Many folks have asked me about the 10 books I read over the past six months for my MFA in creative writing. They are memoir or books about writing memoir that I chose or my faculty mentor suggested. The list follows, including a brief description from the annotated bibliography I had to produce. (I've written extensively about several of these books over the past few months in this blog space.) Let me know if you have read any of them, and how they affected you either personally or as a writer.
Grudin, Robert. Time and the Art of Living. Harper and Row Publishers, 1982. 190 p. Print.
Time and the Art of Living, by Robert Grudin, might best be described as a work of philosophical exploration. Grudin considers all manner of topics – love, relationships, politics, good, evil, morality, achievement, memory, art, growth and age . . . all in relation to time. He tackles what time is, how we relate to it, how we perceive it. It’s an elegantly written treatise on how to live, given the realities of space and time.
Hampl, Patricia. I Could Tell You Stories, Sojourns in the Land of Memory. W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1999. 229 p. Print.
Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories is a collection of previously published essays on memory and autobiography. Delving deeply into what memoir is and what it isn’t, Hampl leads the reader through thoughtful essays focused on her own experiences as a younger woman reading Whitman, on her acquaintance with a woman who came to the United States during World War II who carried a terrible secret she could not tell, through meditations on Sylvia Plath, Simone Weil and St. Augustine’s Confessions. But the most compelling, it seems to me, are Hampl’s own meditations that bookend the collection: “Memory and Imagination,” at the beginning, and the final two essays, “The Need to Say It” and “Other People’s Secrets.” These three essays reveal insights into memory and writing memoir that I found engrossing and instructive for my own writing.
Smith, Patti. Just Kids. HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. 279 p. Print.
Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir, Just Kids, about her long relationship with the photographer and artist Robert Mapplethorpe, is a tender and exquisite tribute to Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1986, and also a lovely meditation on what it means to be an artist. Smith, a writer, poet and pioneering rock and roll singer in the 1970s, deftly invites us into late 1960s New York, where Mapplethorpe was one of the first people she met when she arrived. She was 20, broke and seeking the life of an artist, though she didn’t know what that would look like. He was equally driven to become the artist he knew he was. In those early years, they clung together, as lovers, as friends, and as muses to each other.
The Art of the Personal Essay. Ed. Phillip Lopate. First Anchor Books Edition, 1995. 17-22. Print.
I read Plutarch's “Consolation to His Wife”; Michel de Montaigne's “On Some Verses of Virgil”; Addison & Steele's “Nicolini and the Lions,” “An Hour or Two Sacred to Sorrow,” “Twenty-four Hours in London,” and “Love-Letters”; Maria Edgeworth's “An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification”; Robert Louis Stevenson's “The Lantern-Bearers”; and Natalia Ginzburg's “He and I.”
Conroy, Frank. Stop-Time. Penguin Books USA, 1967. 284 p. Print.
Stop-Time, Frank Conroy’s coming-of-age memoir, is an intimate glimpse into the life of a boy growing up in early 1950s America. From the rough streets of New York to the vast, sandy promises-of-fortune plots near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Frank and his older sister, mother and stepfather struggle to make a life – together and apart. Stop-Time is interesting in that it flows rather loosely through various times of Conroy’s life, though the focus of most of the narrative is from middle school age through his early 20s. He moves easily between earlier and later periods, and his memories are exquisite in their detail. One wonders how he could remember with such clarity, especially the events that occurred when he was a young boy, but it remains believable throughout.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Penguin Books, 1990. 274 p. Print.
In his novel, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien creates a story about a soldier serving in Vietnam during the early 1970s that is both unusual and compelling. Writing in the first person, O’Brien’s protagonist, also named Tim O’Brien, alternately describes his life as an Army draftee in the jungles of Vietnam, his hometown and how he came to serve, and his life as a writer two decades later, masterfully weaving them into a narrative that is both searing and poignant.
Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story, The Art of Personal Narrative. Farrar, Straus and Geroux, 2001. 174 p. Print.
Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, The Art of Personal Narrative, is a wonderful meditation on what make successful memoir and personal essay work. What is it that engages the reader? What universal truths can you, the writer, bring forth to make your writing something more – much more – than a recitation of facts? I am writing about a childhood trauma – a car accident that nearly killed me when I was 5 – and trying to link it to decisions I made as an adult that turned out to be not so great. But going back to that time has proved difficult, if not painful. Trying to mine those memories for insights that will connect with others is the challenge. How did my experience affect my family? How I related to others? What others expected of me? How to weave all those pieces together?
Mairs, Nancy. Voice Lessons, On Becoming a (Woman) Writer. Beacon Press, 1994. 166 p. Print.
In this memoir, Nancy Mairs takes her readers on a wide-ranging exploration of her own journey to becoming a writer. Notice I did not say “successful” writer, because part of what she discusses is, what is success? Is it publication? Acceptance by other writers who are already in the published fold? Work that wins awards and fellowships? She has accomplished all of these, but she implies throughout that it is the realization that one has found her voice, to say what she needs to say no matter what others think, that really marks a woman writer as having come into her own.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador, 2003. 132 p. Print.
This is an extended essay on how pain and suffering are expressed through modern media and the subsequent complications of societal and individual responses. The first half of this book is primarily about early 20th-century photography of war scenes and other grisly events. Sontag spends considerable time presenting the history of documenting war, whether in paintings and other artistic renderings and, later, through photography. It is most engaging when she begins to explore the impact of such representations.
Broyard, Anatole. Intoxicated by My Illness, And Other Writings on Life and Death. Ballantine Books, 1992. 135 p. Print.
Intoxicated by My Illness, And Other Writings on Life and Death is a collection of essays that Anatole Broyard wrote mostly over the last fourteen months of his life, from the time of his prostate cancer diagnosis to his death in 1990. Broyard was a longtime writer and critic for The New York Times Book Review, and turned his considerable intellect to the question of life and its meaning as he pondered both his own death and that of his father.