A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a Starbucks trying to get some work done when I overheard a man and woman talking about Little Women…presumably about the new film adaptation and its Oscar buzz. The woman was trying to explain “what” Little Women is – as in what it’s about – and was struggling a bit. “Well, it’s about four sisters…” To be fair, even if using the most straightforward way to describe the plot, it sounds a little homespun and maybe even boring: “Little Women follows four sisters as they grow up during the Civil War in the Transcendentalist hotbed Concord, Massachusetts.” And? So after the woman trailed off with the “four sisters” bit, the man replied, “But is it for men?”
I just Googled “fiction versus memoir,” even though I know the difference – and I suspect that you do too. My search results yielded the following top result: “Memoir or Novel? How to Decide.” It’s from a random literary agency that hosts an accompanying blog full of tips for would-be authors, and this was one of its posts. I admit to being a little baffled because I always assume that writers sort of know what genre they want to tackle. Do you want to make up a story or not? Ok, ok, I’ll concede that maybe at the beginning of one’s writing days, a little waffling may present itself. Writer: “I have a message I want to convey, but I’m not sure how.” But otherwise, “fake news” notwithstanding, we have FACT and we have FICTION. They’re different, right?
This summer the New York TimesBook Review published a special section entitled “The 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years.” When you think about it, 50 years is a long time. (I can get away with saying that because I myself am over 75% of the way to 50.) In fact, I think “50 years” is a particularly long time in memoir-speak because except for the very few, most of the selections on this list were unfamiliar to me or caused me to go, “Oh riiiiiiiight. Forgot about that one.” The majority of memoirs seem to be the flashes-in-the-pan of the literary world.
Let’s take one of 2018 and 2019’s favorite memoirs. Raise your hand if you have read Educated. (Do you see what I did there? Education…school…raising hands…) In the event that you don’t know, Educated is the story of a woman named Tara Westover who extricated herself from a hyper-religious and hyper-survivalist childhood in Idaho, taught herself enough info to do well on the ACT, gained admission to Brigham Young University, and then earned a Masters and doctorate at Cambridge. The epitome of an against-all-odds story, Westover’s memoir chronicles a stratospheric ejection from her unorthodox childhood from every imaginable angle: educational philosophy (she entered BYU not knowing what the Holocaust was), religious philosophy (a hybrid of essential-oil-heavy “naturalism” and Mormonism), and family-relationship philosophy (Westover eventually realizes that “hey, this isn’t normal”). It’s made-for-television (except it’s real), and we read this type of thing slack-jawed. For those who have grown up in an environment like Westover’s – rare, but plausible – the book may provide a blueprint of hope. For those of us who did not grow up like that, it is a fascinating view into someone’s life as well as a reminder to “appreciate all that we have.” I suspect people will remember Westover’s book for a long time – how can one forget? Continue reading “Fact or Fiction: On The Stone Diaries, The Body Papers & Investigating a Life”→
While perusing the book aisles at Target, one back-cover blurb in particular caught my attention. In case it’s hard to read below: “Mackenzie Cooper took her eyes off the road for just a moment, but the resulting collision changed her life forever. Now she lives in Vermont under the name Maggie Reid, in a small house with her cats and dog, working as a makeup artist at the luxurious local spa.” Let’s forget the first sentence (without forgetting that texting and driving is a BIG NO NO); doesn’t the rest sound kind of…charming? Cozy? Maybe it sounds a little boring and/or slow, but I think we all have days where “real life” seems chaotic and stressful – and maybe enjoying a cup of piping hot tea while curled up in a blanket after returning from our probably-the-same-everyday job seems downright appealing. As I noted on Instagram, this blurb sounds tragic…but also like something out of a J. Crew catalog circa 1995.
We all know this is not real life, but a little nudge toward a comfy and snug life is the same reason some people, in theory, want to be painters or writers or perhaps potters like Demi Moore in Ghost. (Talk about a weird interplay between cozy and tragic.) So I’ve discovered and trademarked a new genre: Tragic Yet Cozy. And by the way, I did a proof read of a manuscript by this same author about 10 years ago, and the plot involved a group of middle-aged mom friends whose daughters all participated in a (ripped-from-the-headlines) pregnancy pact. The women found solace in knitting together in a converted barn in their quaint New England town. I’m just saying: TYC.