Other People, Other Places

In her dazzlingly brilliant novel, The Blind Assassin, published in 2000, Margaret Atwood tells the story of an eighty-two-year-old Canadian woman, Iris Chase Griffen, who is writing her memoirs as a legacy for her estranged grown granddaughter, Sabrina.

Within that story is another story – a steamy novel purportedly written by Iris’s sister Laura before she drove her car off a bridge to her death at the age of twenty-five in 1945. And within that steamy novel are chapters of the book her lover is writing — far-out, outer-spacey, pulp fiction he’s concocting to support his dicey life on the run.

Like those Russian dolls that fit one inside the other, this book’s stories-within-stories bedazzle. I stayed up late last night to finish reading The Blind Assassin, and I’m still bedazzled by it this morning.

The cover of my large-print library book copy

Early in this hefty novel Iris the protagonist writes: “I’ve written nothing for the past week. I lost the heart for it. … But I’ve begun again, I notice. I’ve taken up my black scrawl; it unwinds in a long dark thread of ink across the page, tangled but legible. …

“Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we’re still alive,” she writes. “We wish to assert our existence… We monogram our linen, we carve our names on trees, we scrawl them on washroom walls. It’s all the same impulse. What do we hope from it? … At the very least we want a witness. We can’t stand the idea of our own voices falling silent finally, like a radio running down.”

Iris’s acerbic, questioning voice has made me think (again) of memoir writing. Why do we do it? Why do we bother? As I write in my steadfast, longsuffering journal almost every morning, unwinding my own black scrawl “in a long dark thread of ink across the page”: “Who reads books anymore anyway?” and “Who cares???” Over the past thirty years I’ve written three memoirs, and as far as I know those for whom I specifically wrote them have not yet read them. Discouraging.

As a reader, though, and as a former teacher of creative nonfiction writing, I’ve always considered memoirs, as well as autobiographies by and biographies of famous people, my favorite genres. How better to learn about another person’s life on a deeper than social-superficial level — where they’ve been, what has made them who they are, what goes on in their hearts and minds?

As a child in the ‘50s I marched off to our local library to check out biographies of famous women – Dolly Madison and Marie Curie now come to mind – who taught me that women could, in fact, make a difference in what appeared to me even then to be a man’s world. Ever since, I’ve especially savored the heart-to-heartness of memoirs by ordinary (that is to say, not famous) people – even fictional ones, like Iris Griffen’s.

Throughout The Blind Assassin I found myself nodding – Yes, I’ve been there and felt that way too! Memoirs make us feel more connected, less alone in the world. They also stretch our hearts and take us to places we’ve never been and will likely never see otherwise. And, too, I feel that well crafted memoirs prove that we are all stories-within-stories; we are all, in that sense, Russian dolls.

In the ten years I taught creative nonfiction writing in Taos, New Mexico, I had a number of older students who had a dream of writing their memoirs – not for fame or fortune, of course, but for friends and family.

One of those students, retired psychology professor Margery Reading, now in her early eighties, has just published that long-dreamed-of book, dedicated, she writes, “to my teachers and students, colleagues and classmates, family and friends,” titled Stories, Sketches & Snapshots. At the beginning of one chapter, Marge offers this quote: “If we don’t write, it’s imprisoned in our bodies. When we die, it dies.” (Author unknown.) Her poignant book is a tribute to beautiful memories set free.

Another of my former students, Lorraine Ciancio, has recently completed her long-awaited memoir, titled From Salt to Sage, which will soon be published. In this collection of vivid personal essays, enriched by her poetry and photography, Lorraine shares with her readers what it was like to grow up in an Italian family in the Bronx in the 1950s and where life has taken her since then.

Grace Fichtelberg, now ninety-three (please see my WOW post, “Amazing Grace,” of May 6, 2014), also a former student of mine, continues to work on her memoirs. I think if I were to press her, she’d tell me she still needs more time. (Her dry, New York sense of humor is one of the qualities that keeps her going.)

If anyone were to ask me now whether I thought she (or he) should follow her (or his) dream of writing a memoir, I’d give my wholehearted two-word advice: Do it! Not for fame or fortune, to be sure, and maybe not even for friends or family (who may or may not take the time to read what you’ve written), but at least for yourself. Set those Russian dolls free and let them dance. Who knows? Perhaps someone else at some point will be grateful that you did.

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[Note: Please share the titles and authors of your favorite memoirs with other WOW readers in the Comments section below. Thank you!]

15 thoughts on “Other People, Other Places”

  1. Great book review and more Bonnie! I am downloading The Blind Assassin right now…we can talk about it.

  2. My favorite recent memoir is My Beloved World by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. This is truly an inspiring book.

  3. love this — I suppose I’m also one of those still waiting for who knows what to complete my next book, which will include some memoir. The just “do it!” resonates w. something Andrew Harvey advised years ago. I appreciate your encouragement to all of us who can use a little loving shove….

  4. Hi Bon,
    Thank you for yet another thoughtful, heartfelt post. I agree with everything you say about why people write memoirs. I also think memoirs are crucial historical records of how real people actually lived, and we owe it to history to leave that record behind.

    There are two memoirs I teach with my high school students that I can recommend to all. The first is Black Boy by Richard Wright. It is a horrifying record of life under Jim Crow from 1912 to the mid 1920s. It is a revelation for my students to confront the abject poverty; unstable, violent home life; and demoralizing racism that was a reality for African Americans not that long ago. For anyone who has not read it, please do so. We need to be reminded of what some Americans were forced to endure. It is in two sections, but we only read the first. The second part describes Wright’s move to Chicago, and his brief, disillusioning experience joining the Communist party. It is also fascinating but very different from Part 1 (except for the racism).

    The second is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. While she was certainly victimized by racism, she was never subjected to the squalid poverty that Wright experienced because she had a stable home life with her strong grandmother. Because her grandmother owned a store, Angelou never faced the poverty that was part of Wright’s everyday life. This memoir is far more lyrical, and many of Angelou’s experiences are such that young people today can identify with them.

    I also want to ask anyone who reads this, if you have not read Bonnie’s three memoirs, to please do so immediately. Somewhere, Child; are all beautifully written and devastatingly honest. Do yourself a favor and read them.

    Best regards and much love,
    Paul Matteo

  5. In my previous post I left out the names of two of Bonnie’s titles. I went to check the exact wording and hit Post by accident. They are: How to Cook a Crocodile and How to Make an African Quilt.


    1. Dearest Paul — Your generous contribution to this conversation has taken my breath away. Thank you with all my heart. And I’m sure WOW readers will be thanking you, too, when they read your book recommendations (especially Richard Wright’s and Maya Angelou’s memoirs), if they haven’t read them already. As an added note for WOW readers: Paul and I met 30 years ago doing a catering gig at Bloomingdales in NYC; he worked with me for ten years when I had my catering business in New York, he wrote to me every week for two years when I later served in the Peace Corps in Gabon, and we have been in close touch ever since. He is the best friend a grown girl could ever have.

  6. Well, Bonnie, you continue to inspire me, no matter how near or far. Your students are lucky to have you guide them, and I am intrigued to read their stories. I like to think of you as my own teacher, thought I’ve never taken your class. I have stumbled in my attempts to continue the work I began on my own stories, currently hiding in the cyber world of my computer as “My Stories”, but as you say, they truly are like living Matryoshka dolls, each story reveals another. As I sit in a remote lakeside cabin in Maine, Stephen King territory, the only book here on my desk is King’s “On Writing”, I struggle to find the time. How early in the day must one begin? I am, after all, here to do an unrelated job that pulls me away.

    That aside, there are images from your very first memoir, “Somewhere Child” that continue to both haunt me and make me smile. Growing up with a fascination of Hollywood memoirs, I’ve always loved how different memories reveal the past. In Gloria Swanson’s “Swanson on Swanson”, she seems to recall the minutest details from her early Hollywood days in the 1920’s with remarkable precision, yet the more recent past is a cloudy mystery.

    Your own wonderfully colorful memoirs aside, if I could recommend anything for your readers, the first that comes to mind is Wally Lamb’s fictional “I Know This Much Is True”.


    1. Dearest Michael — How I love the fact that this post has triggered such a lively conversation, especially among old and dear friends! Thank you SO much for your thoughts and your recommendations. Several of my former students have read and learned a lot from Stephen King’s ON WRITING (which, I confess, I haven’t read). I’ve just added Wally Lamb’s book to my ever-growing list. So many books to read, so little time left! Mucho love siempre, BB xx (P.S. for WOW readers: Michael also worked with me when I had my catering business in NYC from 1986 to 1996; he and Paul and I were a “team” — and in a sense we still are!)

    1. You’re so welcome, dear Lorraine! When will your book be off press — and how might WOW readers get a hold of it? They could use it as a guide in their own memoir-writing.

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