Category Archives: Memoir

If It’s Good Enough For George

In the February issue of Vanity Fair, my pal George gives his answers to the famous Proust Questionnaire.  Would you be surprised to learn his most treasured possession is a pen and a piece of paper?  That his hero of fiction is Atticus Finch?  That the thing he’d most like to change about himself would be to read more books?

Not a snarky answer in the bunch.  My George is all grown up.  And I admit he got me in the gut with his answer to “what would you change about your family?” when he said:  I’d make them young again.

He also surprised me.  His favorite writers are Mark Twain (I’d never have guess that one) and Paddy Chayefsky (who I had to Google).  Turns out Paddy is a playwright, screenwriter, and novelist; and the only person to have earned 3 solo Academy Awards for Best Screenplay.  Paddy is a much respected and renowned American dramatist.

Paddy Chayefsky.  I love making these kinds of discoveries.

Now, of course, I can’t resist asking you a few questions.  Who knows what I might learn.  And I’ll play if you will.


Favorite Writers and why (I’m limiting myself to 4, because you know this list could be looooooong):

William Styron — what style, not a wasted word in the place, with long flowing complex sentences I could read over and over again.

Joan Didion — particularly for her nonfiction, a structural genius who writes what she wants and doesn’t worry about what she’s not supposed to do.

Mary Karr — raw poetry in prose, most recognizable nonfiction voice in town.

Larry McMurtry — brilliant epic storyteller, creator of unusual and conflicted characters who drive seamless plots.


Best last paragraph of a book:

“And when I remember that world, I remember my dead young self, who left me something, too, which is her canning jar of poisoned sausage and the ability it confers, of remembering what you can’t imagine.  I can’t say that I forgive my father, but now I can imagine what he chose never to remember — the goad of an unthinkable urge, pricking him, pressing him, wrapping him in an impenetrable fog of self that must have seemed, when he wandered around the house at night after working and drinking, like the very darkness.  This is the gleaming obsidian shard I safeguard above all the others.”


Favorite Writer You’ve Seen Speak in Person:  

Dorothy Allison.  Couldn’t take my eyes off of her.  She read a little, but spent most of her time on stage just talking like a real person, seemingly off-the-cuff, not a note in sight, about her writing and reading life.  Her remarks were like listening to a great poet put their everyday life into a regular conversation.  About a year later, I saw her perform her famous (which I didn’t know at the time) monologue, Frog Fucking, at AWP in front of hundreds of people.  It was shocking and hilarious and devastating, and the bravest thing I’ve ever seen.


Your turn ….

The Quiet

I’ve gone quiet.

When I was little, I’d plant myself in a spare bedroom, the barn, the porch, the horse pasture, the library, or even underneath (yes, underneath) the living room coffee table and go quiet.

The best thing about setting foot on my mother’s farm was the nonexistence of noise.  Any noise.  Especially this time of year without the combines or crickets or howling coyotes, without the constant creak of the porch swing.  Even Buddy, her beagle mutt, holed up under the porch.

These holidays have been quiet.  And lovely.  Even with the Christmas crazies, my kids coming and going (which I loved!), even with Nat King Cole, Sinatra and Brenda Lee on the constant radio, even with a crazy puppy romping around the house, finding her big-girl-voice, it’s been damn (good) quiet here.

I’ve been keeping my mouth shut, reading and listening.

In THE HUNGER GAMES series, I discovered a story I would never have read, a story I can’t stop reading.  My 17 yr old niece called me a year ago and said, “Aunt Teri, you’ve got to read this book!!!”  And I said yep, sure, ho hum.  But now.  But now I’m almost finished with the 2nd book in this series, and had to run out like a crazed, obsessed nutcracker and buy the 3rd.  In hardback, full retail.  I couldn’t wait for delivery, that’s what fun these books are.  The great escape.  Team Peeta!

A friend sent me Ann Patchett’s THE GETAWAY CAR, a short e-book about the writing life, which I read in about a day.  Patchett’s memoir led me to her friend Elizabeth McCracken’s AN EXACT REPLICA OF A FIGMENT OF MY IMAGINATION.  I listened to it on audio, to McCracken reading her memoir, and it broke my heart and revived it, all at once.  I sat in my car, in the parking lot of Barnes & Noble, listening to the birth scene.  Tried to not-listen to it.  In the holiday rush of some jerk-off wanting my parking space (honk honk honk honk “Come On Lady!”) I crumbled under the pivotal scene.  That book led me to re-read (or rather, listen on audio to) Patchett’s memoir, TRUTH AND BEAUTY, which I read years ago when it first came out.  And then I found all of these articles about how pissed off everybody was about this book and, suddenly, I was pissed off.  At ALL of them.  If you’ve ever had a friend that consumed you, if you’ve ever sacrificed your peace and quiet for someone else’s hell, read (or listen to) this book.  And then google “Ann Patchett Lucy Grealy” and go read the bullshit that came after.  I’m in your corner, Ann Patchett.

We went to see a great movie this week:  THE DESCENDANTS.  A quiet little story where nobody is who you think they are, a story I wish I could write.  I ran back to the store and bought the paperback, retail $13 flippin’ 50, by Kaui Hart Hemmings.  What a discovery, this writer I’ve never heard of.  Can’t wait to read her book, her book with the story I’ve already seen.  There’s an interview section in the back:  “In a way, I’m writing all day,” she says.  “Reading other people’s novels is my work.”  Reading is a great thing, “because in a way you’re engaging in this strange, silent, conversation.”

On I found an old (really old) recording of Mary Karr’s THE LIAR’S CLUB.  It’s abridged, and the sound quality is awful, but who cares.  It’s spectacular, in the way that only the Texas of Mary Karr is spectacular.

I’m feeling quiet in this new year.  Like I want nothing more than to hole up in my dining room (aka my office) and shut it all the hell out.


Sit and quiet yourself. Luxuriate in a certain memory and the details will come. Let the images flow. You’ll be amazed at what will come out on paper. I’m still learning what it is about the past that I want to write. I don’t worry about it. It will emerge. It will insist on being told.     —Frank McCourt

Don't let this quietly sleeping, long-legged angel fool you. She dreaming up her next adventure.

Until You Crash, What Have You Done

2011 was the year of the crash.  My crash.  With my manuscript.

And here’s the kicker:  It’s taken me a full 12 months to the day to realize this crash was assuredly, if painfully, needed.  I hit a necessary obstacle.  Do not pass go, do not collect $200.  The book that existed this time last year is not the book I intended to write.  It was the starting line.  It needed work.  And not just the work of sitting my ass in this chair and writing for the sake of filling up the pages, but the kind of introspection and attention where every section, every paragraph and sentence, needed to be fleshed out and filled back in; the kind where my best ideas came when I was not actually in this chair, but somewhere else.

Sometimes the big crash comes to make you stop, to snap your brain, to force you to put down your pen with it’s bleeding blue ink and give the thing a chance to breathe.

I’m breathing better, too.  I’ve been back to jogging for 7 weeks now.  Today was the first time I chucked the jog and ran sprints.  Today was the first time I ran the entire way with my eyes trained forward, on the distance, instead of with my head ducked down, wary of the rocks and obstacles that might trip me up.  Today I came home with two sentences I didn’t even know I was looking for.

In a 1965 interview, William Styron said, I’ve always thought that time was a challenge.  I have a feeling the good writer will set up obstacles for himself.  He will try to make his story as difficult to write as possible, to see if he can leap over these obstacles with grace.  I’ve always felt I had to do this with everything I’ve written to give the work a sort of tension.  If I’d ever written anything in a simple and straightforward way, it would have lacked that tension.  The use of time is often the most convenient way to set up these obstacles.

Hey Bill, I was born in 1965.  Last night, 12 months to the day, I heard this song and felt something shake loose.  I was listening to it this morning, running, when I found those two missing sentences.  What are the chances?

Top Reads of 2011

For the first time in years, I am all over this holiday season.  I’ve decorated my house, found a gorgeous new wreath for front door, and hung the stockings.  We’ve watched the first half of It’s A Wonderful Life.  The tree has been up for almost 48 hours and the puppy has not knocked it down or eaten the ornaments or been electrocuted by the lights.

As this year winds itself down, I’m taking a look back at my top reading pleasures of 2011.  Here they are, in no particular order:












In making my list I made some discoveries:

1.  I’m growing up.  My preferences have become less highbrow (what I’m supposed to read) and more about what I enjoy.

2.  I read far fewer books in 2011 than I thought I did.  I spent more time engrossed in author interviews and great, long essays.

3.  I tend to read and re-read my favorite authors.  I need to give the lesser-knowns more of a chance.

4.  I don’t like fiction as much as I used to.  In fact, I’m reading a National Book Award winner now and I feel manipulated.

5.  The memoir is not dead.  In fact, it’s barely got it’s sea legs.  Peoples’ real lives, and how they choose to make them into art, are endlessly fascinating.

What did you discover about your reading self?  Have any favorite books to share?


Shhhh.  This blog is still on holiday, but I have to thank those of you who gathered up to send me this.

God knows I love fountain pens, and if you could feel this one — this one! — in your hand and see the ink on the page …. pure writerly pleasure, that’s what it is.  My scribbles don’t look so scribbly.  Y’all are spoiling me.


I’ve always felt my real teachers are other writers (all of you included), and I spent Friday and Satruday with a couple of favorites:  Joan Didion and Mary Karr.

Since I just read Didion’s BLUE NIGHTS, I watched her latest Charlie Rose interview.  I also fired up her clip with Charlie from 15 years ago, in 1996.  Watching the 2 back-to-back taught me much … and broke my heart.  If you’re feeling your inner student, you can find her master class here, along with a montage of other Writers On Writing.

If you’re working on a memoir and feeling sassy, or even if you just need to shore up your courage (and who doesn’t?), here’s the Mary Karr interview.

The two lines I needed to hear most today?

1.  After saying she threw away the first 2,000 pages (two thousand!) of her last memoir, LIT, the interviewer asked her why.  Her simple answer:  It was boring!

2.  Her advice to newer writers:  Never show your work to anyone unit you think it’s finished.

And now … I’m off to work toward FTF.


* Comments for this post have been turned off.  Enjoy the rest of 2011.

If We Took A Holiday

Mid November and it's still Fall.

This blog is officially on holiday.

Why so early?  I’m trading blogging for jogging (yes, it’s true, I’m already up to 2 miles without toppling over), and I’ll be spending any and all writing time with my manuscript.

Happy holidays everyone!  I’ll see y’all in the New Year.

If I get lonesome or bored, remember I've got these ragamuffins for entertainment.

Joan’s Voice

I read Joan Didion’s latest book in one day, pretty much in one sitting.  Once I started there was no way to stop.  Very much like THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING in form, the rhythms and repetitions in this new release will make you feel like you’ve fallen into a gently swirling eddy.  An interesting analogy considering she’s writing about grief and loss.

I’ve always been bothered by critics who dislike her voice, her stance as an outsider looking in on her experience.  They complain there’s not enough of her in the story, that she’s too remote and cold and distant; that, for an essayist, she doesn’t give nearly enough.  I would argue this slight remoteness of voice is what draws me into the narrative.  It’s magnetic.  I believe her.  I trust her.  I’m invested in what she has to say because I feel the friction in her voice.  In her last 2 books, for example, she’s writing about her grief and emotions and failings and pains without falling into a soupy mush of sentimentality.  And at the same time I can feel her resistance to revealing so much about herself.  This tension is what makes it work.

Many a memoir writer could take a lesson from Joan Didion.

What did I like most about BLUE NIGHTS?  It’s rumination on guilt-infused grief.  Many reviewers have focused on the constant repetition and the narrative shift: that the story opens with Quintana at its center, but ends with Joan’s contemplation of her own aging.  I see something completely different.  This is, simply, a story of mothers and daughters.  It opens with Joan’s focus on her maternal guilt; her worry that she was never a good enough mother, that somehow, in putting her career first, she left Quintana too often alone and uncared for.  It ends with Quintana’s guilt that she, in her early death, will leave her frail and aging mother alone and uncared for.  And time runs out before either of them has the chance to get it right.

I’ve read as much press as I can find on BLUE NIGHTS.  Here are the only 2 not to miss:


From The Washington Post

Nathan Heller’s article in The New York Times Magazine.  Heller doesn’t merely review the book, choosing instead to discuss the paradoxes in Joan’s writing style.  “To readers who admire her work, she is a journalist of rare candor and style, a writer who unflinchingly peels back the smooth surface of public narrative and the skin of her own psyche, opening both to scrutiny and giving magazine writing a lambent glamour in the process. In the eyes of less enthusiastic readers, she’s a histrionic prose artist, striking poses of stylish despair in precious, incantatory sentences and drawing ominous conclusions from a Ouija board of ironic detail.” 

And NPR’s Fresh Air interview with Joan Didion.  I encourage you to listen.  Listen to this voice for yourself.  You won’t be disappointed.

(If you don’t have time for either, there’s a very good short interview here, at The Washington Post.)

The Good Memoir

This week a woman asked me for a book club suggestion.  She was looking for a memoir or a short biography, she said, but something “not all woe and depressing.”


Memoirs get a bad rap.  And of course there are bad memoirs, just like there are bad novels, but good memoirs are “not all woe and depressing.”  Good memoirs, like all good books, all good storytelling, lift the reader up and keep us hooked.

If you’re someone who remembers first lines, take this one:  For the first seven years of my life, my nickname was Jolly — Jolly because my smile, pudgy cheeks, and a potbelly intimated that a giggle was just around the corner.  While I couldn’t recall this word for word, I remembered most of it and, of course, Jolly.  I remembered the joy I felt reading that intro.  I wanted to know about this jolly boy.

Five years ago, my friend Matthew Sanford published his first book with that first line.  Matt had an incredible story to tell.  I knew this, which means to say a knew some basic details of Matt’s life.  What I didn’t know was “the story,” and what an incredible story this is.  Even when I read WAKING in an early draft, I knew he was onto something.  I toted that manuscript around for two days and read it every chance I could get.

Here’s what it’s about:

When Matthew Sanford was just thirteen, his family’s car skidded off an overpass on an icy Iowa road — killing his father and sister, paralyzing him from the chest down, and changing his life forever. Years later, yoga would dramatically change it again. In WAKING: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence (Rodale, June 2006), Matthew chronicles his journey from the intensive care unit to becoming a paralyzed yoga teacher and founder of a nonprofit organization. Along the way, Matthew gains a deeper understanding of the connection between mind and body, and formulates an entirely new view of existence as a “whole” person.

Yes, he said yoga teacher.  So if you or your book club are looking for a special memoir to read, here you go.  When you turn the last page, you’ll have plenty to discuss, and you’ll want to go out an live your best life.  Nothing woe or depressing in sight.


Women In White Plaster

On Friday night we went to a reading at Gallery House, a co-op spot for artists.  (I’ll be reading there in January and was on a recognizance mission.)  The gallery is on a side street in downtown Palo Alto, a street lined with quaint little restaurants and wine bars and kitschy shops and a used bookstore.  The bookstore is, sadly and of course, going out of business.

We only stayed for the first 2 hours of the event — hard chairs and no moving air being cited — but we did hear a few fabulous readings.  Andrew Tilin led off with his new book.  As much as I didn’t think I had any interest in this topic, by the time he was finished I was sold.  It’s about doping in sports, yes.  But it’s also about trying to recapture youth in our youth-obsessed culture, and about what it means to be an aging man in today’s culture of Steroids and Viagra.  Perform perform perform.

The next 2 readers were women:  Thea Sullivan and Jacqueline Berger.  Poets.  One had published a few books and the other was, like me, published in a few good journals but with no book in hand.  Yet.  They read beautifully, and their poems were both funny and heartbreaking and real.  I could have listened to them twice as long —- and I rarely say that about a poetry reading, so you know they were particularly good.

And then there was the guest artist.  A photographer.  He set up 4 large framed photographs on easels behind him and, for the next many minutes, just about bored me to tears.  I felt for him, poor guy, having to following the brilliant raconteurs before him.  He opened with “the origin of photography” and I thought, Oh dear god, he’s only got 7 minutes to talk.  Sure enough, by the time he got to himself and his work — his beautiful work — his time had long been up.

But here’s the deal folks.  None of this mattered one whit.  I didn’t buy a single book at this reading, but guess what I did open my checkbook for?  The photographer had barely finished speaking when I leaned over to my husband and said, I have to have the photo on the far right.  I can’t explain it, but I know I have to have it.  And then I barreled my way through the crowd before anybody could beat me to it.

It’s not some grand panorama of nature.  It’s not of real people.  It’s not  fantastical in color or boldness.  It was taken in — are you ready? — a plaster factory.  Funny what grabs you.

Now this gorgeous photo graces the top of my bookshelf.  And you know what?  It looks like it belongs, like it’s always been there.

How To Dial A Rotary Phone

In an effort to fail at my promise to watch less TV, I spent this weekend watching episode after episode of Dallas.  The first season, 1978.  What a soap opera, what campiness, what bizarre safari shirts J.R. Ewing wore.

But a funny thing happened on my way to veg out.  What started out as mindless relaxation and nostalgia turned into one hell of a memory trigger.

Many of the how-to books we writers stock up on list exercises to help us recall the past:  listen to music from that era, examine old photos, read archived newspapers, describe the kitchen in your childhood home.  I grew up in houses where the TV was, literally, always on.  At home, I read my Nancy Drews under the drone of a loud TV.  I now realize I loved the library not only for it’s books, but for it’s silence.  TV programming even controlled our eating/sleeping habits:  lunch between The Young and The Restless and As The World Turns; supper following Walter Cronkite; bedtime after Dallas on a Friday night.

As lowbrow and un-artist-like as it sounds, TV is often one of my best writing prompts.  This weekend, spending time with Sue Ellen and Digger Barnes and Miss Ellie turned into some unexpectedly fine research.  Oh, those 1970’s bell-bottoms and polyester suits.  The T-topped Corvettes and bright yellow patio furniture.  Women, soft and feminine, in their slacks and blouses, so removed frm today’s hard-bodies and breast implants.  Remember when you had to look up numbers and dial phones (how slow and deliberate this act was)?

What are some of your favorite writing prompts?