Tool for learning memoir, author’s first book a triumph over odds

by Jerry Waxler

I was excited last night when I reached the end of George Brummell’s memoir, Shades of Darkness. The very last paragraph in the book is about him volunteering to help other struggling people tell their story. (Note to myself: I’ve got to be careful about telling what excites me in a book. It’s usually the highlight or end, and I don’t want to spoil the party for someone who wants to read it.)

This book has most of the themes of memoir that I talk about in my book, Learn to Write your Memoir, available from my website, jerrywaxler.com . Brummell’s book expanded my world by showing me black culture, the Vietnam war, and being blind. It had triumph over a variety of odds. And it had superb storytelling qualities, showing me in scenes what life was like.

The pace of the first half is built in high tension scenes. In the second half, it’s more vignettes with spaces between them. The author is skimming across the surface. While these passages make it more difficult to suspend disbelief, they work well in the overall tale. One of the skills the author clearly picked up in his years of schooling and work is the knack of storytelling. His skill makes this a good book for an aspiring memoirist to study. (Compare for example Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. This memoir is so sophisticated that it is much more difficult for a beginner to tease out lessons. Studying Didion’s book is like trying to learn algebra by studying Einstein’s theory of relativity.)

Brummell’s book is an example of the magical interaction between story and life. By compressing his decades into the space of a book, he was able to share them with me, someone who would have no way of knowing anything about George Brummell any other way. Telling his story opens his life up to others, like a book. And by writing, he organizes the events of decades and places them in a narrative. It helps the author’s life and also becomes a tool to help others overcome obstacles themselves.

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