Book Review: The Memoir Project

I’m happy! After a small drought, I’ve finally found a book I’m excited to recommend!  Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life tickled me pink.

Yes, it’s yet another book on how to apply writing craft techniques to the memoir genre. Like the book I recently panned, Unless It Move the Human Heart, this book combines teacherly thoughts with first-person anecdotes and reflections. But there the similarity ends. While I found that book’s author–and his thoughts–annoying, I felt immediate sisterhood with The Memoir Project’s author Marion.

“Go small” is her leading message. She advises us not to try to write everything that happened to us–rather, to find universal ideas we can illustrate using our experiences, choosing details that give others the world as we see it.

Marion’s got an opinionated voice. She’s no more in favor of writing prompts than I am. She wants you to stop practicing and write. No morning pages! No exercises! Just write with intent, working your memoir project!

Marion’s got the same tricks in her bag as most of us memoir writing teachers. She pulls out recommendations to carry index cards with you. Know what your story is about. Map out your structure. Vomit up a first draft but edit like murder. Show, don’t tell.

Ah yes, show don’t tell. Easier said than done, so I appreciate how she goes beyond saying and points us toward how to actually do it.

Marion eloquently marries “show, don’t tell” to “go small” with a fine riff on a funeral. “Don’t tell me it was sad; show me how sadness looks, and let me do the math…. Anyone can sit through a funeral. But while we zip up the dress before or unclasp the pearls after, there’s a moment to witness–another human being preparing for or coming off of the universal big stuff of life.”

That’s the kind of observation–and instruction–that kept me smiling and  grabbing my hi-lighter as I read The Memoir Project. I’m going to spend the next six months just trying to find small moments that bear witness to the bigger stuff I want to write about.

Even though The Memoir Project is only a little over 100 pages, it took me several weeks to finish, because each page contained something I wanted to think about. (Want to know more? Read a review on NPR.org.)

Marion promises to teach us to write with intent: she does so, and with frank, eccentric asides that make the process a delight. Thank you Marion!

A final note–I have a little habit of collecting disclaimers in memoirs. Here’s Marion’s–“Some of the individuals in this book have asked me to respect their anonymity. Therefore, I have modified their identities and certain details about them.”

Well said, Marion.

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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2 Responses to Book Review: The Memoir Project

  1. Pingback: The Right Word | True Stories Well Told

  2. Pingback: Why memoir writers need to read fiction | True Stories Well Told

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