Most of you reading this will already know that St. Martin’s Press is releasing The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: a memoir of friendship, community and the uncommon pleasure of a good book in October. Which makes me very happy, of course.
And very busy. The month of January and (it now appears) most of February are sacrifices to editing. Waking moments are consumed with questions like “where in the story should this part go, where it happened in time or with the stuff it matches philosophically”; “how long should I spend on this painful subject as opposed to the funny stuff, where’s the balance”; and “flow, flow, narrative arc, flow.” Soon they’ll find me in a corner, gibbering sentences full of split infinitives and dangling participles. I’m already boring as a lunch companion.
Patricia Hampl said, in her wonderful memoir The Florist’s Daughter, that nothing is harder to capture in a straightforward flow of words than an ordinary life. She’s right. I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs lately, looking for that elusive quality. Some of the 100 or so I’ve read deal with extraordinary circumstances–like The Russian Word for Snow, about a couple bringing an orphan back to the States through red tape and corruption. And some with very mundane things, such as Sweaterquest: my year of knitting dangerously. It’s a lovely, well-written book about a woman’s attempt to knit a very difficult sweater pattern from an exacting designer.
Yeah. It’s a book about making a sweater. And I really enjoyed it.
The secret to memoirs seems to be that relentless pursuit of ordinariness in extraordinary terms. Memoirs fall into big categories: the silly experiment (A.J. Jacobs spending a year living Biblically, or the number one bestseller in April 2011 about the woman cleaning out her closets to get happy); the city slicker move to the country (Have you got time for a list of these? Printed on paper, it would fill a Subaru.); ordinary people coping with extraordinary circumstances (many of these having to do with illnesses and adoptions); and the homecoming (Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is a great example, and a great read.)
So what makes a memoir good, asks the soon-to-be-published-author-of-one? Years ago, when I was a young’un cutting my teeth in storytelling, Dan Keding made his first appearance at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, TN. Everybody loved him, and since my job at that time involved setting up storytelling workshops at ETSU, where I was the grad assistant in the storytelling program, we quickly booked him for one. During his three days with us, Dan gave some great advice about personal storytelling, which I can’t exactly quote, but here it is from memory twenty years down the road:
A personal story is not about you. It’s about all the people around you. If you are the hero of your own story, it’s not going to come out right, ring true, or be interesting enough to hold people’s attention. You won’t be able to tell the difference between what’s important to you and what’s important to the story. Talk about what happened to other people first, and how you felt about that, what you did because of it, will naturally flow as part of the story.
Then he told us about growing up in Chicago with a Holocaust survivor friend named Stan. His story was about Stan, but when it was over, we all knew so much more about Dan. And we understood what he’d meant about not being the star, just shining through the background.
It’s good advice for memoir writers. The story is the star, we the privileged, lucky ones who get to tell it. That’s certainly a theme emerging as I’m wrestling The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap into final form. It’s fun, and it’s hard work, and even when I’m ready to chuck my laptop across the room and take up sheep farming (not a slight on sheep or their peeps; this appeals to me!) it’s compelling. The bookstore has a good story behind it, an American story, as one editor put it. It resonates with small towners, big dreamers, crushed spirits and persistent cusses; it’s my job to make sure they get their story told.
So I’d best get back at it. But because they’ve been on my mind lately, here are some memoirs that I thought did a great job of telling a simple, or complex, or personal, or universal, story.
Cherries in Winter, Suzan Colon – a nice read about family history and current economic times, weaving together past and present and the strain of resilience that threads from generation to generation, particularly but not exclusively mother to daughter
Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler, by Wade Rouse – Now here’s a good example of how an ordinary story can capture people with no common interest. I’m not gay, male, rich, a teacher, or interested in the doings of prep schools, yet I laughed my way through this book. Rouse makes it right there for you, full of what it would feel like. Humor and truth dance the jitterbug together in his work.
Heart in the Right Place, Carolyn Jourdan – [disclosure: Carolyn is also a friend] This is a universal-theme story about doing the right thing by family, and how silly that can get. The “coming home” motif from Washington D.C. to a small town is thought-provoking, offset by the hilarity of pandering to hypochondriacs and x-raying goats.
If You Lived Here I’d Know Your Name, by Heather Lende – a fun read specifically about living in small-town Alaska, but more about just living
My Korean Deli, by Ben Ryder Howe – Okay, so a lot of the books I’ve enjoyed have the theme of people burning up or out and leaving power-play places for “simpler” circumstances. But this cliche only goes so far for Howe’s book. Editor by day, deli owner by night, family man always, he tries to negotiate his own life when control seems to hard to get. The story is funny, poignant, and sweet, and it might be a little sadder than anyone wants to admit.
The Necklace, by Cheryl Jarvis – Perhaps less memoir than journalism, this is a professional writer’s interviews with 13 women who went together and bought a diamond necklace, then shared it across a year. What they learned about themselves, material consumption, values and being American got really interesting without being particularly preachy. A lot of food for thought, especially as the author keeps a light touch. She tells you what happened, not how you should feel about it.
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Evelyn Ryan – The movie actually did the book justice, but her turns of phrase are so very worth reading.
Queen of the Road, by Doreen Orion – A neurotic cat, a fitted-out-for-camping bus, and two people with a huge poodle and another cat set off to discover themselves by pretending to discover America. Fun, cheerful, like a sing-a-long for writers…
Riding the Bus with my Sister, Rachel Simon – This is a lovely read about family ties tied up in a lot of details and annoyances. Never saw the Lifetime Movie, assuming they would seriously mess such a subtle, nuanced book up big time…
So Many Books, So Little Time, Sara Nelson – a cheerful romp through why we read, what we read, when we read it, and how all that jumbles together to make us who we are
A final word to the wise: if you are trying to publish a memoir, go poke about a bookstore and library, read several, and see how they put their stories together. Then, when you write up your proposal and send it off to an agent or publisher, do NOT tell them your book is just like Eat, Pray, Love. Trust me on this one. :]