Four Memoirs and What They've Taught Me with: Elizabeth Ferris

Whenever I’m getting to know a writer who is working on a memoir, one of the questions I like to ask is what memoirs they’ve loved reading. I’m a big believer that books are some of our best writing teachers, which is why I often start workshops or editing sessions with close attention to passages from published books. How wonderful that the very thing that drew most of us to writing—reading—can be one of our guides on the journey! Below, I share four memoirs I love, and what I think there is to learn from each.

Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro

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Slow Motion opens with the brilliant line, “The night before I receive the phone call that divides my life into before and after, my face swells in an allergic reaction to skin cream.” The call Shapiro receives is to inform her of an accident that’s left both her parents in critical condition. Shapiro grew up a lonely and sheltered child. In her early twenties, she becomes the mistress of her best friend’s wealthy stepfather, a famous attorney. Her parents’ accident is a turning point for Shapiro, who becomes responsible for them and must grow into someone capable of caring for both herself and others.

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Shapiro, who is also a novelist, is a master of scenes. While I recommend the book as a whole, reading even just a few pages closely can reveal a lot about how to handle dialogue, characterization, and action in a memoir. Slow Motion is also an excellent example of how zooming in on one pivotal event can provide an anchor for a larger story.

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

On top of being one of the most thrilling, moving, and humane books I’ve ever read, Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water is a great example of a memoir that breaks conventional storytelling rules.

Instead of arranging her story in chronological order, Yuknavitch moves backward and forward through time, beginning with the stillbirth of her first child. Yuknavitch, a competitive swimmer in college, uses water, not time, as her central organizing metaphor. Her book is divided into sections with names like “Under the Blue” and “The Other Side of Drowning.” It’s a great book to read if you’re looking to tell a non-conventional memoir, or for anyone writing about trauma. I also recommend it as an example of a memoir that covers multiple decades in a writer’s life without feeling crowded or diffuse.

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

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“I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe. I buried the girl I had been because she ran into all kinds of trouble,” writes Gay in Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. Gay’s candor and openness about being raped at age 12 and its effect on how she has experienced her body, provides a blueprint for fearlessness and authenticity in writing.

Hunger is arranged in 88 short, lyrical chapters, which is a great source of inspiration for writers who gravitate to shorter units in their own work (attention 10-minutes-at-a-time writers!). Gay also provides an example of how to successfully weave cultural context and commentary into a personal narrative—in her case, society’s obsession with obesity.

NOTE: Readers should be aware before picking up Gay or Yuknavitch’s books that both authors write directly about their experiences with sexual violence and assault.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell

Gail Caldwell worked for nearly 25 years as the Pulitzer Prize winning book critic for The Boston Globe. Let’s Take the Long Way Home is the second of three memoirs she’s written, all after the age of 50. It tells the story of her deep friendship with fellow writer Caroline Knapp, who died at 42 of lung cancer.

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I’m always inspired by Let’s Take the Long Way Home for the care and precision Caldwell uses to describe Caroline. (“I can still see her standing on the shore, a towel around her neck and a post-workout cigarette in her hand—half Gidget and half splendid splinter, her rower’s arms in defiant contrast to the awful pink bathing suit she’d found somewhere,” she writes in the opening.) I return to this memoir again and again for the wonderful clarity and insight of Caldwell’s prose:  “For years we had played the easy, daily game of catch that intimate connection implies,” writes Caldwell. “One ball, two gloves, equal joy in the throw and return. Now I was in the field without her: one glove, no game. Grief is what tells you who you are alone.”

What are some of your favorite memoirs to learn from? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

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Elizabeth Ferris is the executive editor for Life in 10 Minutes Press. She has edited for Vanderbilt University Press and freelance clients including journalists, educators, novelists, and memoirists. When not editing, Elizabeth contributes regularly to Richmond magazine. She received a BA in English from The College of William and Mary and is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte. Learn about her one-on-ones here.

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