Liking Memoirs Can Be Really Awkward

I was having an absolutely lovely November morning last week – enjoying breakfast at a local café, chatting with one of my favorite severs, Derrick. He happened to mention that his roommate had written a memoir, and would I like to borrow a copy? It was published last year, it’s really great, and he could just pop into his apartment and grab a copy (he lives around the corner and it wasn’t busy yet). Derrick is smart, so I knew there was a good chance that if he loved his roommate’s memoir that I would too. So, yeah sure, I’d love to borrow it! He mentioned her name, and I hadn’t heard of her, and I’m always excited to learn of a new memoirist. Derrick handed me the loveliest book. A small sized hardcover with embossed flowers . . . all class. I said “oh, this is so pretty, I love it!” But then I looked at the title and my heart sank. It was called The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement. Ugh. I wish I had noticed the, um, obvious reference to death before I had tossed out the off the cuff and downright jolly compliment.

But then I realized this is something that happens with memoirs. Who didn’t love The Glass Castle? But we certainly wouldn’t wish that kind of childhood on anyone. What do you say to someone who wrote a memoir that particularly moves you? Love the memoir but I’m so sorry your life sucked? It really does seem strange to compliment someone on their work without making a reference to the difficulty of the material. Or am I making way too much of this? Feel free to tell me I’m crazy.

And the beautiful book Derrick handed over to me? It’s called The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement: A True Story of Love and Renovation by Virginia Lloyd. I’m looking forward to reading it and I’ll be sure to report back.

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6 Comments

Filed under Challenging Issues, Writers

6 responses to “Liking Memoirs Can Be Really Awkward

  1. I think if someone survived to write about their experience, it’s ok to compliment them. I found it odd when I wrote some of the uglier things from my childhood on my blog that a few people I know said they couldn’t even read it all. My response was, “well you know I survived it.” I realize it’s difficult, but if I wrote about it, and I’m relatively ‘ok’ now, it’s ok for you to read it.
    The writing is the getting through.

  2. Like Barbara, I find that those closest to me have trouble reading my memoir blog, and that those I barely know enjoy reading it but do so with distance. Both responses are fine with me. I appreciate those who make light of it, or comment only one part out of context, like loving the picture of me dancing with my Dad even though the story of me and my Dad is really sad. Whatever people get from the story is great.

  3. Until I started writing a blog, I only wrote fiction. I never really considered why that was, but your post clarifies it: I didn’t want to allow anyone a deep look into my real, potentially pathetic life. As I now contemplate writing a book of personal essays, I plan to intersperse lots of humor. Much easier to envision readers laughing, rather than thinking, “Wow, your life sucked.” Besides, my life has been more laughable than deplorable, most fortunately…

  4. I’m with so many of the commenters above. My life has been laughable in it’s patheticness.

    I love memoirs, for this reason: it lets me know I’m not the only “lucky” one to be raised in the Unusual.

    Adore your blog, and I’ve only been hopping around for 5 mins.

    Let me feed the kids, and I’ll be back.
    smooch.

  5. I disagree, I’m very intrigued by the title.

  6. I was in a personal essay writing class a couple of years ago, and wrote a piece that was later published (yay) about a horrible time with chronic illness, and how I found a glimmer of hope. Most of the class was supportive about the writing, giving me great suggestions, but one woman kept saying “Have you considered [X treatment]?” And “I’m so sorry you went through that, it doesn’t seem fair, you were so young to get sick” etc etc…

    I found it patronising and a bit insulting. I wasn’t looking for suggestions on how to cope, or for sympathy. I wanted a critique on the quality of the writing, that was all. Having said that, some empathy (“sorry you went through that”, the end) is appreciated. The best thing to hear is that someone enjoyed my writing, whatever the topic. If I’m publishing it, I’ve usually had some kind of catharsis already. I suspect most writers of first-person stuff feel the same.

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