by Jerry Waxler
I’m an Anne Lamott fan. I loved her book, “Bird by Bird,” in which she writes about writing. But when I saw Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies, Some Thoughts on Faith” I had mixed feelings. Even though it is shelved with other memoirs, I didn’t know what “thoughts on faith” meant. Finally I broke through my reluctance and read it, and now, I’m an even bigger Anne Lamott fan.
It turns out there are some really interesting lessons memoir writers could learn from this work. First of all, consider the storyline. My favorite example of a memoir with a simple storyline is George Brummell’s “Shades of Darkness.” He grew up black in the segregated south, joined the army, got blown up in Vietnam, and came back, blind. He went to college, and then became the director of the Blinded Veterans Association. Another memoir with a straightforward storyline is Brooke Shields’ “Down Came the Rain.” She wanted to get pregnant, but couldn’t. Then she had a miscarriage. Then a baby. And then she struggled to overcome post-partum depression. These are big sweeping events, and on any page of the book, I know exactly where I stand in Brummell’s or Shields’ life.
Anne Lamott’s story goes something like this. She was a child. She played competitive tennis. She grew up. She had a father. She had a son. She drank a lot. She got sober and got faith. That’s about the best sequence I can explain. I know about a number of incidents that took place in her life. I know she lost friends to cancer. I know a lot about her beliefs in God. In fact, I know a lot more about the way Anne Lamott thinks than I know about the other 8 billion people on the planet. And I know some of the most profound moments in her life. But her essays didn’t walk me through a sequence of steps, so having just finished it I can’t say, “I see how the events of her life progressed from beginning to end” the way I can with George Brummell’s or Brooke Shields’ life.
That’s interesting for memoir writers because it demonstrates the vast range of possibilities for what is a memoir. If you think your life is too ordinary to be worth writing, read this book. You’ll see that ordinary events can turn into extraordinary stories. She writes about taking her son snorkeling. He lost his flipper and they saw dolphins. She hates her hair and eventually decided to go with dreadlocks. She tells lots of stories about her friendships, and an endless string of attempts at romance. It seems she can turn anything into a clever, uplifting, enjoyable, and sometimes laugh-out-loud essay.
With her expert style, humorous and sophisticated turn of phrase, and complex organization, her writing reaches inside her mind, and shares profound insights with readers. Offering this much insight requires commitment. And the fact that she has such commitment fills me with hope and cheer, not only about the human condition in general, but also about the potential of what we writers can accomplish. We really can share magical parts of ourselves if we work at it. And when we do it well, people want to read what we’ve written.
But there’s a sub-lesson I’d like to add to this. A passion for the fine turn of phrase is only one of many gifts a writer can offer a reader. Your main goal is to bring your authentic self to the page. Your insights into the dynamics of your own life become a window through which readers peer into a different life than their own.
As you try to learn about memoirs from reading Traveling Mercies, and you try to understand how it is organized, you might wonder if it’s even a memoir. It’s certainly not like most other ones I’ve read. It’s more like a collection of essays that add up. She tells a wonderful, powerful story (all her stories are wonderful and powerful) towards the end of the book about her son Sam. He is not a writer. Since he is only 8 he still has time to learn. For now, his creative passion is to find garbage and turn it into art. To show us what this looks like she describes Sam building an elaborate castle on the beach, not just from sand, but from all the dross that floats up onto the sand. Eventually her son has created a masterpiece. That’s not a bad model for Anne Lamott’s book, or for that matter her philosophy of life. Take whatever you get, even if it doesn’t seem like much and turn it into something beautiful.
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.