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.
“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.
“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.
“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?