giveaway: 'the memoir project' as a guide to life

HAVING DECIDED TO WRITE MEMOIR FOR A LIVING has its perils. For me, it has some extra-prickly ones, since my only sibling has been teaching memoir-writing for 13 years, and has a disarming thing or 20 to say on the topic—plus she shares a lifetime of my memories. Now Marion Roach Smith has tucked her tactics (along with a number of our childhood anecdotes) into “The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life.” With our memoirist friend Katrina Kenison, we’re celebrating the new book and the very medium of memoir—offering six chances to win Marion’s irreverent little guide to writing what you know, whether in a whole book, a blog post, or even a letter to a loved one. Do you dare try?

Holding Marion’s latest book in my hands, I’m reminded how much writing my memoir, “And I Shall Have Some Peace There,” meant to me—which of course the tagline to her book’s title more than hints at with the “…& Life” part. I don’t think I’m unusual when I say that writing stuff down helps me sort it out; the act of writing has enriched and clarified over and again. Without a pen or a keyboard, I sometimes wonder if I could really think at all, or puzzle my way forward.

A couple of years ago, while I was sitting writing about dropping out of my longtime publishing career for a rural life and renewed personal creativity, Marion was an hour away, parenting, writing and taping a daily radio column, blogging, serving on boards—and teaching the art of memoir to wait-listed classes. Somehow in that juggling routine she was always ready with just the right memoir-writing trick on her blog each time I needed one to keep my own book on the tracks, and “coincidentally” helped me push onward.

If you’re looking for warmup exercises or a cheerleader who never says anything but “rah-rah,” wrong girl. Marion (above) is a do-er, and will expect you to be one, too—again, even if you simply wish to give your spouse an anniversary gift of some written facet of the years, or your adopted child the story of the day you met her. Don’t get my sister started on subjects like writer’s block (no such thing, she says—and believe me, I tried that excuse). Don’t tell her you’re doing your writing “exercises” when she asks if you’re at the desk working. Doesn’t count.

She prodded me to remember that “just because something happened doesn’t make it interesting,” and to never forget what the story is about: to ever-vigilantly keep the theme in a place of prominence. With an offbeat humor (maybe it’s genetic?), Marion takes you through the steps to success. Just look at her Table of Contents for a hint of how she thinks:

To write good memoir, Marion says, You Must Be Present to Win (Chapter 1), paying attention and telling the truth. You should channel Galileo in Walmart (Chapter 2) by not letting all the “stuff” in those crowded aisles distract you; focus that lens of your telescope. Lest you find yourself Having Sex With Roger (Chapter 3), keep your eyes open, the lights on, and a notebook by the bed, all in the name of creating The Barbie-Bodied Book (Chapter 4), whose whistle-stopping figure won’t let readers peel their eyes off your argument.

She dares us all—not just those pursuing the writer’s path professionally—to write it all down, and for that prodding I have usually thanked her (except when it exasperated me, in the way siblings cannot help but do from time to time; I get in my turns, I promise).

If I sound proud of Marion’s latest book—her fourth—in a more-than-sisterly way, a postscript: I am, because “The Memoir Project” got its start as a dare from me, the big sister. Year before last I challenged Marion to write what she knew—her class curriculum—so we could self-publish it and maybe, just maybe, get a major publisher to buy it someday. I guess I spoiled the suspense of that story by revealing in the first paragraph here what came to pass. Congratulations, Marion!

How to Win 1 of 6 Copies of ‘The Memoir Project’

MARION, KATRINA AND I are each giving away two copies of Marion’s new book “The Memoir Project,” and all you have to do to win is comment, answering the question:

What memoir that you have read mattered to you, and why?

Copy and paste your comment onto all three of our blogs to triple your chances of winning—again, each of us has two copies to share, and we’ll all draw winners at random (using the tool at random dot org) after entries close at midnight Saturday, June 18.

Now we are pretty flexible, we three, so even if you don’t want to name a book, or have a title but not a reason why, that’s OK. Simply say, “I want to win,” or “Count me in” or some such, and your entry will be official. But remember: copy and paste it on all three blogs, using the bulleted links above. Good luck! (And we can’t wait to see the booklist you help generate with your replies.)

  1. Sugar Street Farm says:

    After my grandfather died, my grandma began writing memories of growing up on the farm in a little notebook. I am one of the few that can read her handwriting. I wish she would write more. She’s 86. Two of my favorite storing involve wolves and an out-of-control horse sleigh. She is a living treasure.

  2. tory says:

    I have yet to find a memoir that has had a profound effect on me. I would love to write my own, while not entirely interesting to many others, I have so much to share with my kids. Thanks for the opportunity!

  3. Donna says:

    My favorite memoir is “The Land Remembers” by Ben Logan. Not only because it’s a book about growing up in rural Wisconsin, as I did, but because of the bittersweet way in which he writes about his life. Also, because his love of living with nature is a main theme throughout the book.

    I’d like to add how cool this idea is! All these posts give us wonderful memoir suggestions for future reading.

  4. Shannon Jackson says:

    I think I posted in the wrong place previously….but Philip Simmons “Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life” and Patrick Lane’s “There is a Season” are two standouts for me.

  5. I am eager to read your sister’s book! Memoir is my favorite genre and as I read your book, which inspired me deeply, I made a list of other books and authors you referenced and am now digging into May Sarton.
    Favorite memoirs:
    Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. I think the only thing that kept me gong as I read of her life was knowing she survived. Such courage.
    On Writing by Stephen King. Yes, it is about the craft, but also about his life. His ideas have helped so many of my own writing students.
    Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. Such honest writing.
    The Color of Water by James McBride. I couldn’t put it down.

  6. Marie says:

    Eat, Love, Pray – Walking away from the life you have with the intention to get some perspective was just what I needed to read at that time of my life. I’d recently done that, and then I purposely walked towards a life I consciously, and unconsciously, created. I took a huge leap of faith, and landed on my feet surrounded by love and happiness. Reading about someone else’s leap was ‘comforting’.

    After months, I haven’t ‘shelved’ “And I shall have some peace there…” I lives on my nightstand, and I often turn to a random page and read. I really enjoy your writing, Margaret!

  7. Uli says:

    I read memoirs a lot and, probably because I choose carefully, I usually find something in each that really speaks to me; makes it “matter.” I really enjoyed “and I shall have some peace there” because I recently moved out of the city to a wooded area in the lower Hudson valley where I am struggling to start a garden — the obstacles faced by Margaret are all familiar to me. But I am, also, dealing with some similar existential questions about my direction in life. Other standouts include Roger Rosenblatt’s bittersweet “Making Toast,” and two of Michael Pollan’s pre-food-focused books: “Second Nature” and “A Place of One’s Own.”

  8. Carole says:

    The Years of the Forest by Helen Hoover is a treasure of a book about a couple that chose to live in a remote cabin in the Minnesota woods. And then there is Walden, would that be considered a memoir? Miles From Nowhere about a couple bicycling around the world is memorable and gritty.

  9. Katelyn says:

    The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks by Robin Romm. It was as though finally someone had witnessed me and all I had felt in losing my Mom to cancer as a young girl. That I wasn’t alone in my inner child’s (and my adult) thoughts that it wasn’t OK for her to leave. Robin’s book speaks to the child in all of us that is never too old to lose their mother. It was the turning point for me to be able to begin to celebrate my mother in life, not grieve her in death. This book began as Robin’s personal journal and I am profoundly grateful for the gift she gave in choosing to share it.

  10. Liz Preston says:

    What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
    Great book about a wonderful writer and marathon runner. The story of how he started doing both. I read this when I decided to run my first marathon.

  11. Mathangi says:

    I really liked “The gift of an ordinary day”. The author echoed my sentiments in so many aspects throughout the book. Her remarkable insight and elegant writing style made it perfect.

    1. Margaret says:

      ENTRIES FOR THE GIVEAWAY ARE NOW CLOSED, but your comments about memoirs you have loved are always welcome (even if they don’t count in the drawing). Winners are being chosen at random and will be emailed!

      Thank you all for such a great response — Marion and Katrina and I want to make a booklist from these suggestions as a future post. So more to come…

  12. Joyce G says:

    Into the Woods, by Bill Bryson maybe not a memoir, but about his travel thru the Apallacian trail,,description and humor. thoughtful.

  13. Kim Tubb says:

    I know we were asked to comment on one memoir, but being a rule breaker by nature, there have been two books in my life that weight equally as life changing.
    “When the heart waits” by Sue Monk Kidd, afforded me the lesson in just being still and present to your life and was the inspiration for my first foot forward in my personal journey.

    “The Gift of an Ordinary Day” by Katrina Kenison came into my life just when I was wanting to flee. The book reassured me that feeling, good and bad, is the key to the life you really want to live.

  14. Tammy Flahive says:

    Would love to write my stories and share my experiences, reflecting and digging deeper into all the sides of my life. Thanks!!

  15. yogaswim says:

    My favorite memoir has been ‘A Year by the Sea’ by Joan Anderson. So much wisdom on how to create the life you want.

    I am a mother of 2 young boys and my husband and I are planning to take the boys on the road, traveling, for a year. I would love to capture our journey – both the physical and mental journeys. Your quote of Marion, on ‘just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother.’ rings true as I’m sure we’ll encounter many difficulties (who doesn’t with a 2.5 and 5 yr olds) but that does not mean it will not be worth it in the end and for all the memories and bonds which will be created. THANK YOU!!

    Count me in

  16. Rosemary says:

    I cannot think of any ‘specific’ memoir…….I do know that I am told all the time, by others, that I should write a book. I suffer from depression, am a single mom with a disabled child and have been alone for a very long time. I try to exude a sense of happiness toward all and smile without thought of my own despair. It has brought me far, but I know writing down all of my life’s experience would bring me a sense of calm. I have always had the mind that God gives no more than you can handle. My plate overflows as I approach foreclosure; laid off in March of 2009. In my youth I wrote all the time. Somewhere along the way I lost the desire…..actually I lost myself. I envision being able to write my memoir, I may be able to find myself , once again. Maybe, just maybe. Do you think so?

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