Notes on memoir, and five memoirs to read

On memoir and writing memories. Writing memoir. Personal narratives. Why I write in first person. More, in an essay on Our Story Time

This piece is inspired by Postcards Home, my new online writing course.

“I love the memoir style of your blog,” a kind reader wrote to me not so long ago.

I’ll admit, the compliment took me by surprise, not least because accepting compliments does not come to me quite as easily as, say, accepting flowers or a cup of tea from my husband, but also because I hadn’t truly considered my blog to be “memoir-style” before.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised it sort of is. Some of my strongest memories are those that when I close my eyes, I remember the way the light fell; how it dappled on my skin or dripped like mist through broken cloud, how it felt to walk through it just for that moment. Those are the moments I seek to capture because they are often tied up with something or someone else too; a swell of my heart, a touch of a hand, a kiss upon a forehead. Love, I guess. 

I love writing of it. And I love reading of it too, of other people’s memories and moments, other people’s memoirs; for me, they offer snatches of life that tell a story, snatches in which there is meaning, resolution; eventual understanding.

The best sort of memoirs help me find a little bit of myself in someone else’s story. They help me reflect as a reader, just as I’m sure the writer does a hell of a lot of reflecting too. And I suppose that is what I try to do on my blog; I tell a story through moments of my everyday life, moments that move me even in ways that are only small but yet still significant. When I write and hit publish, I hope that someone else might find a tiny bit of themselves in here too and thus feel at home right here, in Our Story Time.

Beth Kephart, a fine memoirist whose work I love, once wrote that: “Memoir yearns to understand what a life means.” She’s talking about memoir as books, of course, but I believe there’s no reason why that can’t also extend to first-person blogs too, the sort of posts I try to write here.

It’s this idea of remembrance and striving to understand that inspired me to write Postcards Home, my new online writing course on writing your memories and writing in a personal way (by which I mean, in a first-person sort of way). Throughout the writing of the course, I avoided using the words “writing your memoir” because I did not want to frighten off writers who are just starting to find their way. For most people, at least, the word “memoir” instantly brings to mind some big, heavy book all about their life. No writer, aspiring or otherwise, wants to be confronted with the somewhat terrifying prospect of writing any sort of big book straight away.

But of course, a memoir isn’t a big book all about your life. It doesn’t start with breakfast, aged five and end with bed time, aged thirty. It’s not a diary. It’s about writing of the things that have happened in your life that have changed you. Moved you, shaped you, made you more of who you are today. And I’d say this goes for memoir-style blogs too, as much as it does for books.

While we might not all be able to simply sit down and write our memoirs, we can at least start to catalogue some of our more meaningful memories together, for these are the little vignettes that might eventually loop together and tell a story, a story that might just show who we are and what it is that makes us real. A story that helps us understand what our lives mean.

And that for me is really all I try to do on my blog, and it’s what I hope to explore in Postcards Home too. I write about moments and memories from my near past, my far past, my every day, so that I can make sense of them, or so that I might simply remember something that mattered to me because of how it made me feel, no matter how small. It’s both a privilege to do this, to be quite so introspective, but it is also, I would argue, a necessity. For we are not fixed in time, after all, but looking back and trying to understand who we used to be helps us know who we are today, this version of us, just a little bit more.

I am aware that I am making it sound as though writing about yourself, writing your own stories, is this indulgent, selfish pastime that signals you as self-obsessed in some way. But that’s not it. That’s not it at all. For to write of yourself, you must first also write of your world. You must first look outwards, before you turn in.

Taking the time to observe, to notice, to feel the sights, smells, sounds of our everyday, to catalogue them through language that is both rich and expressive yet also simple, is one way to do this (and we explore this in Postcards Home, quite literally). It takes practice to stretch your skills of observation, to be open and sensitive not just to ourselves but to others, but I believe it makes one’s writing richer and more sensitive for it.

To be able to recognise the quality of the light on any particular day or the way his face darkens from disappointment or hers softens with content, is ultimately what enables us to look beyond ourselves. It enables us to capture the texture of our everyday. To look beyond ourselves.

Below, a small selection of books which I believe do just this; look beyond so that we might understand both what is hidden inside of us and what is also all around us:

Five must-read memoirs

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion - A raw, brutal and heartbreaking exploration of what was an unthinkable year of loss for Didion: the year her daughter fell into a coma and her husband died. It’s terrifying, searing, painful and intensely personal. It leaves you wanting to hold on to everything and everyone you hold dear, but also leaves you understanding, no matter how uncomfortably, how little control we have over this thing called life.

Hunger: A Memoir Of My Body, Roxane Gay - an incredibly powerful memoir on body size and the often humiliating and hurtful perception that others have of those who don’t confirm to the accepted stereotype of what a healthy or attractive size is, told through Gay’s exceptional voice. She shares what it’s been like, not just battling with body size, but to also feel so invisible and to carry trauma upon her body in a literal way. Uncomfortable, but also intimate and sensitive.

This Really Isn’t About You, Jean Hannah Edelstein - a beautifully understated story on coming to terms with letting go but also looking forward. Edelstein’s father died of cancer and not long after his death, she realised she carried the same gene that would one day cause her cancer too. This Really Isn’t About You is about coping with grief while trying to face the future. It’s written in a way which is subtle, sad but also funny, human, sensitive and moving. I have always enjoyed Edelstein’s journalism and you can also sign up to her sporadic newsletter which is always a joy to read.

How Not To Be, Priya Minhas - this is an essay which appears in The Good Immigrant USA but you can also read an edited extract of it on gal-dem. Minhas writes about growing up and finding the strength to be yourself, told through the lens of her childhood and all the things she was and was not allowed to do. Although it will speak to those from a south Asian background, who will most likely recognise so much of the life she writes of, it is also deeply relatable and universal in many more ways than the cultural references alone. It will speak to anyone who ever remembers being a teenage girl, testing boundaries and growing up to realise that you don’t have to be defined by anyone else anymore.

In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri - I admit I haven’t read this yet, but it’s on my birthday wish list and since it’s written by Lahiri, I already know I’ll be recommending it anyway. Lahiri is one of my favourite authors (the title of my collection of short stories, In Spite of Oceans, was inspired by a line from one of her own short stories) and this book is her first foray away from fiction into memoir. From what I have read, it’s about belonging or rather finding some place you belong, that isn’t bound by identity or heritage, but love. Lahiri moved from the US to Italy, out of a love for the language and culture and finds it more home than anywhere else, despite having no other connection to the place other than falling in love with its language, its richness: A few quotes that caught my breath: “Ever since I was a child, I’ve belonged only to my words. I don’t have a country, a specific culture. If I didn’t write, if I didn’t work with words, I wouldn’t feel that I’m present on the earth.” And later: “Here in Italy, where I’m very comfortable, I feel more imperfect than ever. Imperfection inspires invention. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.”

This post includes a few affiliate links that help me run Our Story Time at no cost or inconvenience to you. Thank you for your reading!

Postcards Home is a six-week online course to inspire you to write your memories. The course is designed to be thought-provoking, delivered through one weekly essay.

Postcards Home begins on Monday, May 20th, 2019.

Books by my bedside: what I have been reading lately

The opposite of loneliness, essays and stories by Marina Keegan. More on the books I’ve been reading on Our Story Time books reading writers books

At the start of this year, I set myself the lofty goal of not just reading more, but reading better. It warms me to say I’m not doing too badly. I’ve read more books so far this year than I did at all over the entire course of the last and I think, in part, feeling clearer and less anxious about what I’m doing with my writing has enabled that. So, gone are those self-help-entrepreneur-creative-business-hustle-type books which served their purpose once-upon-a-time yet also sometimes served little purpose at all. Instead, I have made room for other books, more beautiful books; books that may not help me build-my-brand (Dear Lord!) but that will at the very least stretch my thinking.

I keep a list of all the books I’d like to read in my notebook. That list is very long and every time I go into a bookstore or the library, I stray from it, browsing through books as though I’m picking berries in a field on a summer’s day under a straw hat. I am easily swayed by smart alliterative titles, easily convinced by the girl behind the counter who says I really must try this one that she couldn’t put down; hell, I am swayed sometimes by books that just look damn pretty. Bookstore layouts are my downfall, my labyrinth; I am trapped yet I also don’t want to leave. What I am trying to do, though, is be more mindful of what I bring home. Because the more unread books on my bedside, the more books I seem to want to keep on acquiring. So I’m trying to pace myself: one book at a time, Huma. One book at a time.

It occurred to me, while writing this blog post, that almost all the books I’ve happened to read lately are essays or collections of some sort. I suppose this isn’t all that surprising, given that my first book was a collection and now I’m threading my own essays together too, but though I am biased, I have to say - collections are such a nice, easy way to make time to read. When time is short or you are battling with a novel you just can’t make heads or tails of, it’s refreshingly spritely to dip in and out of a collection of stories, or a collection of essays; one at a time. If you haven’t ever tried reading a collection, give it a go. The individual pieces are often short, so easy enough to digest, and yet they are almost always more meaningful than tweets.

Here’s what I’ve been reading these last few months:

The Opposite of Loneliness: Essay and Stories by Marina Keegan - Marina was only 22-years-old when she died in car crash, five days after graduating from Yale. This alone makes her smiling face, beaming out from the front cover, hauntingly poignant. Marina was young but yet had work published in The New Yorker and The New York Times. This book brings together pieces of Marina’s portfolio; both non-fiction essays and short stories she wrote during her time at Yale. They’re written in that voice of being twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two; that voice which believes so passionately that the world is yours for the taking. That she, in turn, was taken so soon is what makes this collection all the more moving.

The Good Immigrant USA edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman - The premise of this US collection is the same as The Good Immigrant’s UK collection: a gathering of fresh perspectives from writers of colour. It is bright and triumphant. My favourite essays are On Loneliness, by Fatimah Asghar, in which she takes a ride in an Uber and is suddenly confronted with an overwhelming sense of wanting, of needing, to belong and How Not To Be by Priya Minhas, in which she describes her girlhood, of learning to be a woman caught between her family culture and wanting so desperately to fit in.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett - I have never read any of Ann Patchett’s novels and yet I was drawn to read this collection of her journalism. When placed together, these first-person pieces read like the most charming memoir. I found this delightful to read; even when she writes of difficult things, like her first marriage failing, she does so with lightness, all these moments just tumbling on to the page. It was a dream to read.

Feel Free by Zadie Smith - In her foreword to this, Zadie Smith mentions how she feels some sort of anxiety about not having any real qualifications to write - this from Zadie Smith. I haven’t read all of her novels, just two (White Teeth and NW) but I’ve always enjoyed her more journalistic pieces more, and so I loved the chance to delve deeper through these essays. It’s not the sort of book you’d want to necessarily read all in one go, but the sort to dip in and out of, by nature of the fact most of these essays are journalism, and you’d probably be moved to pick them out by subject rather than read them chronologically. The subjects of her essays are far too wide-ranging to list here but her voice is so beautifully consistent and simple throughout and such a lesson in writing as you. It’s as though she’s thinking aloud. I’ve underscored many, many pages of this collection; I suggest you do too.

You think it, I’ll say it by Curtis Sittenfeld - Curtis Sittenfeld is one of my favourite writers. I don’t hold on to every single book I read or buy; I pass them along to other parents at the school gate, I leave them out on the brick wall for neighbours to take, I send them to my mother and my mother-in-law. But Curtis Sittenfeld’s books have always stayed on my shelf and I re-read her regularly (American Wife is one of my most favourite comfort books, by which I mean a book I’ll turn to when I’m needing the literary equivalent of a cup of tea and a big slab of cake). I was excited to learn she had written short stories too and I’ll offer up right here that I haven’t finished this yet because I’m savouring every single page and trying to make it last. Most reviews all name check the title short story, but there are so many in here that I loved - Off The Record, The Prairie Wife (what a twist!), A Regular Couple. What I love about her writing is that it is so down-to-earth, so unpretentious and yet so clever in its simplicity. I love the way she zooms into personal relationships and holds them up to the light. I’d love to write like she does.

And now then, over to you: what have you been reading? What should I pick out next?

ps this post includes affiliate links that contribute to Our Story Time with no inconvenience or cost to you - thank you!

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On being a writer and a mother (part two): writing about my children

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As a writer who writes mostly in first-person, it is inevitable that I sometimes write about my children. I read once that: “Making the decision to have a child... is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body,” (Elizabeth Stone) and so I suppose it is only natural for me, as a writer, to put my walking heart and all its observations into words, to untangle this process with and through language.

I have written and explained before that my blog is a way for me to process my every day. It’s a way to both remember and cherish but also simply figure things out - whether that’s as meaningful as how to gently talk to my kids about world affairs or as dumbfounded as what to do when your three-and-a-half-year-old refuses to eat or sharing a way which helped our kids sleep better in case it helps someone else’s too.

I am more inclined to write about my children than I am to post photographs of them because that’s just how I am. I am careful about the images I share on my public social media feed, mostly but not always limiting them to some distance from their faces (as above) or some artful shots of the back of their heads. You might see less of my older son on my Instagram feed, for the simple reason he doesn’t always like to have his picture taken so I won’t ever insist, certainly never for the sake of my grid. There’s been a lot written about “sharenting” - parents who share photos of their children on social media publicly, parents who go into all sorts of details about them. I’m not all that into social media, and as I’m a naturally private person it makes sense to me not to overdo it personally on the one channel I do use.

But then I’ve found myself thinking: what’s the difference with writing about my children and how can I avoid oversharing through words in the same way sometimes people might overshare in pictures, Stories or captions? Because while I do not only write about my children, I do often enough, and sometimes I am paid to do so too. I’ve written about my parents in the past and my husband for that matter, and also been published and paid for that. So what’s different, when it comes to writing about my children?

Well, I suppose there is no difference. There is always a line of what I will and will not write about. It is strange to be in this position, to be both a writer, but also to still be a little uncomfortable with sharing too much. It is not as though I talk about myself or my children or my childhood memories all the time to people I might meet in person, for instance. But I do so frequently in my writing, because I write to reflect and to remember and to make sense of things. By sharing memories that are meaningful to me, I suppose I am offering people a pause to think, to look for what is meaningful in their own lives too. When it comes to writing about my children specifically, I share memories mostly because I just want to keep them for myself and I hope that maybe, if these memories are still accessible online by the time my boys are grown, maybe they might even one day be meaningful to them too (and this is sort of the inspiration behind Postcards Home, my new online writing course on writing your memories).

Will I continue to write about my children when they are older, when they are teenagers with all the challenges that may yet bring? I don’t know. As a teenager myself, I know I deeply valued my privacy and felt riled, hot and angry when I felt it invaded by prying parents or nosy siblings discovering my diary or reading my mail. So, I don’t think so. Or, if I did, I’d ask them if something was okay, just like I’ve asked my husband if he’s okay with me writing about us. Maybe I’d reference them in a more general way. Maybe by that time my life will have moved on from the intensity of the early pre-school years. Maybe I’ll have another lens in which to look at myself, my world, my every day. It is interesting that since my children were born, I’ve struggled greatly with writing fiction. I can’t remember the last time I wrote an entirely fictional short story, for instance, and I failed spectacularly to submit the first chapters of my novel when pregnant with my third child. I wonder if, once these early years pass, I might somehow write myself out of motherhood and more into the realms of imagination again. I guess I’ll see. Right now, it feels natural to write about them while they are still young because we sort of share a narrative, our lives so closely entwined. But I would like for them to find their own narratives when they are older, to maybe even write their own ways of understanding, and maybe in that way, I’ll find another narrative of mine.

In my Gmail, there’s a draft email I keep with “The things they say” typed in the subject line. In here, I write down almost word for word something I’ve overheard them say or watched them do. I quickly note down their sweet, enquiring conversations, a particular turn of phrase that softens my heart or sets it alight, or the way they might look at me with those brown eyes they all happen to share. I periodically cast my eyes over this draft email and write down the best of these moments on little postcards I keep stacked with my writing notebooks, so that I might keep them forever.

These are the things I keep only for me; the things your eyes will never read. These are the things I don’t want to forget. The things that remind me that time is passing faster than I would like.

One day, maybe, I’ll share it with them.

Write it all down

Postcards Home is my latest online writing course, designed not to feel like an online writing course but an inspiring nudge to help you want to write, to fall in love with writing, and to do it in a small, simple ways that aren’t overwhelming. Designed as a set of weekly essays, Postcards Home will gently, hopefully, remind you to look out for the details in your everyday, both your present and your past, and take note so that one day, you too might remember everything you want to through your very own written words.

Postcards Home starts on Monday, May 20th, 2019.