reading memoir to write memoir: a photoessay

I’ve committed to reading 10 memoirs this summer. Although I’m naturally an avid (and eclectic) reader, I don’t tend to blog much about my reading life. However, as I’ve considered claiming a sacred space in my life for writing, I’ve decided to include the way reading is an integral part of my writing process. A brief photoessay follows.


Chasing Slow by Erin Loechner is a memoir, and I didn’t even realize it! As I read it, I knew it was the kind of book I want to write. I like the adventure of it, the way it is many things — how to and personal narrative; recipes and lists of favorite shopping sites. I appreciate the craft (and the columns) of this book and started following her blog so I can get my fill of beautiful craft and simple stories more often.


I started toying with possibly-maybe being open to the idea of memoir writing. I ordered Handling the Truth because I saw it on Erin’s blog. I pulled the other two books off my shelf to help my thinking about what makes a memoir. I knew they were completely different structures, but I suspected they had other qualities that were similar.


Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart landed in my life at just the right time. I picked it up on a recommendation that compared it to Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It did not disappoint. It broadened my thinking on craft moves about dialogue and setting. It helped me think deeper about writing Truth rather than perception. It gave me tools to be more authentic in my storytelling. Throughout the book there are excerpts from a variety of memoirs to use as mentors. Everything about it resonated with what I know about the reciprocal processes of reading and writing. I read this slow, and I started to transform my notebook habits to develop the writing life of a memoirist.


I decided it might be worth digging a little deeper into memoir. I made some piles of memoir and memoir-ish and not-memoir-at-all. I decided to read ten memoirs before I totally wrote off the genre as something that is not-for-me. This was my official first memoir to count towards the ten.

I liked the way it tugged at the thread of discovering faith, and the way I felt like I was on an adventure as I followed along with the story. It wasn’t their whole life story, but it was mostly chronological.  I was surprised that it didn’t read like an autobiography, yet I’m not sure what made it different. I felt like I was part of a discovery. I want to write to discover.

(If I were possibly-maybe toying with the idea of being a memoirist.)


I wanted to read a memoir by Natalie Goldberg because I often tuck these words from her inside my notebooks —

As writers we life twice, like a cow that eats its food once and then regurgitates it to chew and digest it again. We have a second chance at biting into our experience and examining it…This is our life and it’s not going to last forever. There isn’t time to talk about someday writing that short story or poem or novel. Slow down now, touch what is around you, and out of care and compassion for each moment and detail, put pen to paper and begin to write.


Old Friend from Far Away by Natalie Goldberg was an unexpected treat. I thought I was ordering a memoir written by Natalie Goldberg. Instead it is a guide in memoir writing practice. It is full of prompts for 10 minute quick writes. Admittedly, I wasn’t a believer that random prompts are the best way to spend my writing time. However, as I’ve been open to her advice, I’ve found myself loosening up and accepting the memories as they come, rather than trying to create a perfectly controlled outline with just the right memories. I’m writing 10 minute quick writes daily, inspired by Natalie and simply letting go of any reservations about the stories I stumble upon in my memories.


The second official memoir was Anna Quindlen’s Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. Oh, it was delicious! I lovelovelove the craft of it,; the way the words swirled and a reflection spiraled around me. I like the way it made me think and the lyrical essay quality of it. It is quite different from A Severe Mercy. It was not linear, which appealed to me.

(If I were possibly-maybe toying with the idea of being a memoirist.)


I’m nearing the end of Chasing Space by Leland Melvin. He lived a fantastic life. This feels more autobiography to me than the other books I’ve read. However, this morning I read Chapter 9, and it caught my attention and slowed me down. The book is an exploration of grit and grace and second chances, but it isn’t as lyrical as Anna’s or Erin’s. I like lyrical. I want to write lyrically.

(If I were possibly-maybe toying with the idea of being a memoirist.)


I missed the lyrical craft so much that even though I had not finished Chasing Space, I read another Anna Quindlen memoir: A Short Guide to a Happy Life. This is the fourth memoir towards my goad of ten,  or is it three since I haven’t completed Chasing Space? I’ve read it three times because she isn’t teasing in the title; it is short. Does that make it memoir four, five and six? More notably, it is powerful. I’ve noticed that it bounces from idea to idea, all hinged together on the reflection of what makes a happy life. She tells the story of losing her mother at age 19; she tells the story of Paul on the road to Damascus; she creates a guide to a happy life. I want to create a guide to a life of wisdom and whimsy…

If I were possibly-maybe toying with the idea of being a memoirist.

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  1. As you possibly-maybe toy with writing memoirs, your words paint a beautiful, vulnerable, memoir of yourself as a writer. And, my friend, I would say you ARE creating quite a guide – whimsy and all.

  2. Umm, yes are toying with being a memoirist! I started my summer reading with A Short Guide to a Happy Life – loved it. I also just saw Chasing Slow on my Kindle – I’m starting it tomorrow. What a great collection and idea you are wrestling with.

  3. I love that you are leaning toward memoir! There are so many books I love in this post, and now so many I want to read! I’ve got to get Chasing Slow. This was such a fun and inspirational photo essay.

  4. I can’t tell you how happy the words “possible/maybe toying with the idea of you being a memiorist” make me! Filling lives with your “wisdom and whimsy” would be magical! Write on, Ruth Ayres!

  5. Oh my gosh, I LOVE this, Ruth. You’ve given me books I want to add to my list, and you’ve made me laugh with your humanness, and hedging your memoir writing self! I laughed each time you said “If I were possibly-maybe toying with the idea of being a memoirist”
    Thanks so much for sharing you.

  6. Possibly-maybe – an open-minded phrase, hopeful, sometimes so much better than affirmative no or yes. Keep toying with the idea of being a memoirist, write a little, play some, you’ll write when you are ready, when the tug of writing is strong. I enjoyed reading your comments on the book and seeing as your possibly-maybe kept growing stronger.

  7. This took me two places. I went back and forth between discovering what you are discovering as a ” possible-maybe…memoirist” and then having my interest stirred by your “book talks.” In the end it left me wanting to read more of both.

  8. I love how honest and vulnerable you are and yet, committed to studying craft for the maybe memoir. A critique partner has been reading memoir and is writing letters to her granddaughter that is becoming a full length book in the process. I am toying with the idea of memoir in verse. Have you read any? I’ve read Brown Girl Dreaming and Ordinary Hazards. Any others you would suggest?

  9. Love the inspiration for my TBR list, which, thankfully, after some weeks (months?) when it seemed to hold no allure, is once again calling insistently now. I look forward to a new book of your to add to the stack someday.