The Art of the Memoir | Day of Dialog 2018

Memoirs may be ubiquitous in the publishing lineup this year, but as Day of Dialog’s The Art of the Memoir panel demonstrated, the range of experience encompassed by that label means there is something to resonate with every reader.
Memoirs may be ubiquitous, but as evidenced by “The Art of the Memoir” (moderated by longtime LJ memoir reviewer Erin Shea, Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT), the range of experience they encompass means there is something to resonate with every reader. In Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life (Grand Central, Jun.), for instance, Amanda Stern vividly recollects growing up in 1970s and 1980s Greenwich Village with an undiagnosed panic disorder—“an ideal scenario,” she noted disarmingly, for sitting on a panel at the front of a full auditorium. Initially, said Stern, she didn’t recall the details of her childhood but was able to lie down, close her eyes, and tap into “those horrible feelings”—all the while slightly panicked that she might not be able to reemerge. In Joy Enough: A Memoir (Liveright: Norton, Jan. 2019), Sarah McColl resurrected painful memories of losing her mother but was also able to recall happier times as she wrote. Her choice to focus on her mother’s illness and death was not so much an intellectual choice but instinctual, she explained: “Overwhelmed with the experience of losing someone so foundational, I had no other way to understand it other than to write it.” In A Dream Called Home: A Memoir (Atria, Oct.), Reyna Grande continues the story begun with her National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, The Distance Between Us. Grande’s parents  immigrated from Mexico to the United States years before she finally crossed the border alone, at age nine, and her new book examines the hard realities of finding her place. That included bucking language, cultural, and economic odds to get an education, even if going to college created additional distance between her and her parents. (Now, her ten-year-old daughter says of her Barbies, “They’re in college, and they’re in a book club.”) The first memoir was harder to write because Grande had been too young to remember what her characters said; here, with an early reader's permission to put words in her characters' mouths, her mother’s voice came back to her immediately—“and then all my characters wanted to talk.” Susan Purvis’s Go Find: My Journey To Find the Lost—And Myself (Blackstone, Oct.) focuses on a turning point in her life: after returning from Latin America and settling in a Colorado ski town, Purvis read of an avalanche that buried three children and felt that somehow she could make a difference. So, “not knowing how to take care of a houseplant, I ended up with a five-and-a-half–week-old puppy and decided to train it to save lives.” With no experience with rescue or dog training (“I was raised a freewheeling kid…so I decided to raise my own puppy like that”), Purvis had to learn from scratch—which included revising her ideas of puppy-rearing. Also detailing her search for a mentor, Go Find ends happily—she and her dog, Tasha, have found everyone they set out to rescue. Instead of a memoir, Susan Shapiro presented The Byline Bible: Get Published in Five Weeks (Writer’s Digest: F + W Media, Aug. 2018), which offers practical information and proven advice for aspiring essay writers and memoirists. Drawing on her own experience and the writing classes she has taught for the past 25 years, the book encourages students to begin their path to publication with a short personal essay—with the goal of placing a piece by the class’s end (“Three pages can change your life”). Her first assignment, Shapiro said, was to write an essay about your most humiliating secret: “If you say to people, ‘write what you want,’ those tend not to be as interesting. But that answer is always fascinating.” Photos ©2018 William Neumann        

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