a new journey: memoir


It seems that memoir is captivating me. I keep wondering if it is a whim or if it is something that is taking root. A few weeks ago, I pulled books off of my shelf and made a few piles :

  • memoir!
  • memoir?
  • memoirish
  • not-memoir-but-a-well-written-narrative
  • creative inspiration

I was surprised how many books I own that are memoir-friendly. The more I sort through my books, the more I realized that I’ve been gravitating toward memoir for many years. I’ve read more memoir than I had realized. Some of my favorite books are memoirs —

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
On Writing by Stephen King
Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by AKR
Chasing Slow by Erin Loechner

Maybe my affinity for memoir was not coming out of the blue. Perhaps my writer-soil has been cultivated for several seasons. Memoir seems so literary — beautifully crafted — and beyond my reach. My quest in life is to find big meaning in ordinary moments, which seems a little bland for memoir. 

It would be easy for me to dismiss memoir. However, I left the pile of books in the middle of my bedroom. They have been there for nearly three weeks. I’m embarrassed to admit this because you will likely make assumptions about my cleaning habits. There are two things I want you to know. 

  1. I have a Very Large bedroom, so the book stacks do not interrupt my husband’s flow of traffic for morning and bedtime routines. The only thing he has said regarding the books is: I see you’re letting the writer out, and Looks like you have a lot of reading plans; too bad baseball is canceled.
  2. I’ve moved my memoir-inspired collection three times to vacuum.Each time I shuffle the stacks. I’m still developing my memoir-genre-sense. I’ve attempted to return them to the shelf. There is always a revolt. 

(I like to think this has more to say about my writing life than my cleaning habits.)

One summer I decided I wanted to try writing young adult fiction. Before I began I read and studied 100 YA novels. I needed to develop my genre sense. Although I’ve been a lifelong YA reader, I wanted time to read like a writer. 

As I’ve been thinking about my stacks of books that resemble memoir, I realized I’ve not read much memoir, mostly because it is the genre I abandon most. 

I tell my books they need to go back to the bookshelf. This is a silly notion  for me to consider writing in the genre of memoir. There is one memoir in my stacks that holds more significance than the others. 

A Severe Mercy.

My friend Barb Bean gave it to me. I lose track of time, which is more evidence that I am not well-suited as a memoirist. I have no problem accepting approximation as truth.

As I tumble Barb’s friendship history around my mind, I know A Severe Mercy has been in the To Read pile on my nightstand for over a decade. I have attempted to read it many times, but have never made it past the first 20 pages. I lost focus and couldn’t understand.

A Severe Mercy was in the most-definitely-without-a-doubt-memoir pile. The description begins, “A poignant memoir…” I pick it up and open to the title page where I find my friend’s familiar handwriting. 

My all-time favorite book to one of my all-time favorite people. 

It’s been too many years since Barb and I have talked. How did that happen? I fan the pages and know that if I am going to read a memoir, then it must be this memoir. 

I think of all the times I’ve abandoned this book. I think of all the years it has sat on my nightstand alone because I stopped making a pile until I read this book. I think of all the times I’ve led young writers in an immersion into a new genre. I think of all the times I’ve allowed myself to immerse into a new genre. I remind myself that immersion into a genre does not mean a commitment to write in that genre. I think about the abandoned drafts, and my bratty One Little Word for 2020 (write).

I grip A Severe Mercy and remember Barb’s uninhibited belief in me as a teacher, a parent, a writer, a human. It is time to read memoir, the way it is intended to be read — deliberate and unhurried.

As I read, a beautiful thing happened. Not only did I fall in love with the book, but I became mesmerized by the genre. I want to figure out how it works. I want to spend more time lingering in the craft of truth and learning the way to shape stories of our lives.

There are some books that enter our lives at just the right time. They steer us in directions we wouldn’t go if it weren’t for the right book at the right time. When I finished reading each word in A Severe Mercy I was relieved that it was this moment when I finished reading it.

My friend, Barb Bean, is one of the wisest women I know. She placed a book in my hands over a decade ago that I needed today. She continues to shape me. 

A Severe Mercy marks the beginning of the invasion of memoir into my life. The day after I finished it, I started Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen. It’s another most-definitely-without-a-doubt-memoir because the subtitle is: A Memoir of a Woman’s Life

It hasn’t sat in a stack on my bedroom floor. I stumbled across it when I was Googling “Must-Read Memoirs,” and I asked my mom (a retired librarian) if she could get it for me. A few days later she gave me a copy I could keep. 

“You didn’t have to buy it for me,” I said. 

“I wanted to,” she said. “Let’s say it’s for your birthday.”

I didn’t think I needed my own copy, but it turns out Barb Bean isn’t the only wise woman who pours into me. (I know a lot of wise women.) Before I finished the first page I was itching to mark different craft moves and telling insights.

Maybe that’s why we give advice, when we’re older, mostly to people who don’t want to hear it. They can’t hear it because it’s in a different language, a language we learn over time, the language of experience cut with failure, triumph, and tedium. 

Anna Quindlen wrote that. I know it wasn’t for me; she doesn’t even know me. Still, it was precisely for me

For many years, I couldn’t get past the first 20 pages of A Severe Mercy because I needed the language of experience in order to understand. 

Memoir isn’t for the lofty, as I mistakenly thought. This is one of the first discoveries of my new journey. It seems right that it is the anchor to hold me steady for all the memoir encounters yet to come.

soslogoI’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic


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  1. I love memoirs! I love getting glimpses into other lives. I always take away a lot of wisdom. My favorites are: The Glass Castle, The Year of Magical Thinking, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Lab Girl, Cathedral of the Wild, and Let the Whole World Come Home.

  2. I always read you first–even if I don’t comment.–because you always have something to share with me. Just like the amazing women in your life, who give you things you didn’t know you needed. Today, I know both this post and the invitation were written just for me (even if they weren’t). Thanks again, Ruth, for always sharing the right things at the right time.

    And, I too, would love to read your memoir!

  3. “My quest in life is to find big meaning in ordinary moments…” You are such a master at this! I loved reading about your journey through memoirs and mentors and your magic of weaving it together. I was thinking the same thing as Leigh Anne and Deb …. I can’t wait to read your memoir. Just WRITE!

  4. Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal is so, so good. Memoir is a favorite of mine…as are the stacks of books. I’m moved by your line, “For many years, I couldn’t get past the first 20 pages of A Severe Mercy because I needed the language of experience in order to understand.”

    If you write a memoir, I am all about that.

  5. So much goodness in this post. I think my favorite line (at least for today) is “My friend, Barb Bean, is one of the wisest women I know. She placed a book in my hands over a decade ago that I needed today. She continues to shape me.” I really love the idea/truth that things come into our lives at whatever time, for us to use and be blessed by when we need them. Thanks for that reminder.


  6. I’ve been thinking a lot about memoir recently too! I fell in love with Megan Stielstra’s essays and learned with her virtually a couple of times in the last few months and it was amazing. I know I have stories to tell and I’m being called to explore them, to be brave and sit down and crack open the feelings I carefully wrap in steel paper. I love that you are exploring memoir too. I started reading The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr and it’s really good so far…she starts by saying there will be fierce and fiery emotions and that’s exactly what makes me nervous about memoir. As nervous/scared/anxious as I am, I know it’s important.