I finished February with plans to read Madeleines in Manhattan by Colette Rossant. And I started but I didn’t finish. I hate giving up on books but when there are just so many great ones to read I feel it is my duty to Put The Book Down And Carry On.
Why didn’t I like it? For me there are three essential ingredients in memoir. I want The What Happened, The Context and The Emotional Impact. This book gave me The What Happened but not enough of the other two, especially emotion.
On that front it started quite well. Colette had a very difficult relationship with her mother who essentially abandoned her when she was young. The two were all but estranged. Then, several chapters in life and the book later she casually mentions how, when she has her own children, her mother becomes an involved grandmother. She doesn’t mention how this came to be or her feelings about it – or at least she hadn’t by the time I gave up. Even if the issues were not resolved but merely brushed under the carpet she could have told us that. She could have said she let sleeping dogs lie for her mother and because she wanted to her children to have a wider family. But she didn’t.
Maybe it was too personal or painful but in that instance as her editor I would have said, “Either go there, or don’t. Don’t tell half the story.” I might have advised her to do a recipe book (the recipes look nice) with a side dish of anecdotes, not a typical linear memoir.
I’ve just read the Amazon reviews which basically say the same thing. I’m glad I didn’t read them first though. I try to never judge a book by its reviews*. Films are different. Ever since I nearly chewed my own arm off watching the excruciatingly terrible Nine, I read the reviews. It has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 37 per cent.
* If this has made you crave Manhattans AND Madeleines, here’s an article on the best places to buy and eat madeleines in Manhattan.
I moved on to a terrific book that was not on the pile. You know that meme that jokes about how you never buy new books until you’ve finished the ones on the pile? Big fat LOL as any booklover knows.
I read about Birds Art Life Death (A Field Guide To The Small And Insignificant) by Kyo MacLear in The Simple Things magazine and the description spoke to me. Kyo is a writer whose father’s illness leaves her feeling “unmoored.” She meets a musician who copes with the stresses of artistic life in a big city by watching and photographing birds and asks him if she can follow him for a year.
I love observing the minutiae of life, how nature exists where humans run amok (see picture of pansy below) so this appealed and I was not disappointed. It’s a quirky book, with sketches and some lines written in swirling patterns. It is also delicately rich with emotion, touching on mental health, family, change and of course, birds.
There are many beautiful passages. Kyo writes of the moment she and the musician met, “The moment of us not knowing each other quickly receded.” Gorgeous! And on a mildly tense conversation with her father: “I wasn’t too concerned. At a certain stage, these matters within families don’t get worked out, they just get half-heartedly poked at or ignored.” This resonated and relaxed me.
I heartily recommend this book, not least for the list of things Kyo feels the musician taught her, which I photocopied for my journal. It really touched my heart.
As you’ll know from a previous blog post in February I welcomed my Twitter friend, the memoirist Marta Szabo, to Whitstable from Woodstock, New York. She facilitated one of her Authentic Writing workshops for nine lucky participants myself included.
It was simply magical and I felt as if I wrote from a very deep place. Not only was it a special afternoon but I also picked up some fantastic guidelines on giving and receiving nourishing and genuinely supportive feedback.
I employed these guidelines in a one-month course I was giving in nearby Herne Bay. I had been invited to teach a month of memoir writing to a long-established creative writing group. There I met a fantastic group of women who really embraced their personal stories and wrote and shared fearlessly.
Here is some of their feedback on the course:
- “All the fear has gone. My original idea has changed almost completely as I’ve been given the freedom to do this in a new way.”
- “Inspired by what’s come up – the unexpected.”
- “I’m inspired, really got me thinking, especially about writing something for my grandchildren.”
- “I feel released, liberated from the formal structure I thought I had to write in.”
- “I’ll definitely carry on. I’ve been inspired by seeing the different approaches you can take. I want to leave something behind.”
It was enriching to be with them – thank you ladies, hope our paths cross again soon.
The next memoirs I will be reading are in preparation for WhitLit, the Whitstable Literary Festival in mid-May. I am interviewing Vanessa Nicholson about her new memoir The Truth Game. I spoke to Vanessa at last year’s festival about her first memoir Have Your Been Good? I am excited to say the least. Vanessa is an incredible memoirist.
The other lady I’m interviewing is the intriguing Emma Slade from Whitstable. Her memoir is called Set Free: A Life-Changing Journey From Banking To Buddhism In Bhutan. What a title!
I cannot wait to get stuck in and I’ll write more after the festival but do come along if you can. It’s a fabulous festival, intimate with fascinating authors and topics, and for the first time this year is taking place in the gorgeous setting of Whitstable Castle.
And talking of gorgeous settings, for my next blog (as I’ll still be reading for WhitLit I expect) I’ll be writing more about a memoir writing retreat I’m running in Seasalter this October. If you’ve been on the Your Memoir Facebook page you’ll know about it – two spots of eight already gone – but if you don’t, I’ll just leave this image of where you could be sat writing your life story right here…