22 July 2011

book report lessons

Confession about the last two days' posts: they were pulled from a book report I did for my writing class.

A book report! When was the last time you did one of those?

Don't you kind of want to do one now?

Although the more grown-up word for it is: book review. Then you sound slightly knowledgeable and like maybe the New Yorker is going to come to your door.

So here is part 2 of my book report/book review: in which I describe what I learned from the book.

{Read part 1 here.}


From Jancee Dunn's family-centered memoir Why Is My Mother Getting a Tattoo?, I learned several things.

Culling from Your Life Is Entirely Appropriate, But People May Start to Get Nervous Around You
My brother-in-law once said to me, after I'd rhapsodized about fall and the transition into winter, “You're going to blog about this, aren't you?” {You can read the resulting blog post, if you want.}

It wasn't in a complimentary tone, but it showed me that other people are aware that I'm watching them and watching my life for stuff I could write about. Apparently, I'm not sneaky enough about it.

You have to do this; it's kind of the point of a memoir or of my particular form of creative non-fiction—the kind that tells daily life stories with a zany spin. You need to pay attention because even the smallest events can be worked into essays.

Jancee Dunn does this very well: she blends multiple stories so well that it’s not until you get to the end, after following all these strings, that you realize they do go together and demonstrate a bigger lesson that the individual stories by themselves could.

Case in point: Chapter 12, “Don’t Be Weird.”

The main point is that Jancee is sometimes socially awkward, so she meshes all these little vignettes of dinner parties and speaking without thinking. She jumps to how because she’s a writer, she’s in her own head all day, so interacting with the outside world can be challenging—and her husband’s reaction to that.

There’s a story of the two of them eavesdropping on other people in a café {that’s not weird, right? Besides, if I'm making people I know nervous by eavesdropping on them, don't I have the right to make other people nervous, people I don't know? That just seems fair.}. There's a digression to how she buys the ugliest treats at bakes sales so that whoever baked it won’t feel bad, and it all wraps up with a day-in-the-life-of-Jancee sort of story.

What about all of that goes together? But it doesn’t feel disjointed because you realize by the end that the string through all of this is: we’re all weird, so embrace it.

Lesson: Find the string in your stories and pull. Also, ignore looks of suspicion from family members and friends. When you're on The Ellen Degeneres Show promoting your book, you can mention them or their business or whatever, and they'll probably forgive you. Probably.

It's Not All About You
There’s this tricky, almost contradictory, thing about memoirs: they have to be about you, but they can’t only be about you.

In memoirs, you sort of have to be self-centered, but for a memoir to really work, it has to expand to the universal. You need to get yourself out of the story as much as possible so that people can see how they relate to it.

But take this into account: for people to want to read your memoir, you have to be interesting. People need to like you and be invested in you before they can even get to the “here’s what I have to say about life in general” ideas.

So memoir-writing is about finding balance—talking about yourself enough but not too much. Jancee does this well. She gives very specific details about herself so that we can get to know her, but she also expands all of her stories beyond herself.

For example, when talking about how she prepares for trips, she says, “Truly, I was my father’s daughter. We both loved making folders and filing them in neat rows inside pristine file cabinets with color-coordinated labels” (25).

See? Enough detail to make you get something new about Jancee, but it doesn’t turn into a treatise on organization and how wonderful she is at it. Although, truth be told, that is a treatise I would read. I'm the girl who just travelled to France with a binder full of notes, printed bus schedules, and train reservations, all of it in sheet protectors.

And an example of how she can expand to the greater picture, from her essay on watching her parents deal with their parents’ deaths: “It was difficult for me to grasp, in an age when no event is too small to be videotaped, the blunt finality of never hearing your father’s voice again. It was harder still, as a member of the most analyzed generation in American history, to imagine shying away from questions that didn’t seem remotely personal to me” (102).

See? In an essay on her family dealing with grief, she helps readers question their own approach to grief and finality and mortality—that takes a soft touch, let me tell you.

Lesson: Be personable and chatty, if that works with your personality, but remember: it’s not all about you. You may have the most exciting things happen to you every day, but what’s the bigger picture you can show through your writing?

I’m no longer angry at Jancee Dunn. I do appreciate her book and what she can teach me about my own writing. I just wish her mother hadn’t gotten a tattoo.

{But note to my mother: I actually never wished that you hadn't gotten a tattoo, contrary to my incredibly vociferous reaction to your tattoo.}

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