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. Susie says:

    I really admire you for walking away from a secure job to pursue your real life out in the country. It’s something I’d love to do one day.

    My birthday is a few weeks away and I’d love to win “The Memoir Project” because I would like to capture my mother’s story in writing and I’ve never attempted to write a memoir before.

  2. Adrianne Coleman says:

    One of my favorite memoirs is by children’s author Jean Fritz called “Homesick: My Own Story” which chronicles her experiences as an expat child living in China. Lovely story.

    Would love to win the book!

  3. Judy says:

    Unfortunately, I could not choose just one…

    Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert. My dream adventure! One of my all time favorites. How amazing to have the ability to take such a trip! Raw, real life…. Elizabeth definitely describes issues I can identify with in spite of the privilege issue.

    Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate, Wendy Johnson. Written by both a Zen and Gardening Master, this is a real treasure, packed full of gardening and life wisdom. This book can be read over and over again for new insights this very dense volume reveals each time.

    Stolen Lives, Malika Oufkir. A life that could not be more different than mine. The princess describes heartbreaking circumstances and unimaginable horrors born of a foreign culture. The story is told with a certain grace that is admirable. This book makes me feel grateful for being born in this country, and for my life here.

    Up Tunket Road, Philip Ackerman-Leist. I am currently reading this book. Philip was a philosophy major and is currently a professor at Green Mountain College in Vermont. He challenges the idea of the homesteading philosophy, that of being self sufficient and instead shows how interdependent we all are. A fabulous personal account of the Vermont culture, homesteading successes and failures, with unassuming, heartfelt descriptions of relationships and tales of personal growth. More proof (as if I need any?) that living close to the land gives life meaning.

    True Compass, Edward Kennedy. My Grandfather was a police man in West Roxbury, MA and knew Ted’s father Joseph. The Kennedy family has so much publicity and hoopla surrounding it I could not help myself… the last of the Kennedy brothers and the end of an era.

  4. Karla says:

    Wish my grandma who rode motorcycles and farmed while wearing sparkling earrings would have written a memoir. We kept telling her too but her claim was “no one would believe it!”
    I love memoirs and one that I made my students read was “Zlata’s Diary”. She was a girl growing up in Sarajevo during the war in 1992.
    Thanks for the give away!

  5. Cindy says:

    And the title of my memoir for my children is Fragments. I would love to read the book to make my writing more colorful.

  6. Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman, brought me into the life of a girl, uprooted by war from Cracow to Vancouver, and into her struggle to learn a new language and discover an identity. Hoffman is an insightful and elegant writer, literary and intimate in her spiritual and intellectual journey. Her story brought me closer to my half-sister, who also left a war-torn country as a girl and came to America with our mother who had married an American soldier. Because of Hoffman’s book, I have a deeper understanding of what it must have been like for my sister to leave everything she knew and loved—people and places and things, and what it means to always carry that nostalgia while striving to create “ a translation of one’s self.”

  7. Deniele Hayford says:

    I just can’t get enough of memoir. I love finding out what makes people tick. At the same time I learn about history, lifestyle, fortune and misfortune. It’s a big world out there. I have been writing my own memoir. I think there is a story there… I am excited to see this book come along just as I could use some help with my “project.”

  8. Susan says:

    Robin Lane Fox’s ‘Thoughtful Gardening’. The guy has written a screenplay and then played a part in his movie, written a beloved garden column for 40 years, is a respected professor at Oxford (and maintains the gardens) and he has gardened with some of the most renowned gardeners of our time. Yet, he feels a trip to the nursery to thoughtfully select a plant, return home and watch it grow is all that is needed for a life well lived. I can do that.

  9. joanne says:

    As an avid reader, memoirs are one of my favourite areas to explore. Diana Athill’s most recent memoir delighted me. She has written a series about various parts of her life, but the last one, Somewhere Near the End, reveals a strong independent and fascinating person whom I’d like to know. I’d also like to BE like her at her age (90’s now). WOW!

  10. Thomas Lister-Looker says:

    One of the first memoirs I read was, “All Over but the Shoutin'” by Rick Bragg. I grew up in a verbally abusive home triggered by alcoholism so reading Rick’s memoir made me realize that I wasn’t alone. I went on to read, “Ava’s Man.” Rick has a lyrical way of writing that seems to capture the true South and makes it impossible to close the covers.

  11. Jo Viets says:

    Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle. I haven’t thought about about this book in years, but it was the first title that popped into my head. I read and reread it until it fell apart.

  12. Terri H. says:

    I already commented once, but I just have to say, all these books people are naming are really expanding my notion of “memoir.” I keep going, that’s a memoir? Oh really, THAT’s a memoir too?? LOL!

  13. Janeen says:

    “My Life in France” by Julia Child — it was not only a fascinating story about a warm and generous woman, but a good reminder that you’re never too old to learn new things or have your “Grandma Moses moment.”

  14. Rachel says:

    I am always looking to see how others are overcoming, striving, and living their lives in the best way they know how. The books that have truly imprinted upon me and challenged me are memoirs.

    “Shutterbabe” by: Deborah Copaken Kogan inspired me to study print and photojournalism in college.

    “Under the Tuscan Sun” by: Frances Mayes inspired me to travel to Italy.

    “Garlic and Sapphires” by: Ruth Reichl inspired me to go back to culinary school and become a pastry chef.

    “Trail of Crumbs” by: Kim Sunee and “Eat, Pray, Love” by: Elizabeth Gilbert inspired me to love my life where it is and to appreciate that it’s ever changing.

    “Infidel” by: Ayaan Hirsi Ali inspired me to be grateful for the amazing opportunities I’ve had as a woman born in the United States in this day and age. Her spirit and strength is incredible.

    “Committed” by: Elizabeth Gilbert challenged me to really think about marriage and if I really desire it and why.

    I’m currently reading “and I shall have some peace there.”

  15. Jan says:

    “The Writing Life” and “An American Childhood” by Annie Dillard. The first book showed me that writing is not just magic but hard work. The second was pure entertainment told in a voice that could only be Annie Dillard’s.

  16. Susan Poisson-Dollar says:

    Love memoirs! I’ve read lots of those listed above and now have a list of new ones to search out. I can’t name a favorite so I’ll list a new one I really enjoyed. Maine writer Susan Conley’s “Foremost Good Fortune” is about moving to China w/2 young boys, getting breast cancer, and learning to appreciate life wherever one may be. My brother and sister-in-law have been in Beijing for almost 10 years so her take on that city was interesting to me but I think anyone would enjoy her writing.


  17. Sebette says:

    At first I didn’t think I had read many memoirs but after browsing the comments I recognized many there. None was an absolute favorite. I just love to read–almost as much as being in the garden.

  18. June Millette Fisher says:

    Submitted by: June Millette Fisher
    June 18th, 2011

    Hi Margaret,
    Thanks for the opportunity to share these thoughts.
    My best,

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

    Reading May Sarton’s, Plant Dreaming Deep, changed my life. During the 1970’s when I was in my 30’s, I was faced with a huge challenge. A woman I’d admired since childhood recommended a novel by Sarton. After reading it I found my way to her journals. I recognized a way of living that felt right, was validated and though not easy, has been a quest since then. The lessons learned – the losses and gains have made me who I am today: an HR executive who walked away from prestige, stress and salary to become a seeker, reader, writer, decorative gardener and a much happier and content woman. Sarton’s respect for and need of solitude has supported me all of the years since then and helped me understand that telling our stories may be the most important writing anyone can ever do.

    “Remember only this one thing,” said Badger. “The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away when they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.” — Barry Lopez, Crow and Weasel

    From: Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life by Gregg Michael Levoy

  19. Daniela says:

    I used to re-re-re-read a memoir that I adored when I was in highschool. I was even able to recite it by heart and I still read it religiously every year. I have never questioned WHY I was so much atracted to that story. Recently, while doing almost accidentally work on “family history” I have found out things that proved that…my grand grandmother story was very much alike the one in the memoir. Huh!

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