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 Scent in Literature Project: The Best Smelly Writing

Smells like a good book!

Smells like a good book!

perfume-1It’s no secret that for the past year and a half I’ve been writing a memoir through the lens of scent. What I smell has been my compass, my barometer, the way I gauge my reaction to the world and the tunnel I go through to access the memories I am writing about.

It has been a deep struggle to learn to write about scent in a way that doesn’t seem too direct or too all-consuming. Scent isn’t everything, but once you start paying attention to it, it may seem like it is. It is the perfect mind/body metaphor. The best writers understand this and know how, and when, to use it.

Part of the problem with scent in writing is that — like scent itself — it tends to sneak up you in a text and doesn’t always announce itself prominently. But that is exactly where its power emerges, in its ability to fall into the backdrop of a scene and leave a trail or a trace that isn’t always immediately recognized by readers. Because of scent’s sneakiness, we don’t always have the right vocabulary for speaking about it.

Olfactory scientist Avery Gilbert, who wrote one of my favorite books on olfactory science, What the Nose Knows, calls this the “Verbal Barrier” to scent.

“Clearly, there are plenty of words for smell. This means that the Verbal Barrier is not a vocabulary problem, it’s a cognitive problem.” — Avery Gilbert

I am deeply motivated to help people understand the power of scent and I want to see more writers exploring how to use it effectively. That’s why I’m announcing here a new web project of sorts, a single web page that will collect great, effective uses of scent in literature to show students of the craft the limitless possibilities of making their books smell — for better or worse.

Hey, I didn’t say this scent stuff was always pretty.

I’m calling it Scent in Literature: The Best Smelly Writing.

My list currently has just six items, not for lack of me running across any in my favorite books, but because I would like this to be a community project directed by tastes other than just my own. If you have a favorite example of great writing that uses scent as a metaphor, scene-setting device or just a way into the story, please add it in the comments section.

Before long, I expect this page to be the smelliest website on the web!

Want to read more? Follow me on Twitter or Facebook, or you can read some of my writing at www.emilygrosvenor.com.