Living to Tell the Tale
by Jane Taylor McDonnell


Penguin, 1998. ISBN 0140265309.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 01/08/2001

Nonfiction: Creative Life; Nonfiction: Life Lessons

If you're writing your story, this little book (it's only 161 pages, including the list of recommended readings) will be a wonderful companion. It is about writing ourselves through, and out of, crises in our lives—times of pain and anguish, times of loss. It is about using the memoir as a testimony to our survival. It is about strength, and finding it through our writing. It was written by a woman who has been teaching the memoir for sixteen years, in a college course called "Witness Narratives: Memoirs of Survival." She is also the author of her own memoir, News from the Border, the story of her life with her autistic son—and of her own difficult experience of alcoholism.

The "crisis memoir," as McDonnell calls it, has become an important form, enjoying great popularity among readers. She cites Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, Mary Karr's The Liars' Club. McDonnell argues that writing is therapeutic, and that if you have experienced trials and traumas, writing your own crisis story may be a way for you to begin to heal and understand. She deals with such important questions as "talking back" to our inner censors, learning to remember painful experiences, using our imaginations to explore the past, and finding an appropriate voice for the story we have to tell. Each chapter includes examples, discussion, and four or five helpful writing exercises. If you have a difficult story to tell and you're finding it hard to get started on the work of writing, read this fine little book. It will show you that you aren't alone in writing about the experience of pain—and that you can use your writing to help you survive.

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