"Be honest, dig deep or don't bother," says Abigail Thomas in her charming new book, Thinking About Memoir. Like a rambling conversation with a close friend, this 128-page guide is short on techniques and long on advice and personal stories from the author's own life as a writer. It teaches by showing, rather than telling.
Thomas' gentle humor is evident throughout, as when she describes childhood memories of tearing dolls apart with her sister and throwing the body parts out the window of their moving car, or pounding on the lovebirds' cage to stop their singing.
More than once as I was reading along, engrossed in scenes from her trip to Belize or a cell phone conversation overheard on the train, I was surprised by a lovely sentence like this one: "Memory seems to be an independent creature inspired by an event, not faithful to it." Or this: "I'm old enough now to know that the past is every bit as unpredictable as the future." To a sixty-something memoir writer like me, these words offered reassurance and encouragement. Even if my memory of an event is vague, I can still write about it!
Thomas advises us to stick to the details and let the larger story tell itself, without trying to control or direct it. She advises "losing" abstract nouns and including as many specific details as possible in any story. And far from being discouraged when she found herself passionately writing bits and pieces with no narrative flow, she kept at it. "I never cross-examine the muse," she says.
As if to illustrate her point, most chapters contain scenes from her daily life—bidding on eBay, eating ice cream, taking her dog to the vet—followed by (loosely) related writing prompts. The exercises apply not just to memoirs; they could be used for personal essays as well.
In her own writing practice, Thomas prefers the term "diary" to "journal" which she believes implies always writing for publication, whereas a diary can mean any notes at all, including recipes. She has kept diaries all her life, preferring moleskin-covered notebooks to any other kind.
In Thinking About Memoir, we learn almost as much about the book's writer as we do about writing. She is a sister, mother and grandmother, daughter of a famous scientist, and a recent widow who was married three times. A real woman you might like to know, Thomas is an avid observer of the ordinary moments of life: having coffee with a friend; reading the newspaper; trying to learn pilates; rescuing a dog from a fence. These are the moments that shed light on who we are. They are the ones we must write about.
Thinking About Memoir is the first volume in the "Arts of Living" series from the AARP.
Abigail Thomas is the daughter of science writer Lewis Thomas (The Lives of a Cell). She is the mother of four children and grandmother of twelve. A former editor and literary agent, her memoir, A Three Dog Life, was named one of the Best Books of 2006 by the LA Times. Also the author of stories, a novel, and two children's books, she teaches fiction writing in the graduate program at The New School in New York City. Visit her web site.
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