I’m a regular listener to The New York Times Book Review Podcast. Every week I look forward to Julie Bosman’s “Notes from the Field.” In her case the field is “publishing.” In our case the field is “memoir.” And our reporter is Kathleen Friesen.

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you started seeing Kathleen’s comments beginning more than a year ago. Comments are the way to any blogger’s heart, and so I started clicking on Kathleen’s name to find her own blog(s)–one about organizational management and the other a contemplative photography blog, which derives its inspiration from the concept of Miksang. I hope you discover Kathleen’s quiet and deep voice, both in her blogs and in these two essays about memoir she brings to our attention.

Kathleen Friesen

Notes from the field from guest scout, Kathleen Friesen:

Readers of 100 memoirs may find the following items of interest:

First is Dani Shapiro’s tribute to her mentor, Esther Broner. In this short piece, Shapiro offers insight into a woman who encouraged her to write and live authentically:

From her, I learned many of the lessons that I carry with me as a teacher myself today. It’s possible to tell the truth in a way that is not wounding, but empowering. It’s possible to be a role model with no ego involved. It’s possible to be a mother and a grandmother and a novelist and a feminist and a teacher, and have all of these things feed one another, rather than be in conflict.

These integrative life lessons are worth visiting. Of note, Dani Shapiro’s Slow Motion was included in Sue Silverman’s list published previously in this blog. Her most recent memoir is Devotion.

Who are the mentors who have paved the path for you? What lessons did they teach?

Second is Joyce Carol Oates rebuttal to Julian Barnes review of her memoir in The New York Review of Books. Oates writes, “A memoir is most helpful when it focuses upon immediate experience, not a clinical, subsequent summation from what would be the “future” of the individual ….” While this may be true for her, in my experience meaningful memoirs can and do focus on memories.

I have read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking several times, but a read-through of Oates’ A Widows Story done standing in four different bookstores over a period of a week did not prompt a purchase. Didion’s spare, direct prose resonates with my own experience as a widow. Oates’ memoir contains some of the same themes, but sprawls and crawls, with fewer insights into the path of grief and mourning.

I have one quibble with Oates’ reviewers: their judgment of Oates for remarrying too soon. They suggest that this choice disqualifies her from writing a memoir about her first year as a widow. In my opinion, memoirists may choose to limit the book’s timeframe from necessity or choice. And, in my own experience, remarriage does not nullify the ongoing experience of grief and mourning, of revising ones map of the world.

Barnes asks, “So what constitutes “success” in mourning?” As readers and writers of memoir, the question is, “So what constitutes “success” in a memoir?” Is it “most helpful when it focuses upon immediate experience?”

Shirley Showalter


  1. DazyDayWriter on July 11, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Grief is extremely personal and experienced differently by each person. And I don’t think we really know grief … until we know it firsthand. Even beyond that … there are various levels and layers of grief depending on the circumstances, thus, the terrain isn’t geared to generalization. I applaud any writer who finds solace in writing about loss — that also is extremely challenging terrain. If personally meaningful to the writer, it won’t matter if people read or approve of an author’s work or not. That’s the only pertinent measure. Lovely post, thanks!

    • shirleyhs on July 11, 2011 at 3:39 pm

      Daisy, you have kindness woven through you–all the way to the bone. Thank you for this empathetic response. I hope Kathleen will respond also, because there was a lot packed into the few personal words in this post. Perhaps your sensitive reading will bring her back to elaborate from her own experience.

    • friesengroup on July 11, 2011 at 5:33 pm

      Your words, “extremely challenging terrain,” resonate with me. Grief is the place where I sailed off the edge of the known world into the land marked on old maps, “Here there be dragons.” No one can sail those seas for those of us who find ourselves there.

      I appreciate your thinking on the measure of one’s work. Your words bring to mind a quote on writing poetry from David Whyte, “…my light shall also be your light, in which we shall see differently but gloriously.” I hope you will keep finding writing meaningful. Thank you for taking time to respond to my post.

      P.S. I love the Didion quote from your most recent blog post, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

      I write in a small shadowed corner
      in order to bear light into the world,
      though the light is not my own.
      My darkness is no darkness to you
      and nothing you should wish upon yourself,
      but my light shall also be your light,
      in which we shall see differently
      but gloriously. I am not lame inside me,
      no matter that I drag my foot, I have run here
      through all my infirmities to bring you news
      of a battle already won. Let my last breath
      speak victory into the world. The race is run
      and shall be run again, joyfully, and you shall
      run with me, the territory opened
      to us like returned laughter
      or remembered childhood. Remember,
      I was here, and you were here,
      and together we made a world.
      – David Whyte, from _Everything is Waiting for You_

  2. shirleyhs on July 11, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    I love the poem above. Many of the lines ring true. “Let my last breath/ speak victory into the world.” Thanks again, Kathleen.

  3. Richard Gilbert on July 13, 2011 at 12:32 am

    Thank you for this stimulating posts and the links. I had missed Oates’s rebuttal, for instance. I think partly what’s going on is that there’s a split in literary cultures between New York and academia. This isn’t ironclad, of course, but there are a fair number of literary academic writers who have decreed that memoirists must/should reflect from the present, and they police the genre. Despite the fact that she’s also an academic, Oates is part of the other culture, which emphasizes the story of the experience as it is happening. There must be some reflection, of course, and probably is in her book. I too didn’t buy it, though I loved the excerpt in The New Yorker–it seemed to say so much, maybe everything she had to say.

    • shirleyhs on July 13, 2011 at 2:23 am

      This is really interesting, Richard. I’d love to know what caused this split to occur and am not close enough to either culture (New York or academe) right now to know much about the argument. If you know more, I’d love to invite you to do your own guest blog to tell about it. Thanks for the observation.

      • Richard Gilbert on July 13, 2011 at 3:19 pm

        Shirley, Slate excerpted an article from a literary journal about this:


        I think it’s overstated there, and I don’t know enough to write about it myself, but the issue boils down to America’s two separate but interlocking publishing cultures. New York trade press and scholarly and literary presses. There are differences. I remember trying to convince a writer with a trade focus that her idea would fly at a university press. “But I want to earn my living as a writer,” she said, going for a big advance. She didn’t get the advance, so she didn’t do the book, which a university press would have loved and kept in print. Granted it would have been a labor of love with modest returns, but it would have built her platform. People publish in both realms.

    • friesengroup on July 13, 2011 at 2:53 am

      Thank you for your comments and noting the “decree” from the memoir police. Like Shirley, I would be interested in hearing more about this split. For 100 memoir readers, here is a link to the New Yorker article:

      • shirleyhs on July 13, 2011 at 1:29 pm

        Thank you, Kathleen, for finding and offering the original excerpt, which I just read. I love the immediacy of it. And I also loved Didion’s more reflective memoir. I imagine that Oates’ memoir would speak to the recent widow with a profound impact, and that Didion’s would be the one to come back to again and again because it reflects more. Layering of memory and experience seems to be the way we live. Why not the way we write?

  4. oebooks on July 13, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    I really appreciate this post, and am glad I found this blog as I favor reading memoirs and biographies to other genres. Memoirs I find most uplifting and absorbing are those that tell their story, from thier voice… and heart, as opposed to trying to share, or teach lessons. As one commentor noted; “Grief is extremely personal and experienced differently by each person.

    I’ll have to browse thru this blog, as I am what I call ‘the memoirist enthusiast.

    • shirleyhs on July 13, 2011 at 4:22 pm

      I love when new readers find this cite, oebooks. Glad to make your acquaintance. Looks like we have a mutual love of memoir. I’m off to check out yours!

  5. Brenda Bartella Peterson on July 16, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    Shirley, I am enjoying this conversation. I reiterate that grief is as personal as the number of hairs on your head. I thought I was an authority on grief after burying two husbands—then I buried my child. No seminar I had ever given prepared me for the different character of this new grief. I haven’t read Oates’ book but I do know from my own experience that we sometimes make very strange choices that we don’t in their immediacy identify as resulting from grief—but later must admit that they are. I hope her quick marriage isn’t one of those choices.

    As to whether memoir should or should not be reflective in the present—I think there will always be readers on both sides as well as critiques so the choice still rests with the writer.

    P.S. I haven’t forgotten that I have promised you a guest post!

    • shirleyhs on July 16, 2011 at 8:05 pm

      Brenda, so good to see you here again! Your own experience makes you an expert on this difficult subject. I was surprised by how many people read and commented on this post, jumping on the grief part of the topic with both feet. I think the Julian Barnes review must have angered many people. The links embedded in the post and comments are all very well worth reading.

      Your guest post will be welcome any time. I’m off to catching up on your blog now!

    • friesengroup on July 18, 2011 at 2:36 am

      Thank you for your heart-felt comments. Grief is, paradoxically, a universal and individual experience. Everyone suffers; yet, each loss is specific. I find myself re-reading and agreeing with your comment that no preparation is adequate.

      Another question prompted by comments here: How important is it for a memoirist to strike both universal and personal themes; or, is the personal enough?

      I am glad you took the time to comment as I’ve enjoyed my own trip through your blog. I will look forward to your guest post!

  6. Madeline Sharples on July 18, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    Shirley, Thanks so much for this piece. I too quibble with Oates’ critics. One should never dictate to anyone how to grieve or how long to grieve. I also resonnate with “The Year of Magical Thinking. I embraced the term, “magical thinking” in my memoir, “Leaving the Hall Light On”; hence, the reason for the title.
    Just yesterday I read Dani Shapiro’s enlightening piece in the NY Times book section about our writing’s impact on our children. In my memoir I worried about what I wrote about my surviving son, so I had him review his parts before I sent them off to my publisher. I wasn’t worried about what he would think of me, but what others would think of him now and into the future.

    I’m so glad to have found this blog. All the best, Madeline

    • friesengroup on July 18, 2011 at 8:24 pm

      Thank you for your wise comments. I too found Shapiro’s piece provocative. Here is the link for 100 memior readers:

    • shirleyhs on July 18, 2011 at 8:32 pm

      Madeline, clearly you have walked where Oates and Didion and Shapiro have walked–in your own way. Thanks for sharing your experience and for defending Oates’ right to her own form of grief. I was quite moved by the long selection included in the links above from A Widow’s Story. It’s probably impossible to do better than Didion’s memoir, and critics who insist upon turning one writer against another, grading them just because they have the same subject, need to talk more walks in the woods!

      So glad to have you on board!

  7. Brenda Sims Bartella Peterson on July 23, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    So pleased to hear the conversation and Shapiro’s article addressing the elephant in the room—what about the affect of memoirs on the living members of our families. I have struggled mightily with this issue. My living son doesn’t even want his name mentioned in my book. My siblings are angry that I’m even writing a book.

    Have you dealt with this issue in other posts, Shirley? Could you point us to them?


    • shirleyhs on July 24, 2011 at 1:57 pm

      I have indeed addressed this question, Brenda.The fullest conversation of this topic in 100memoirs took place in the comments section after my review of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. I thought some of the humor in the book seemed gratuitous, and I especially commented on the treatment of a particular sister-in-law. This comment elicited a flood of response. I hope some of it is helpful to you. It’s very hard to write the truth as we see it now without offending someone now or in the future who sees it differently. I lean toward sharing what we say about others with them before publication. Please pardon the double comments. They appeared when my site was hacked and I had to go to a new system. One of these days I will go back to this post and eliminate the duplicates. http://100memoirs.com/2009/11/21/mennonite-in-a-little-black-dress-an-old-mennonite-review/

      And here’s a story about sharing a story I wrote about my mother only after publication of the story:http://100memoirs.com/2009/04/13/you-can-go-home-again-a-mini-memoir/

      I described the ethical dilemma more fully here:http://100memoirs.com/2009/04/06/my-mothers-pulpit-published-memoir-contest-winner-ethical-dilemma/

      All best as you sort out how to write with integrity about your own life without being unfair to others. Let us know how you are doing!

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