Read a Memoir

the glass castleYet another similarity between Gretchen and me 😉 is the reading of memoirs. I was once someone who strictly read novels. Completely and 100%.

My switch to memoirs started after my nephew’s death in 2005. To be honest, after that I found fiction an insult. I could barely stand to read a novel in which something terrible happened. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t necessary for the writer to write it. Hence I was unable to finish either The Kite Runner or Atonement, both excellent books until something bad happened and I abandoned them. And it was agony reading Cry the Beloved Country that year, where Kumalo talks about “not knowing this thing was coming, step by step” and “There is a man sleeping in the grass. And over him is gathering the greatest storm of all his days.” I only got through it because our son had to read it for school and he was struggling with it.

Fiction doesn’t have to be sad/terrible/upsetting. But it so often is and that’s the writer’s choice.

Rarely, however, does anyone write a memoir unless they have an unusually compelling story to tell. And compelling usually means a shocking tale of overcoming or surviving incredible hurdles such as illness, mental illness, violence, dysfunction, crime, betrayal, murder, kidnapping, nature, war, pestilence… A life like Jeannette Walls writes about in The Glass Castle.

Rarely does anyone publish a memoir about an incredibly wonderful and awesome life. Although I did read one by William F. Buckley’s son once. Enviable life, there.

Memoirs, however, are true (or at least they’re supposed to be), so the writer is forced to write about sad/terrible/upsetting events. It’s not a choice. This mattered to me.

In The Happiness Project Gretchen recommends reading memoirs of catastrophe, in part to cultivate a “sense of perspective so (she) could remain unruffled by petty annoyances and setbacks.” That doesn’t exactly explain why I got into reading them myself. Back then it was more about understanding that bad things happen to lots of people. (Plus, as I mentioned, fiction was an insult.) I would also have to say that it’s mostly because I feel I learn a lot from peoples’ experiences and insights. It carries weight that fiction does not. That’s why I also read tons of non-fiction and history nowadays, in addition to memoirs.

Anyway, back to Gretchen’s reason. It applies much more to me today than the me I was eight years ago. Of course, I don’t actually have to read a memoir to “remain unruffled by petty annoyances and setbacks”. I just have to remember what a true problem is and feel embarrassed that anything other than a non-life threatening/altering incident could ruffle my feathers at all. It’s the only good that has ever come out of Matthew’s death, that crystal clear perspective about what is or is not a problem.

And, luckily, most things aren’t.

ps. I am happy to say that in the past two years I’ve been making a point of reading fiction once again. Of reading for the joy of the story. If a book is really, really good, then I can forgive it for just being fiction. 😉


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