Writing Memoir

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I recently taught a class on writing “hermit crab stories” for Third Verb Writing Workshops. At some point, I mentioned that I would come up with a list of my “Top 10 Favourite Memoirs” and send it out to the workshop participants so they could do some extra reading.

As it turned out I was incapable of composing a favourites list. It’s just too dependent upon my mood at the time. I also realized that my favourite memoirs aren’t necessarily the ones that I’ve learned the most from. Instead I decided to compose a list of “10 Memoirs That I Have Learned From.” This is not a definitive list, and I suspect that if you were to ask me again in a year, I’d probably give you a different list — but here it is:

10 Memoirs That I Have Learned From

  1. Of This Earth by Rudy Wiebe: This one will always be on my top ten list. Wiebe’s use of language is lyrical and poetic and his incorporation of ephemera is masterful, but the aspect of his memoir that I can’t forget is the way in which he builds effect over time. When Wiebe’s childhood self experiences an epiphany, the reader experiences it too.
  2. A Promise of Salt by Lori Misek: Misek comes to terms with her sister’s murder. Use of broken narrative and white space is breathtaking.
  3. Stitches by David Small (graphic memoir): Poignant and bizarre and terrifying.
  4. A Likely Story by Robert Kroetsch: Kroetsch’s memoir is a written collage and like a visual collage, meaning is created slowly as the reader examines each piece.
  5. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson: If you didn’t grow up in the 1950’s, you will feel like you did.
  6. Counting Teeth: A Namibian Story by Peter Midgley: Like his poetry, Midgley’s prose is rich and textured.
  7. The Book of Small by Emily Carr: Her writing isn’t complex, but its simplicity complements her stories.
  8. Rosina the Midwife by Jessica Kluthe: I’ve always been attracted to writers who are able to weave various elements into the narrative. I have tried to do this with my own long-form works.
  9. Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy: A memoir that teaches us both what to do and (perhaps) what not to do. Poetic and lyrical, but the author is not entirely likeable and that makes for an interesting read.
  10. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard: This is a classic of the genre, but I found the author’s incessant complaining about writing irritating. It undermined her “ethical appeal” (as we’d say in rhetoric) or authorial credibility. Having said that, Dillard is masterful in other ways. She is able to look at the common, the everyday and turn it into something magical.

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