[TSS] The Memoir Project, by Marion Roach Smith

Sunday SalonI was a bit puzzled when I found a copy of  The Memoir Project among the stack of books with my library card number on them on the Holds shelf at my library. Not puzzled as to why it was there – I had vague memories of a glorious Sunday a few weeks ago spent browsing through online bookstores, happily adding to the list of books I want to read that I keep on Evernote, and putting in requests for a handful of books at my library’s site. A handful of books which included The Memoir Project.

No, what puzzled me was why I’d decided to request the book from the library.

The Memoir Project, by Marion Roach Smith, is, as you can probably guess from the title, a book about writing memoirs. I am not, and have never been, interested in writing a memoir of my life. So why did I request this book?

The subtitle of the book gave me a clue: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life. Ah, yes. That might have been the spark that had prompted a desire in me to read the book.

Still, I hesitated a little before opening it. Did I really want to spend time reading about writing a memoir when I didn’t actually want to write a memoir?

And yet … there was that delicious subtitle.

So I sat down and began to read. And I was hooked.

I still have no desire to write a book-length memoir. But The Memoir Project opened my eyes to something. A memoir doesn’t have to be a book. It can be an essay or an article.

Or a blog post.

Roach, in fact, sees the 750-word piece as an ideal vehicle for a memoir.

750 words. Yes, that could definitely be a blog post.

My world kind of shifted there for a moment. Suddenly I realized I already have written pieces of memoir in some of the posts on this blog. Not that well, admittedly, but still, I have written memoir after all.

And everything Roach talks about can be applied to any type of memoir, from a book-length work, to a blog post. She covers so many things, the most important of which she’s put together in a Memoir Manifesto, which I found just now when I was looking through her blog, before settling down to write this post.

What were the most important things I learned from The Memoir Project? Go small and pack light. Ask myself, “what is this about?”  These also turned out to be three of the points in Roach’s Memoir Manifesto.

The entire book itself is a marvelous example of “show, don’t tell”. Parts of it left me a little teary-eyed, a first for me when it comes to reading a book about writing. Roach, you see, doesn’t just tell you what to do, she shows you with pieces of her own life and experiences.

I’d always thought people wrote memoir because they had done some big, beautiful, incredible thing that other people would want to read about, something that illuminated the big themes that drive our lives. That definitely wasn’t me; I don’t even understand any of these big themes very well, and most certainly wouldn’t be able to explain them based on my own personal experiences.

But that’s not Roach’s approach to memoir. To write memoir, you don’t need to understand the meaning of life:

People frequently tell me that they fully intend to write a piece of memoir just as soon as they understand the meaning of their lives. Longing to do so, these potential writers suffer needlessly, since the marvelous truth is that you can take on life in bits, at any age, under any circumstances. To write a compelling essay, you need merely to be amazed by how, when explaining intimacy to your adolescent child, you gained some quiet understanding of your own sexuality; or when it is you became comfortable with the fact that much of marriage is pantomime, where looking interested and making the gestures of engaged listening are good enough to get you both through to the next day. Wait to “understand” adolescents or marriage and you’ll never, ever write. Mere flashes are all the understanding you need to bring to the writing table.” (p. 33-34)

A mere flash of understanding. That’s all you need. Now that, I do occasionally have.

I’ll be rereading this slim little book – it’s about 112 pages long – at least once before I have to return it to the library. But I’m adding it to my “To Buy” list, because it’s definitely a keeper.

Will it change the way I write here, on this blog? I don’t know. I’d like it to, though.

18 thoughts on “[TSS] The Memoir Project, by Marion Roach Smith

  1. Megan

    I probably won’t be settling down to write my book length memoir anytime soon, either, what with how even my flashes of understand often seem to reveal themselves so sparingly. That said, this does sound like an interesting book, and the author seems to have a great understanding of what a memoir should be. Maybe someday I’ll write my own 750 word memoir when one of those flashes of understanding comes along. :)

  2. Marion Roach Smith

    Hi, Belle:
    I am delighted that you found my irreverent little book in your library stack, and that you pressed on and read it. But I am even more delighted to discover that you liked it so much. Many thanks for this generous and kind tribute. Let me know what I can do to get you to write some memoir.
    Write on.

  3. Bryan G.

    “Mere flashes are all the understanding you need to bring to the writing table.”

    I like that line, maybe because it’s so true and why I need to return to the table…at some point.

  4. Joanna

    What a lovely way to look at it, that you only need a flash of understanding. It’s so true of course, a perfectly regular life can be fascinating and inspiring, we don’t need to wait to accomplish something big to have meaning. I look forward to seeing how your blogging changes. And I’ll be buying the book myself, of course. :-)

  5. Laurel-Rain Snow

    I love this post! And the idea of sharing those “flashes” of understanding.

    I think that could work on any number of my blogs…(I have eleven).

    Thanks for visiting my Serendipity blog earlier.

  6. Anastasia @ Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog

    What a neat book! I have no plans on writing a memoir, but I DO want to start writing more non-book/real life posts on at least one of my blogs. I wonder if reading this book would help me figure out how to do that?

    My main problem is that I think my IRL posts are boring– I think I tell, not show. So I think it WOULD help! Definitely going to add this book to my wishlist, now.

  7. Trisha

    Sometimes reading books like this is fun even if you never plan on undertaking the process. I like the idea of short memoir writing though. I’ll have to check it out.

  8. Lark @ The Bookwyrm's Hoard

    Wow, what a wonderful review! You’ve sold me. I must read this. More, I must make sure a copy gets into my daughter’s hands, because she writes (well.)

    Oh, and thank you so much for stopping by my Sunday Post/Salon and commenting earlier today. I woudn’t have heard about this great little book if you hadn’t! And I’m very glad to “meet” you.

  9. Charlie

    This is a fantastic post, Belle! Several light bulb moments here thanks to your own realisations. It is strange to think of a blog, and non-personal blogs at that, fitting “memoir”, but there’s enough of ourselves in them to make it so. Very interested, especially considering you said a book about writing made you teary.

  10. Susan

    I’m always interested in books on writing, so I’m going to look for this at our library. I like the ideas of the flash of understanding, and writing about moments, that become themes later. I can apply this to fiction and character’s realizations, too.

  11. Pingback: Book Review: The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith | Joy's Book Blog

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