Funny how we absorb — the good, the bad, emotions, behaviors — such is life. Things subconsciously stick. Bad things happen, I get it. But we can make choices in handling those experiences that are beyond our control. We can surround ourselves with whatever we want to absorb.
You want to be a better writer? Surround yourself with words.
Read above your usual level and absorb the techniques of the experts. Absorb their words, sentences, paragraphs, style, and structure — details of time and place, character, dialogue and gesture — inspiration and imagination, understanding of the human condition and more. Name it and notice it.
This April I’ve been devouring memoirs. Maybe you’re looking for something to read next.
This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession is the debut of Cameron Dezen Hammon. On page one, Hammon takes the stage at a suburban megachurch to sing at a funeral for a teenaged girl. Her cell phone buzzes in the pocket of her dress. It’s the man she might love, not her husband and father of her daughter. And from the opening scene, Hammon’s honesty and bravery hooked me. She grapples with misogyny in religion, infidelity in marriage, and doubt in faith. I couldn’t stop turning pages, and I can’t stop thinking about this book.*
Educated by Tara Westover had been on my to-read list for a couple of years. I listened to it on Audible, but I wish I had a copy. Born to Mormon survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Westover was 17 the first time she stepped into a classroom on the campus of BYU. The following passage strikes at the heart of this book and the ideology of Westover’s childhood. This conversation is the steppingstone she needs to further education—at Cambridge, then Harvard.
“By the end of the semester the world felt big, and it was hard to imagine returning to the mountain, to a kitchen, or even to a piano in a room next to the kitchen. This caused a kind of crisis in me. My love of music and my desire to study it had been compatible with my idea of what a woman is. My love of history and politics and world affairs was not, and yet they called to me. A few days before finals, I sat for an hour with my friend Josh in an empty classroom. He was reviewing his applications for law school. I was choosing my courses for the next semester. ‘If you were a woman,’ I asked, ‘would you still study law?’
Josh didn’t look up. ‘If I were a woman,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t want to study it.’
‘But you’ve talked about nothing but law school for as long as I’ve known you,’ I said. ‘It’s your dream. Isn’t it?’
‘It is,’ he admitted, ‘but it wouldn’t be if I were a woman. Women are made differently. They don’t have this ambition. Their ambition is for children.’ He smiled at me as if I knew what he were talking about, and I did. I smiled, and for a few seconds, we were in agreement.
Then, ‘But what if you were a woman and somehow you felt exactly as you do now?’
Josh’s eyes fixed on the wall for a moment. He was really thinking about it. Then he said, ‘I’d know something was wrong with me.’
Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club was a trudge for me. There are funny and heartbreaking parts. I enjoyed Karr’s vocabulary and sentences and images, but for whatever reason, I didn’t feel compelled to turn pages. In connection with the other two memoirs, all three authors goes through tough injustices. Hammon and Westover both triumph and learn something about themselves. As for Karr, I prefer her book The Art of Memoir, especially if you’re interested in writing one.
*One more thing about Camerson Dezen Hammon. I’m thrilled to say my university has contracted her to read my memoir-in-progress and mentor me. So, now I leave this post to continue my revisions. My due date approaches, and I just might have more books to read.