If, as Oscar Wilde once said, memory is the diary that we all carry about with us, then memoir is this inner record made tangible. More and more of us are choosing to share these personal musings with the world, often with great enthusiasm but varying degrees of success. Fortunately, two masters of memoir have recently upped this genre’s literary ante; one to offer advice on doing it, the other to show how it is done.
Memoir writing, claims Woodstock resident Abigail Thomas, isn’t about remembering things in perfect Kodachrome—but it is about nearly everything else. Thomas has published two memoirs, Safekeeping and the critically acclaimed A Three Dog Life. If memoir, as she states in her intro, is the story of how we got from here to there, then how best to release that story is the work of this intimate, consummately inspiring book.
Thomas is a stellar guide. She begins with the basics of getting started, and moves right through to the grittiness of getting real. She addresses the darkest concerns of the memoirist-to-be: What if you can’t remember anything? What if your memoir upsets your loved ones? Why on earth should you do this at all?
Her prose is colorful and deeply revealing, and the exercises she provides leave no emotional stone unturned. Write two pages in which someone keeps his temper in check. Two pages of how you spent your allowance. Two pages of what waits in ambush. Remembering feeling is important, she advises. So is color and scent. Structure, however, is not, nor is chronology. What does concern her, and passionately, is emotional truth.
Truth concerns fellow Woodstocker Susan Richards as well. In Chosen Forever, the sequel to her New York Times bestseller Chosen By a Horse, Richards opens her life once again to share her struggles, lessons, and surprising joys.
Chosen Forever is a rare thing, the story of what happened next. The book chronicles the aftermath of the publication of Richards’ first memoir, which could have been named the little book that could. Horse sold beyond all expectation, and propelled her on a New England book tour that became equal parts slog-through-hell and magical odyssey.
A former alcoholic who, as a child, had been shunted from relative to relative, she’d pushed away all reminders of her former life, including friends and family. But she connected with them again at bookstores in Boston, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, which, to her surprise, helped her reclaim long discarded parts of herself as well. And at her second reading, she met a man so moved by her book that he went up to her and cradled her head in his hand. He told her his name. “Dennis Stock?” she said in surprise. “24 years ago, I bought my house from you.”
A friend told Richards early in the game that publishing a book wouldn’t change her life. That friend was dead wrong. Though Richards’s prose is still fluid and funny here, it is decidedly more mellow. It’s the voice of Ella, who’s no longer sweeping cinders, but sitting at last inside the pumpkin carriage, noting with awe and wonder as the mice around her turn to footmen and horses. And yes, there’s even a wedding.
“I cannot resist connecting the dots in my life,” Susan Richards writes. Abigail Thomas would unreservedly approve. Memoir, she says, is “a way to figure out how you got to be who you are.”
Abigail Thomas will read at Woodstock’s Golden Notebook, May 9 at 5pm and Catskill Mountain Foundation in Hunter on May 17 at 2pm.