Write It Slant: 3 New Must-Read Women’s Memoirs



Ever since I cleared out 5/6 of my library I’ve been going full throttle on my own memoir and immersing myself in the study of the genre. But I’m not just reading any old life story — I’m deliberating choosing the kind of stories where the writer explores a part of herself through a specific pursuit or obsession.

Think about it: Memoir is poetry in book-length form. By writing at the thing you use to explore your particular issue — grief, self-discovery, trauma, childhood —  you can say more than if you were to attack it directly. As in poetry, the object becomes theme. Human beings, after all, process their stories through behavior before they can ever really articulate what was going on. Brenda Miller put out a great book on this very topic a few years ago in her book on writing creative nonfiction, Tell It Slant.

In writing about the thing they can’t stop doing, in exploring their lives through one specific lens, these writers have an exceptional filter through which they can tell their stories. Reading them has been like a master class for the memoir I am writing about finding a sense of home through scent. Here are three I have loved.

1. H is for Hawk

British writer Helen Macdonald is one of those Renaissance women I can’t help but admire — a poet, illustrator, naturalist, historian, research scholar, and perhaps most curiously, raptor trainer. In the wake of her father’s death she looks for a way to channel her grief by acquiring and caring for a Goshawk, a kind of raptor known among falconers as being the most difficult to train. Her book H is for Hawk is a moment-by-moment exploration of tending to one’s own inner wounds by focusing on the minutiae of a singular pursuit — in this case, falconry. Steeped in the poetry of a naturalist and rife with lovely meditations on loss, H is for Hawk is for everyone who understands that grief has a vocabulary different to every individual. in taming her hawk, she finds a way to corral a heart gone feral. I highly recommend it.

Scent passage:

“The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.”

2. Hammerhead: The Making of a Carpenter


Nina McLaughlin was a late-20s news writer for the Boston Phoenix when the tyranny of clicks and likes and likes sent her looking for something else. At the height of the recession, she responded to an ad on Craigslist from a woman named Mary looking for an assistant carpenter  Over the next five years, McLaughlin would err and persevere, build and join, demolish and screw her way to a new understanding of life by learning one of the oldest crafts in existence. In Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, the reader learns with her — and not just about carpentry, but how to be humble before a master, become confident while maintaining unbridled curiosity, and push forward in the face of any failure. Her focus on the craft of carpentry feels like Thoreau, as if she were channeling the master, respecting the craft, carpentry and writing alike. It’s an inspiring, visceral read, something of a big 4U to working at a computer.

Scent passage:

“Sawdust spewed and dusted down onto the pavement, resting in craters in the cement, and the smell of pine moved with it, bright and clean, the smell of Christmas, renewal.”

3. Coming Clean: A Memoir

If you’ve ever turned away from watching the TV show Hoarders because it feels exploitative, you’ll much prefer Coming Clean: A Memoir, Kimberly Rae Miller’s thoughtful, train-wreck of a memoir about her paper-hoarding father and her shopaholic mother. Growing up in a household filled with trash can’t help but change a person, and so it is with Miller, who fights her way through the shame, disgust and self-loathing of living in unclean surroundings to come out on the other end a self-actualized young woman with a bright future. And though the subject she takes as the filter for her life story is the chaos of trash, her memoir is the opposite of disorganized, showing just how possible it is for a writer to draw meaning and create story but sifting through all the garbage. I can’t say enough good things about this memoir, which shows how gently but powerfully you can write about family, even when they’re a problem you don’t want to just go away.

Taste passage:

“Each room has its own particular flavor of squalor, but what remains constant is that I am always trying to figure out where and how to start to fix it.”

 Have you read any great memoirs lately? Are you writing one?


The whole time I was writing a book


HouseI’m writing a book. There, I said it. And I can pinpoint the moment when I realized I have been writing this book for four years, ever since we were driving out of Idaho and into Oregon and somehow ended up on a road that was snaking towards the Columbia River  on top of the clouds.

It looked like a scene out of Highway to Heaven.

I’ve been thinking about the same things I always seem to think about — place, character, the love affair between the two — and have been wondering if there wasn’t something lurking inside me, something ready to be born, something that has been waiting a long time to come out. The realization came to me after a lot of immersing myself in a ton of books about writing nonfiction books.

I highly recommend books about books, by the way. It’s gloriously meta. Book-on-book action.

So I’ve been spending the last few weeks reading a lot about writing. It never gets old. I can read the same old advice told differently and laid out in different typeset, but  it never fails to fire me up. I can’t stop revisiting the stories about story.

And wouldn’t you know it —  I was floored when I discovered something new while clicking through — yes, Kindle version — a book by Marion Roach Smith called The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life.  The author mentioned something I had not heard of before as a way to inspire yourself when you’re writing a book.

Well, I’m not writing a book, I said to myself, but I’d like to. Let’s try it out.

The advice said: Make a book cover for yourself and put it on the wall as inspiration.

Now, to my mind, all you really need for a book cover whose sole purpose is to inspire is an image, a title, a subtitle and your sweet little byline. So I took one of my favorite images from an amazing Salem artist, Alexandra Opie, who is doing a project where she layers tin-type photographic portraits over images of modern-day people.

They are stunning. And they reminded me of what it felt like to move to Oregon — to believe you are somehow stepping into the narrative of the West, even if the only thing pioneer-y about you is all the things you left behind.

So I made a crude cover with one of Alexandra’s portraits and I thought about one of my favorite lessons from the feature writing course that I teach — sum up your story in just two words. It wasn’t too difficult.

Pioneer — You leave, you forge something new, sometimes you do it alone. You go West. You go to Oregon.

Perfume — You breathe, you connect, you suck the world in with your wild, insatiable heart.

Pioneer Perfume. It might smell like the sweat of canning all of the tomatoes from your garden. It might smell like a young woman who is a migratory songbird learning how to nest. It might smell like the terroir of a well-aged pinot that has absorbed all of the elements the earth offered up to it. It might smell funny, like a new mom wondering what in the world her new friends in Oregon mean by “family cloth.”

Whatever it is, it smells like a book.