To learn how to write, read

Sometime last year as I was in the beginning process of writing my memoir (currently being called Irrepressible Spirit but likely to be renamed something like Stormy Paradise or Banned in Barbados because it sounds sexier) someone somewhere said something to the effect of:

While you’re writing a memoir, read memoirs. While you’re editing, read books about how to write a memoir.

Which is what I did. Fortunately, once I’d finished the intimidating first draft, much of what I read in books like Your Life is a Book: How to craft and publish your memoir indicated I’d done at least a half-way decent job. Phew.

So back to reading memoirs I went. (Well memoirs and books about writing non-fiction, publishing, and how to break into the magazine business.)

After recently meeting with an agent who expressed surprise that my book is written from the perspective of my 14-year-old self (the age I am at the end of the memoir) and after being stumped, in that same conversation, by the question: So what other memoirs would you compare this to? I decided to focus on reading YA memoirs, preferably told from the point of view of the teen in them.

Here’s what I’ve read so far, in the last couple of weeks:

A Child Called It: One Child’s Courage to Survive by Dave Pelzer
Essentially, Dave survives incredible cruelty at the hands of his mother, who targets him out of his other siblings (all boys) to do horrific things to. Through resilience and stubbornness, he survives. Fortunately, he begins the book by letting the reader know he gets out of his home situation, which makes it bearable to read the rest.

There are a few things left unclear in the book: how old his other brothers are for one. I think Dave was the second youngest but, told largely from his perspective at the time (with adult, I-survived-this wisdom) as well, that makes sense.

Come Back: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Hell and Back (P.S.) by Claire and Mia Fontaine

Well, now I know what to do if any of the kids takes to the streets for a life of hard drugs and prostitution. While I kid, given my teenagerhood and the kids’ dad’s and the distance from which apples tend to fall from trees, it may be a good idea to be prepared.

I quickly became emotionally involved with these characters — relating to both the mom (I recognized some past relationship issues in myself) and the daughter (I’ve been a sexually-abused child turned teenager). I had to keep reading until I knew what happened. I found this an easier read with more likable narrators than Debra Gwartney’s Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love. Having the dual viewpoint of mother and daughter was interesting and refreshing.

Interestingly, the Czechoslovakian school Mia, the daughter, was sent to has some interesting reviews online (search for Morava Academy). Yet how it’s presented in the book seems inline with several New Thought philosophies that encourage personal responsibility and self awareness.

It Happened to Nancy: By an Anonymous Teenager, A True Story from Her Diary by Anonymous (AKA Beatrice Sparks)
 I confess, I didn’t finish reading this book. While I loved the idea it was a memoir told from the viewpoint of a 15-year-old, it’s clearly not. The story is predictable and it doesn’t read as true, especially when you consider the author has an entire line of teenage “true story” books for every after-school special topic: drugs, pregnancy, running away, Satanism, HIV/AIDS, rape. Yeah, OK. Sure.

What’s next on my reading list? King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography by Chris Crutcher.