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.