Sometimes I have a hard time reading memoirs because either the writing style doesn’t work for me, or the author’s identity and personality clashes strongly with my own. True Stories, Well Told contains works that made me overjoyed, made me want to cry, and made me able to empathize and connect with the writers themselves. The stories are just short enough that I want to go off and look for more of the authors’ works afterwards, and this collection has made memoirs and creative nonfiction all the more appealing for me.
Creative nonfiction is the literary equivalent of jazz: it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, voices, and techniques—some newly invented, and others as old as writing itself. This collection of 20 gripping, beautifully-written nonfiction narratives is as diverse as the genre Creative Nonfiction magazine has helped popularize. Contributions by Phillip Lopate, Brenda Miller, Carolyn Forche, Toi Derricotte, Lauren Slater and others draw inspiration from everything from healthcare to history, and from monarch butterflies to motherhood. Their stories shed light on how we live.
I found out about True Stories, Well Told through the magazine from which the best stories were pulled out of and put into this collection. After reading about Creative Nonfiction and how it came about from one of Katie‘s Nonfiction Friday links, I immediately ordered a subscription. For some reason, I assumed that the stories would be about external things, like the environment, or science, or art and culture, from a personal perspective. I was expecting something of Mary Roach or Bill Bryson style, but to my (dare I say) dismay, it was a lot of internal things, like how someone’s life experiences have changed them and how they felt. (EWWW FEELINGS. 😱) And even if there are more external experiences, it is always tied in to a personal, intrinsic experience. But good storytelling is good storytelling. And I like reading good stories. I’m surprised and delighted to be able to say that I enjoyed many of the stories in this collection, and that they made me think a lot.
Out of the twenty short stories in this collection, I have some obvious favorites. Todd May’s Teaching Death, a very philosophical story, enabled me to gain new insight into the paradox that is human mortality. (For example, we all want to live another day, but would we want to live forever? Okay, not a good question to pose for fellow bookworms who have infinite books to read, but… what if one day you have no more books to read, and you have all of forever left to live?)
Jane Bernstein’s Rachel at Work: Enclosed, a Mother’s Report is a touching and heartbreakingly pragmatic account of Berstein and her special needs daughter, Rachel. Paul Austin’s Mrs. Kelly speaks of how a doctor’s every minute decision impacts a patient’s life, for better or for worse. Toi Derricotte’s Beds was a horrifying piece about her childhood with her mother and her father. Meredith Hall’s Without A Map was the story that almost made me cry; twenty-two-year-old Meredith backpacks across countries, literally without a map and without money, to throw away her past. Brian Doyle’s Two On Two was the story that made me so SO happy, with its beautiful, seamless prose about Doyle and his daughter playing two on two against his sons. The authors also leave notes about their stories, and Doyle has a wonderful one, for all you brave souls tackling NaNoWriMo this month:
Relax, stop thinking, write with your lightning fingers, write like you think and speak and dream, not like you think Writers write; write with the cadence and music of all the hymns and fables and songs and poems and curses and slurs you ever heard swirling in your memory; write fast and let the sentences sprint and whirl as they will. You can always tinker later. […]
Obviously, as with every anthology, there are stories that I didn’t like. Gordon Lish’s Self-Interview was one of those, mostly because the author’s voice and content was just super loud, jumbled, and rambunctious, and complete opposite of me. Sonya Huber’s Breastfeeding Dick Cheney was a kind of ridiculously psychological mindfudge (excuse my language), and it didn’t help that anything politics-related goes right over my head.
At the very end, Lee Gutkind tells us about the history of the magazine and how it came about. He artfully describes the lack of creative nonfiction as a field of study in higher education, and how it wasn’t looked upon favorable by English departments, journalists, and the like just a few decades ago. Writing about real events and happenings, but putting a creative spin on them (thus “exaggerating” them to a certain extent) is something that a lot of nonfiction writers do today, and it was a shock to me that it was once scoffed at and ridiculed. Gutkind, as the founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine, deserves to be applauded for playing a role in building a niche for creative nonfiction.
True Stories, Well Told was a wonderful surprise, and I’ve gained a new appreciation for creative nonfiction (or narrative nonfiction, memoir, whatever you want to call it). Gutkind alluded to the fact that any type of artist has to be a little selfish and egocentric, because they believe that their own work is meaningful to someone else; the memoir, I think, is one of the most selfish and egocentric of them all, and that’s why sometimes I don’t like it. (It’s like that one friend who always has to relate everything back to himself/herself.) But this collection has shown me that personal narratives can be relatable, touching, and riveting.
Do you like memoirs, narrative/creative nonfiction, etc.?
Do you have a favorite memoir?