I believe that everyone's life is worth writing about—if you highlight the fascinating detail. I'm Sorry You Feel That Way serves as a prime example. Although Diana Joseph's life sounds like one that could spark a memoir of surviving dysfunction, in most respects it seems like one that most people would consider utterly plain and ordinary. Diana makes that ordinariness shimmer with fascination. She's a master of the telling trivial detail that breathes life and personality into her characters. For example, she tells us that her father liked tongue twisters...and always removed his shirt upon arriving home. He hated dust on top of the grandfather clock...and pork chops that had been frozen. Her first husband, Karl Bennet, was a buyer of NRA collectible commemorative coins. Her son, whom she refers to as "the boy," doesn't like skateboarders because they smoke weed, and he would be shocked to know that there were boys and girls who thought his mother was a slut.
Aside from her gift for the telling detail, she deviates from the standard memoir path of recording a continuous story. Instead, she has created a series of discrete essays comprising a collage of her life—or at least part of her life. Her subtitle, The Astonishing but True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man and Dog contains a hidden clue to the contents. She does not mention that she is Friend to Woman, nor does she make more than passing mention of women in the book. This is a story of her life as defined by the men in it and her relationships with them. Her mother is barely mentioned. Even the chapter titled "Mary, Queen of Arkansas," is about Bruce Springsteen, her son, her common-law second husband, and a male guitar teacher. Even her dog, which has a nasty habit of humping anything and everything (especially a stuffed dinosaur), is male.
But make no mistake. This memoir is more than a collection of descriptions of men. Indeed, she displays a genius for using each of them, whether man, boy or dog, as mirrors of her psyche. Each showcases a different facet of her likes, dislikes, fears, fancies, vulnerabilities, foibles, and general zaniness. Each essay stands on its own as a gem of self-containment, written in a strong, compelling voice, neatly bordered and complete within itself, while gradually building on the ones that came before. Each combines her delightfully dry and gentle self-deprecating humor with her astute eye for detail and knack for creating a well-arranged portrait of diverse elements.
I recommend this book as a great read for anyone. It can also serve as a powerful case study for aspiring memoirists in search of an alternate way to structure their stories, or those who would simply write compelling personal essays.
Diana Joseph has worked as a waitress, a short order cook, a typist and a teacher. She teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Visit her website.
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