Book Review by Linda Johnson
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Thinking About Memoir
AARP Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 2008 118 pps 978-1-4027-5235-3
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Abigail Thomas wrote Thinking About Memoir with several hopes in mind. In her preface, she states “Memoir is the story of how we got here from there. I hope this book will inspire different ways to look at the moment you’re in right now, and see how far back it can take you. I hope it will make you admire how surprising life is, and I hope you will write.”
Thinking About Memoir is a small book, probably about 4” x 6”, only 118 pages. It is small enough to slip in a pocket or purse and carry with you. This is good because these small pages are filled with enough prompts and exercises to keep you writing for months, if not years. Thomas wastes no time getting writers started: she introduces an exercise by the third page of Chapter 1. I started marking pages I want to return to—by the time I finished reading, my book bristled with Post-It® Flags!
Thomas agrees with Natalie Goldberg about the futility of trying to approach memory and memoir straight on. Goldberg says we must zig and zag our path through. Thomas says we must approach through a side door. “That’s where the exercises come in.” (pg. 3) We write in response to her prompt. We start with one memory, that memory leads to another, which leads to another, and soon we are surprised at what comes from our pen.
Thomas advises writers to start or keep a daily habit of writing. Keep a notebook with you at all times. Write down anything that catches your attention. Don’t judge whether or not it is important. Just notice.
She doesn’t like the word journal to describe this notebook. She feels that journal would make her feel self-conscious. Instead, she calls it her diary and uses it to collect her daily life. “Everything goes in: grocery lists, things to do (so I can scratch them off) random observations, knitting patterns, recipes, overheard dialogue, everything. A diary isn’t sacred. Think of it as the written equivalent of singing in the shower.” (pg 13)
I differ with her on the naming of your notebook. To me diary sounds restrictive; journal is more open to holding everything. Some people call their notebooks a commonplace book. My friend Sherita calls hers her Blackberry®! What we call it seems unimportant, as long as we write in it every day.
Thomas sets up each chapter with a vignette or anecdote that illustrates her following exercise. A reader can dip into the book anywhere and find a short, complete, interesting entry that will inspire a written response.
The final chapter is More Exercises. Thomas ends the book with eight pages of assignments. So any time a writer is stumped for an idea, he or she can pull out this little book, thumb through the last chapter, and find a side door to try.
This book is little but mighty. Wait! That reminds me of a story my Mom used to tell. In her senior yearbook, that phrase was written as her description. I think I just found an open side door!