kit’s Law and Downhill Chance – and in person, she is charming and beautiful. Today I’d like to pop out to Bayer’s Lake and buy her latest two books, Sylvanus Now and What They Wanted. Am particularly interested in Sylvanus Now as it is hybrid memoir of sorts. She openly describes all her fiction as primarily autobiographical but I guess Sylvanus Now is entirely so. She has been given some grief about this by reviewers. But no one seems to argue about the quality of her work. She tells me she is hard at work on her next novel. I think her work would be fascinating to discuss in a memoir writing class.

Suggestions to self regarding my memoirs, the writing for which must begin in earnest January:

1) write an essay about Leo, the title for which will be the Hampton, Virginia Latitude and Longitude coordinates from the glasses Wayne Baker gave us;

2) write (of course) about all the Beloved Equines – but bear in mind also that no one from that horse crowd at Southlands in the 70s and 80s has written about that place in that era (that I am aware of, anyway). Use my bizarrely detailed memory to best advantage on this. Don’t forget to include the essay on Kaber, and how he permitted me to sit beside him on the ground one day.

A “luminous” idea from SDC: he suggests that I might do some video interviews with memoir writers. This could be fabulous, and I should do it, no question. I could start with Donna Morrissey….

8 October 2009

Happenings in the world of memoir publishings: MacKenzie Phillips, daughter of John Phillips, he of the Mamas and the Papas, has penned a memoir that centres on her decade-long sexual relationship with her father. I saw the one-time actress and musician on Oprah Winfrey (of course), and thought she looked terribly fragile and frightened. John Phillips died some years ago, but Michelle Phillips, his former wife and MacKenzie’s stepmother (also a “Mama” in the Mamas and the Papas), is not a happy woman. Described by another daughter as a “pistol,” Michelle Phillips is no doubt livid that MacKenzie felt the need for such public purging of her tortured soul. I guess I have mixed feelings about it myself. Does it actually help a person to heal – ye-old cathartic confession – or is it just a way to get lots of popular attention? From the look on that poor woman’s ruined face (too many drugs and too much alcohol), I fervently hope it’s the former. My writer’s imagination saw that sad, horsey face, and thought: “That’s the face of a woman who will kill herself – soon.” Then I felt creepy thinking that, and literally and mentally changed the channel.

I just finished The Concumbine’s Children, by Denise Chong. It won the 1994 City of Vancouver Book Prize and was short-listed for a Governor General’s Award. It is a lovely memoir/biography – more the latter that the former, as Chong writes about her mother and her mother’s family, the first of her family to be born Canadian/live in Canada. It is a lovely book, nicely paced and evocatively detailed. Of course I love stories about early Chinatown days and intense family dramas. This is a gem, which I was sad to finish.

By my (hurried) count, I have read 18 memoirs since January 2009. That’s approximately two/month, which isn’t very much, and not nearly what I’d hoped to read. Will have to pick up the pace. Perhaps I can have an intense month of reading in December. Yes, I will aim for this.

16 September 2009

Maya Angelou is one of those names in literature that you know you should read and wonder, now and again, why you haven’t. I guess her work didn’t come up in my university studies (very white bread) and no one important to me reminded me to read her work. Well now I have, and it was a memoir.

Even the title of this memoir – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – is one I’ve long been familiar with. Turns out the title isn’t a literal part of the book – which literal me searched for and was confused not to find. No, no, what Angelou means, I guess, is the idea of a caged bird singing and how this could be a metaphor for Black American life in a white-controlled country and world. Again I am guessing that she is the life-exuberant “bird” that ignores the bars around itself and sings a life of meaning and joy. By god she did, too.

For me, a memoir can be entry to worlds I know nothing about – and I almost always find that experience exciting. What I know about the Black experience in the US you could put in a toy tea cup. Less yet for the Black woman’s experience. I know a little more now.

I enjoyed Angelou’s stories and was fascinated by the odd family structures she had growing up. She certainly wasn’t coddled. And yet there was all sorts of vibrant and supportive love in relationships with her “Momma” (grandmother), Mother, brother and Uncle. The father, an eccentric and slightly pathetic figure, also has a warm if misguided and erratic heart. While the mother is the brightest bird of all – a physically beautiful and psychically complex woman – it is details and stories about the grandmother who will stay with this reader the longest. Dignity can be such a powerful trait. In this case, dignity could and does move mountains of hate and nastiness. For all that, the grandmother, as a Southern U.S Black woman, still stays mostly mysterious to this white northern Canadian woman. The religious foundation to her life – which is to say, the complete and overall structure of her life – is likely the reason for this. I always get to a certain point with Christianity and come to a full, disturbed stop. Yes, I find Christianity disturbing and even creepy when it is full-on, undiluted and unrelenting.

And of course I can have only the tiniest understanding of the American Black experience. White hatred of Blacks is terrifying to think about – even in small doses of thought via written narrative. It is also so mystifying. As her brother Bailey says, after his first horrifying experience of racism: “Why do they hate us so much?”

I do not know.

I enjoyed Maya Angelou’s writing – though sometimes found the deliberate poetry within the prose more than I wanted. She also ran out of steam at the end – which I always find annoying. It was as though she had been writing away contentedly and then thought, “Right, here’s the part where at 16 years old, I become a mother. Childhood is over and so it my book. Goodbye.” It was an abrupt leave-taking.

Which brings up two points: how memoirs (or any written work) are concluded, and the parameters of a memoir. Much could be said on both.

11 September 2009

Oh my, it’s been some weeks since I wrote in my journal. Much travel and much summer fun. Now I am back to freelance writing and pre-school reading. School starts on the evening of September 14! I don’t even know where my class is.

Reading: I confess that I’ve been reading novels (murder mysteries and thrillers) – and lots of newspapers and magazines.

But last week I finished a fine memoir by Alexandra Fuller: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. Subtitled “An African Childhood,” Fuller herself is a UK-born white Rhodesian who married an American citizen and now lives in Wyoming. If some people call themselves “citizens of the world,” then I would call Fuller a “citizen of Africa.” She and her family lived in several African countries. Despite the harrowing and horrid stories she relates, Fuller clearly adores Africa.

I like this book for many reasons. I learned much about Africa (at least from a white person’s view) – which nonetheless remains of all the world’s countries, the one I’d least like to see. I learned much about how to write about difficult issues such as racism: with absolute honesty and calm delivery. And despite her Gothic upbringing and truly disturbed family, I enjoyed Fuller’s reflections and memories about her childhood and early adulthood the most. I guess I will always love books that make my family look model – or at least only partly demented. The writing – rightly or wrongly – has a resonance of truth to it. Fuller adores her family as much as Africa (the two are mostly indistinguishable), and this very much includes her THREE lost siblings – one to a careless drowning (which Fuller takes full responsibility for; where were the mostly-drunk parents, say I), one to disease and one to complications during pregnancy/at birth. The last child, a second lost brother, likely would have lived if they’d had good medical care – which they clearly did not.

These siblings – one of whom was a real little person when she drowned at age two – are a huge part of the book. It is to these siblings that Fuller inscribes the book. Again, I am fascinated that the lost siblings permeate the pages – they are only incidentally dead. Fuller misses them still, I would say. Misses them deeply and with immense sadness and regret. She and her only living sibling, a sister, clash for most of their childhoods. The sister does come through in various crunches. But warm and fuzzy? No. I don’t know how you could be, in this family.

That said, there seems to be a lot of forgiving in the book, which is points for sanity, in my view. Fuller writes about Africa with blazing honesty; she never seems to criticize the country or its peoples, despite full accounting of the foibles, corruption, violence, physical harshness and psychic contrariness. Nor does she criticize her nutty father and nuttier mother. The mother at least has honest claim to her psychoses: she is both an alcoholic and a manic-depressive. The father – an alcoholic too, though a high-functioning one, for the most part – seems more ineffective and unlucky than unkind.

Again, Fuller is not a stone-thrower. Her childhood is a place of violence, fear, craziness, deprivation, drama and melodrama. It is also a life Fuller is proud of – and should be. She a sturdy and stout-hearted survivor. She deserves a little peace now. I wonder if she has it?

Oh yes…I loved Fuller’s writing. She is top-notch. I read the book like a novel.

28 June 2009

A Girl Named Zippy, by the improbably named Haven Kimmel, was a delight. Especially so, as I really wasn’t sure it would be such. The subtitle, Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana, had me hoping it wasn’t going to be too American Heartland for me. It was a conservative world she describes, in many ways. But the author, the “heroine”, is so zany a character, that you can forget, for pages on end, about the dominant Christian world in which she lives (I am uncomfortable with Christian rigidity), to name but one conservative feature.

The author is much my age. I think she was born in 1965. So I could relate strongly to many of the subjects she wrote about, even silly things, like yearning for a “Skipper” doll, the younger relative of Barbie.

Kimmel is a fine writer. In first impression, the memoir appears to be a collection of assorted scenes, like a scrapbook or even a journal. But Kimmel uses all the best of fiction’s devices and you could easily think you are reading a novel. She’s not scared to “go dark” in her themes and subjects – but she has an oddly light, brief touch with this – which for me, made the incidents more memorable.

This is a memoir I will come back to, re-read in a few month’s time. It’s one of those “easy” memoirs (complex, informative but readable) that some people might underestimate. I don’t. Again, I think Kimmel is a fine writer. I’ll be lingering in her odd little world and inside her “character’s” odd little mind, for some days to come.

15 June 2009

This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me, by Norman Jewison: enjoyed it cover to cover. It is not an important book, really, nor will it stick with me for very long. I guess I just liked reading about this likable, gifted Canadian movie director, and how he navigated a complex and wonderful career in film. Lots of juicy anecdotes about actors and directors and the politics of film. Canadians like to believe we are kinder and more polite than many Americans. It is one of our myths and we cling to it. Be that as it may, Jewison supports this myth with his optimistic and sane tone (his family keeps him well grounded and his gratitude is obvious) and by writing courteously about others in the industry.

It’s a nice read.

21 May 2009

Not enjoying Germs – but will carry on till I reach (or don’t) the screaming point. I have always had trouble with terribly clever writers and people obsessed with self to the point of suffocating others. Wollheim is such a writer/person. I keep waiting for the story to start and the neurosis to abate. I may wait in vain….

Incredibly, I haven’t shared important news within this journal: The University of Calgary now has ALL of my sister Karen Francesa Simmins’ written and photographic archive; the rest of my father Richard Beaufort Simmins’ written archive to me; the rest of my aunt Marjorie Anne Susette Simmins’ written archive to me (and other assorted papers pertaining to her life and passing); and the early-marriage photographs taken by and of my mother, Barbara Jeanette Simmins (nee Atkinson). The whole experience of sending on all these papers and photographs has been wrenching and disturbing.

But it is done. I am relieved and proud of myself. Karen had begun asserting her old black magic on me and I was being pulled under the dark waters again. There are no words to describe the freedom of having her out of my home and contained in the archives of the University of Calgary.

18 May 2009

The latest: It Stops with Me: Memoirs of a Canuck Girl, by Charleen Touchette. Finally, some solid writing. Touchette is also a gifted visual artist and includes black and white and colour prints of her paintings in the book. As well, she is a curator, an educator, an activist and freelance writer. She has numerous book titles to her name, many with feminist perspectives, others that explore issues of cultural, religious and historical identities. I don’t think Touchette and I would be best friends; this woman takes her politics very seriously and for all that she says she loves to laugh and enjoy life, her childhood was so bleak, violent and confusing, that it takes very bit of her sane self to keep the tortured self from imposing permanent depressions and mental and physical dysfunctions of all sorts.

That said, I have huge admiration for someone who has done as much as this woman has done, and succeeded in so many areas. I also admire someone who, as a young adult, chose a resoundingly sane and loving man with whom to share her life and make a family. If anyone could be forgiven for having chosen an unkind life partner, it would be Touchette. And yet she bypassed entirely the common pattern of abused children growing up to choose abusive partners. Now that’s a person who somehow protected her absolute core of sanity – against all odds.

It was a lovely and disturbing read. My only criticism is the odd coyness about revealing the extent of her father’s sexual abuse. She builds up the tension in this regard again and again – in the art work and in the prose – but never flat-out says that she was raped, although this is intimated. Likewise, she often repeats that the time was not right to tell her parents about the abuse (that would be tell her mother and confront her father) and the reader is left to guess that she never did tell them directly, but did show the art work around the country and beyond, and of course publish the memoir. Again, you feel as the the entire book is building towards a showdown with the father – and yet this never occurs.

Mind you, I don’t blame her for avoiding/putting off a showdown. The father remains a right prick throughout her life, for all that his violent ways tone down with age. It’s just that the story feels strangely climax-less (sorry) – especially for a book that builds towards a climax almost from the first page. All of which makes me sad. It seems that no matter how successful Touchette is, how brilliantly she has created and maintained a happy and healthy family life of her own, her fear of her father still dictates major decisions in her life. There are too many points I end up guessing about. Did she decide the pain of confrontation was not worth whatever good and liberating feelings she might receive back? Did the love she had for her mother get in the way of confronting the father? Was her mother’s role in the abuse (pretending it didn’t happen, looking the other way, blaming Touchette for the violence her father metes out to her) far too upsetting to explore in a meaningful way?

In the end consideration, I am not sure how I feel about the book. It may yet end up as an example of “what not to do in a memoir.”

10 May 2009

Finished a “trash-memoir,” Dolly, by the one and only Dolly Parton. Of course she is best-known for her (to women, anyway) grotesque bosom and mountain-high peroxided hair. People tend to forget or just don’t know that she is above all else a gifted songwriter (Islands in the Stream, I Will Always Love You, etc.). Her capable and pleasant voice, coupled with a steely will and the afore-mentioned songwriting gift have served her well. She has come a long way from her dirt-poor raising in a family of 14 in East Tennessee.

I found the book interesting – but then I always do enjoy reading about the world of music and the interconnectedness of the lives of musicians, of all musical genres. I would, for example, love to read the memoirs of Linda Ronstadt and Emmy Lou Harris. Which reminds me: there is a well-received new book out on Joni Mitchell, Carol King and…one other hugely talented female singer/songwriter from the 60s, which I’d love to read. I find the bravery of these women inspiring. The world of music did not make things easy for them. Au contraire. It’s not enough to “just” be a brilliant musician and fine performer. It takes guts and determination to be successful in the world of music. And it takes tremendous strength of character and singularity of purpose to last in that world, decade after decade.

Note : I thought Parton did a good job on this book. Her “person voice” was a clear as her singing voice.

8 May 2009

Not reading as fast as I usually do, for all that most evenings are spent with a book under my nose. Finished Michael J. Fox’s just-released second memoir, Always Looking Up; the first one was Lucky Man, which sold very well, I believe. I’ve always enjoyed Fox as an actor and as a Canadian success story. His book also reveals that he is a deeply decent man, with his head “screwed down tight”, as Cape Bretoners sometimes say. Decent and admirable, in many ways. Perhaps his proudest achievement (beyond family, he says), is founding a Parkinson’s Disease research organization that is “the most trusted one in the world.” No small accomplishment, that.

So I wish I could tell you that I loved the book and am running out to see if I can find his first one to read next. But no, I must tell you it was a bit dull. I have a strong feeling that a memoir from his pre-sober days would have made for a much livelier read. Happily married for over 20 years and the father of four – why would he bother writing about the less-than-stellar days of addiction? Can’t blame him. But I do wish the book didn’t come across like the Waltons of Burnaby Mountain. I swear, he does a good imitation of John-Boy.

Digs aside, I did enjoy the stories of his childhood as a army brat. He and I are much of an age, so it was fun to read about the much more relaxed days of childhoods in the 60s and 60s. Seatbelts? Nah, too restrictive. Sticking our legs out of the station wagon’s back window? Yes, please! You get the idea….

21 April 2009

The latest memoir I’ve finished is Seldom, by Dawn Rae Downtown. Hard book to read and finish. The writing was fine, and the idea interesting: daughter Dawn Rae writes a la memoire about her mother’s growing up world in Seldom-Come-By, NFLD. The mother is a lovely and brave “character”, as is her mother, Downton’s grandmother – at least in some ways. But such a brutal story! The grandfather is one of the most sadistic and repellent people ever to have his sorry life recorded in a book. The whole wretched and violent history of this family was almost more than I could read about. Downton certainly succeeded as a writer – in making this vanished world vividly real. But by the end of the book, when you truly understand how sick the grandmother is, not just the grandfather, well by then you just want to upchuck. Oh yes, and let’s not forget the the non-existent morals of the larger community, who turned the other way as one of their own beat and tortured his entire family for decades. Especially the children. There was little he enjoyed more than shattering the bones of his children.

Nothing seems to change. We never keep the children safe.

28 March 2009

I finished Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, by William Zinsser. It was a great read. I must remember to review the bibliography, as it was excellent.

I also ordered $100 worth of reference and memoir books from Chapters, with RGS’ gift certificate from Xmas. One has arrived: Horsepower: A Memoir. I can’t believe my name isn’t on this book cover. But the way to look at this, I suppose, is to see all the wonderful stuff she left out, and write my own crackerjack memoir about horses. It will be interesting to see what this book is all about.

12 March 2009

The death of S., our sister-in-law, age 59. The two-week trip to BC, to be with family, and partake in all the rituals surrounding death. The visits with other family members and friends – my own – and the time I insisted on taking for myself, to visit old haunts and re-acquaint myself with my city and the river delta of my early years. Home again, after, on the road, the worst birthday of my life (50), a visit with more of my family in Calgary. So yes, home again to the madness of a 48-hour assembly of papers for the Master in Arts, Research application, for which I optimistically write this journal. Mission accomplished, thanks to the generous co-efforts of my would-be advisor, who steered me through the unfamiliar bits, and generally facilitated the process in every kind and capable way she could. Thank you, L. Much other work done, to re-connect with our lives, after the two-week hiatus. But done now, pretty much anyway, and time, finally, to get back to this journal and the study of memoirs.

Read and finished this past week: The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon. Toronto, Ontario, Vintage Canada Edition, 2007. I really enjoyed this memoir. I am usually skeptical about co-authored books, especially “couple books,” for they mostly seem uneven and irritating to me. Not this one. These are two top-notch writers, and I never wished one would just hush up and let the other one tell the story. And there is a story. Writers this good understand that there has to be a lot more than a simple discussion of food or (far worse) an unrelenting rant on the politics which surround all food issues and choices.

And so we enjoy, without hectoring, their intense and wide-ranging (100 miles, yes, but much further in thought and actual adventuring) journey of learning, and, at a deeper level, we feel the drama of their relationship’s ups and downs. In fact, by the end of the book, it is still not entirely clear if the relationship will flourish. It sounds as though it will continue, but whether it will nourish both people enough to be survive the longer term, is debatable. I learned a lot about food and the plethora of choices we have related to food, from this book. I also enjoyed two skilled writers sharing the sometimes odd but always interesting details of their lives.

The setting, of course, is one of my favorite places in the world, the west coast of Canada. I luxuriated in the details of that setting – every inch of every 100-mile range discussed under a microscope, and the fewer but equally absorbing details of their northern home near Terrace. I’d recommend the book to anyone. But I think a west-coaster would enjoy it most. You can practically smell the bull-kelp on the pages, see the Two Sisters on the North Shore, their summit a dazzling white in the sun, and the taste the buttery richness of first-of-the-year sockeye, fresh off the barbeque.

Currently reading: Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, by William Zinsser. New York, NY, First Mariner Books Edition, 1998. This is a gold-mine of information. I am drooling in anticipation to read most if not all of the memoirs referred to in this anthology. You know you are in for a wonderful learning experience, when you pray the introduction never stops. I am beginning to understand why writers talk about Zinsser in hushed tones. I look forward to reading many more of his titles, and not just those he’d edited. Happily, there are many.

30 January 2009

I finished Otherwise, by Farley Mowat, last evening (Otherwise, Mowat, Farley. McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Toronto, Ontario: 2008.) I was disappointed there wasn’t more original material in the book. He has written extensively about the period from 1937-1948 (and listed, in the author’s note, the five books in which he has done this). Yes, he describes some new incidents, two of which I believe are late-in-life guilt-inspired. One incident regards his beloved wolves. I was shocked by his feeling of “otherness” from these animals, and the violence he directs towards them. He was too, and obviously needed to explore this in writing. It wouldn’t be much of a leap to remember his war years were in close proximity to this event. Modern medicine would almost certainly state he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. His aggression towards the animals he would so soon champion makes for a strange read. That he could change from that to tenderness and delight is miraculous.

The other bit of guilt-writing concentrates on his first wife, Frances. For the first time in all my readings of Farley’s, Frances is not only a real, multi-dimensional character, she is also an appealing and interesting one. I would expect no less from a woman Farley married. But she has been so overshadowed and diminished by the central love of Farley’s life, the ever-youthful and lovely Claire. I was glad to read about these early days of Farley and Frances’ marriage. She deserved a whole lot more than she has received in print to date. It’s not much here, either, only a few short chapters. But it’s something, and their young, strong love made me smile.

27 January 2009

From Internet perusings:

-memoirs focus on a brief period of time or a series of related events

-within memoirs, we use the same devices as we would for other writings: any story needs narrative structure, which includes elements of story telling such as setting, plot and “character” development, imagery, conflict, setting, foreshadowing and flashback, irony and symbolism

– memoirs try to capture certain highlights or meaningful moments in one’s past and discuss these in a current emotional and intellectual context

-memoirs explore an event or series of related events that remain “lodged” in memory

-why are some memories burned in memory?

-autobiographies/memoirs may be largely fictional; who can remember when they are very young?

-we write from remembered impressions, which are also unreliable. We tend to remember what we want to remember. I might even re-phrase that to: we remember what we are able to remember, and forget that which is too painful or threatening to our current lives.

23 January 2009

Today I am fascinated by the idea of audience, and how it relates to memoir writing. There are large, general audiences, and there are targeted audiences – the latter of ever-narrowing specialty and interest. I won’t be surprised to find memoirs of gay and lesbian little people (dwarfs), who have overcome drug addictions and S & M lifestyles; to do this, these individuals took up sky-diving and barrel-racing with Quarter horses at the Calgary Stampede. Honest to God, as they say in Cape Breton – or, Not a word of a lie!

22 January 2009

I have a $100 gift certificate from Chapters, from my brother, G. It was my Christmas present from him. Yesterday I Googled Chapters Bookstore, and spent a half hour or so drooling over the list of current best-selling memoirs. If I permitted myself, I could be quite overwhelmed at the task ahead of me. But I choose not to. I prefer to think of it as a grand adventure, for which I have already done a good bit of reading. But I’ll explain what I mean about the possible parameters of this Masters. When I typed in “memoirs” in the search engine of Chapters, it took me to pages 1-10 – of a possible 31,224 results.

It is obvious that I need to think about categories of memoirs, and for the modern books at least, make some subjective judgments about merit.

Note: Category One might be War-Time Memoirs. There must be so many – above and beyond WW I and II. Vietnam, for one. And the Korean War, and, and…. (All Quiet on the Western Front – which Dad urged me to read, and I did, finding it so moving and beautifully written – is not non-fiction; but it reads as though it could be. What could possibly beat this in the non-fiction genre? I have a feeling a may find out.)

All right, I’ll start a list of categories now.

1) War-times

2) Hollywood: actors, directors, stunt men (i.e. Christopher Plummer)

3) Television/print journalists: Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, Arthur Kent, etc. (Question: do American journalists write their memoirs more often than journalists from around the world?)

4) Children: The Diary of Anne Frank, by Anne Frank, Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah and War Child: A Memoir, A Child Soldier’s Story, etc.

5) Politicians (i.e. Ex-presidents and prime ministers)

6) Writers (i.e. The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion and Farley Mowat, many titles; Claire Mowat, Travels with Farley; The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion; Sum of Our Days: A Memoir, by Isabel Allende

7) Subject-related memoirs: i.e. Horsepower, a Memoir, by Annette Israel; Marley & Me; Milk Teeth: A Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog, by Robin Pfeufer Kaha; We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante; also, memoirs by teachers (Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man), astronauts, ministers of religion, mid-wives, nudists, doctors of medicine

8) short memoirs: articles for magazines (i.e. “Another Man,” by Gertie Shipmaker. More magazine, February/March 2009.)

9) “Shockers”/Victim memoirs – i.e. Runaway, by Evelyn Lau (teenage prostitute); Escape, by Carolyn Jessop (cult survivor).

10) Average people, writing for the families and friends.

11) Sports Heroes

12) Fake Memoirs

13) Family Memoirs (individual writing about a family): i.e. The Ties that Bind: A Memoir of Race, Memory and Redemption, by Bertice Berry

14) Place-related: How to Cook a Tapir: Memoir of Belize; Dragon and the Crown (The): Hong Kong Memoirs, by Stanley S.K. Kwan

15) Film critics, historians, “notables”

16) Crisis memoirs: written after deaths/divorces/separations/drug addictions; also How-To’s: dealing with diseases and life challenges (bi-polar; ADHD; mental illness of all kinds)

17) Criminal memoirs: written by people who have been/are incarcerated due to criminal activity: Stephen Reid’s Jackrabbit Parole (poet Susan Musgrave’s husband, with whom she has two daughters) and Reid’s partner in crime, Paddy Mitchell, author of A Bank Robber’s Life (sold from behind bars in a prison in the US, from Mitchell’s own website.) These two men and one other formed a trio called the Stopwatch Gang. They stole millions of dollars from banks during their crime careers. Also, before these men, there was Quebecois Roger Caron and Go-Boy, Memories of a Life Behind Bars and Andreas Schroeder’s Shaking It Rough. Need to know what laws in Canada and around the world affect criminals who would publish their work.

18) Hybrid memoirs: Baseball and the Baby Boomer: A History, Commentary, and Memoir, by Talmage Boston and Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir, by the son of Susan Sontag (it is a memoir and an investigation) and Falling In Love with Everything: A Memoir, But Mostly Made Up, by Pat Jobe (I believe this is a Unitarian, and the book is on spirituality); and Luggage by Kroger: A True Crime Memoir, by Gary Taylor (might be a criminal memoir); and Love Junkie, A Memoir, by Rachel Resnick

19) Five-minute famer’s (no, not 15 minutes of fame – more along the lines of Britney Spears ex-husband, Kevin Federline): Dancing to the Music in my Head: Memoirs of a People’s Idol, by Sanjay Malakar (an American Idol show contestant).

20) Memoir collections, or anthologies (Lorri’s anthology on mothers of the 50s) and Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak, by Writers Famous and Obscure, edited by Larry Smith.

20 January 2009

I have finished reading Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Unpredictable Life of the Author of The Secret Garden – which I mostly enjoyed. I found it dragged from the halfway mark (307 pp total). Perhaps because the book that I and most of the world know her best for, The Secret Garden, was not published until toward the end of Hodgson’s life, and it was therefore a bit of a slog to read about the prodigious publications that came before it. Her life’s output was 52 books, 13 plays and innumerable articles and serials. She was the finest kind of freelance writer, able to support herself, her husband(s), children, most of her family of origin and their progeny, numerous friends and acquaintances, society’s unfortunates in at least three different countries and total strangers, temporarily down on their luck.

I thought the biographer’s (Gretchen Gerzina) concluding paragraph was an excellent life summary: “Nearly one hundred years have passed since Frances wrote The Secret Garden, and the effect of that book on its readers only grows with time. As a novel, a film, and a play – surprisingly, one of her books that she never thought of dramatizing – it continues to move readers and viewers all over the world, and her work has been translated into almost every language. In English, it is consistently cited as one of the most influential books upon generations of readers. In this era of increased opportunities for women, we would do well to remember what tremendous will, devotion, and imagination it took for a woman of her era and talent to achieve this legacy.”

I would add to this list of attributes a work-horse work-ethic – which may have stemmed from a near-frantic need to create imaginary worlds and peoples.

Most surprising facts I learned in the book: Hodgson is the author of Little Lord Fauntleroy, and she was as much formed by her life in the United States (Tennessee, NY, etc), as by her country of origin, England (Manchester). Both countries claim her as theirs. Most interesting fact: Victorian-era Hodgson managed to live her life almost precisely as she wished to, even quietly “living in sin” for some time, and almost certainly taking lovers other than this one outside of marriage. She ultimately paid high prices for these choices (an almost-forced marriage to a repugnant, abusive and leeching man, and beyond her son’ life (and biography of her), a harsh and lingering judgment by subsequent generations. I was also surprised at her deep need to travel – to be in motion, for most of her life – and her joy in extended visits to Europe and Burmuda. Last, she had an equally deep need to purchase or rent different homes, at one point supporting five households and their divers inhabitants. All this and more, on a freelance income. I am astonished and admiring of this competence and skill. (Depressed, too, of course.)

How does this tie in with the study of memoirs? I must tell you first that I read this biography because it was a gift from a dear friend, and the idea that I could learn about the life of the author of The Secret Garden was irresistible to me. This novel is one of a very few that I have ever re-read (all of these would be childhood books). Unlike the others, I re-read The Secret Garden most years. I felt a heady pleasure in learning about Hodgson’s complex life and character.

However, there is a memoir tone provided by the many letters and other writings of hers included in the biography. A reader very much feels that Hodgson “has her way” in the book, as biographer Gerzina permits (nay, encourages) un-containable and irrepressible Hodgson to air her opinions, express her joys and sorrows, and generally “fill in the blanks” of a layered and unusual life. These personal writings of Hodgson’s ring true: she seems to have had a passionate and direct nature. She may well have felt the need to censor herself (at least in print) regarding her unconventional personal life, but silence the opinions completely she could not, finding instead a home for them in her fiction. Truth and fiction, and how and when they may blend, is always a lively subject in most discussions of literature. It is certainly a central part of this biography.

All this reminds me to be a less literal reader, to enjoy the flow and artistry of words more, and to worry less about “did it really happen?” Fiction will have material from the writer’s life within it, and non-fiction will have imaginary embellishments (i.e. Farley Mowat), to make the writing sing. For writers who claim to stay within the supposedly rigid lines of genre, we will reassure them, take them at their word – and still form whatever opinions we need to. For writers who place story first (Mowat again) and exact, quantifiable truth somewhere down the list of priorities (yes, Mowat yet again), we will take these people too by their word and judge them, as with all others, by their finished product.

Next: I will read Farley’s Mowat most recent memoir (December 2008), Otherwise. I am excited, as I always am when set to read one of his books. The last memoir of Mowat’s that I read was Bay of Spirits, the story of his life with his second wife and love of his life, Claire Mowat. The tone was a bit uneven – a mix of what seemed like involuntary tenderness and chronological fact – but I loved it. The Golden Girl was just that, golden-haired and bewitching. Small wonder Mowat’s failing first marriage soon collapsed. Both Farley and Claire were determined to share a life together. Romance and poetry aside, I was startled to reminded of the ruthlessness of certain loves. Peripheral broken hearts are more theoretical than real to those who declare themselves Fated Lovers. And so I tried not to think of Frances Mowat, and their two sons, Sandy and David.

1 January 2008

From an article in the Globe & Mail, December 2008 (I have kept the clipping):

-“Good obituaries are more akin to biographies than breaking news….”

-form part of the public record

-obits are about life

-Aussie obit specialist wrote Life After Death: The Art of the Obituary

-the first obits in Britain were published in 1622

-very popular in 18th century Britain

-John Aubrey, 17th C chronicler of the rich, the eccentric, and the devious; wrote Brief Lives, which sounds like a great read.

Note: I need to have a page of definitions in my new booklet for the memoir writing seminar in April. i.e. obit vs eulogy; biography vs memoir; autobiography vs biography; profile vs chronicle.

29 December 2008

In March, I will be applying for a Research Master of Arts degree from Mount Saint Vincent (MSVU) University in Halifax. With luck I will be accepted and commence work in September 2009. Today, I am enjoying thinking about this new and exciting challenge. I have decided to start writing a memoir journal, which I’ll use for a jump-start to the academic year and as a record of my memoir book readings. I need to get started lassoing my ideas or they will gallop away.

I realized this morning that letter-writing is a form of memoir-writing. The parameters around that idea would have something to do with how steady the letter writing is, how long the period of letter writing goes on for, and if the two (or more) parties are keeping the letters for posterity (or simple pack-ratty reasons). Naturally, I was thinking about the Simmins letters in our attic, and specifically, Aunt Susette and sister Karin’s archive, both written and photographic, which I promised myself I would send on to the archives at the University of Calgary this year. There are only two days left in this year….

New resolve: please, please, send on these papers in January, 2009. M, it’s not nearly as hard as you’ve built it up to be, in your over-active mind. And won’t it feel glorious to have sister Karin’s handwriting out of this house? Better yet to have all evidence of her frightening mind and blood-sucking self away from you, forever? Bad enough I have such a detailed memory. I don’t need to polish up the memories with help from her evocative prose. She was a fine writer. And poet. She did so many things well. Even all the wretched things.

Enough of that. And I will try to deal with these remaining family archives in January.

As for my own, I just can’t think about this now. I have no particular deal with the University of Calgary about this right now, anyway. The boxes and boxes of hard-bound journals in the attic – 25, 30, more? – written from the 70s to the 90s, can sit there heavy and quiet, collecting dust and age, until I decide their fate.

I need to start a book list, of books I’ve read. This would include everything I read. Last memoir/autobiography: Eric Clapton (must get back from Denise). Current biography: Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Note: Farley Mowat is perhaps Canada’s finest, most prolific memoirist. I have his most current book and memoir, Otherwise, which I hope to read next.

One thought on “Musings on Memoir, December 2008-January 2010

  1. Your sample memoir choices are wonderfully eclectic, the descriptions tantalizing. You make the desire to want to read more memoirs positively infectious! It is enriching to get your own intelligent and very honest take on these, plus your musings on the topic in general. You know how to share effectively. The message I get is that everyone has their life story, which can (and perhaps even should), be told. All are worthy; each is different. Thank you.

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