Why We Write About Ourselves (Excavating a Life)

Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature

Why We Write About Ourselves book coverA few days after I wrote my blog post Why I Write Memoir (one of my most shared and commented on posts ever – many thanks to those of you who did so), I was intrigued to see at our local Barnes & Noble Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Maran, who is herself a memoirist.

Just published this year, I hadn’t known this was coming. Here’s Meredith’s dedication: “For those who read memoirs and those who write memoirs, and for those who wish we wouldn’t. We’re all just looking for the truth, aren’t we.”

Meredith writes that emotions ran high when she asked the authors, some of our finest memoirists, to share honestly what it was like for them to see a memoir through to publication.

Each memoirist gets his/her own chapter that concludes with a short “Wisdom for Memoir Writers” section.

You’ll find, of course, these writers have strong opinions and distinctive voices, with widely varying opinions about self-exposure, writing about others, truth and accuracy, and other memoir writing land mines.

As I try my hand at memoir writing, I appreciated the moral support, guidance, and encouragement I found here. If you’re writing one I think you will, too. Whatever challenges and blocks you’ve encountered, you can be sure these writers have faced down the same thing.

And if you love to read memoirs, you’ll likely find a few titles and authors you’ll want to check out. No doubt, you’ll be more aware of the behind-the-scenes decisions the memoirist had to make about how to tell her story, which will make your reading experience richer.

Here are some of my favorite memoirist comments:

The Great Santini book coverPat Conroy (The Great Santini): “Some of us are the designated rememberers. That’s why memoir interests us–because we’re the ones who pass on the stories.”

Cheryl Strayed (Wild): “I’m always asking myself if material I have from my own life would be best used in a novel or a memoir or a short story or an essay. I was moved to write Wild as a memoir because I thought that was the best way to tell that particular story.”

Jesmyn Ward (Men We Reaped): “The further I got into the book, the worse it got. Recounting the events when my brother died was so difficult….especially the very big edit I did with the direction of my editor, Kathy Belden, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in relation to writing. I did four drafts, and she was asking me at every point to offer some judgment, some assessment of these events…..I recounted a story about a cellar in the woods. Kathy had a page of notes on the section. She kept telling me to dig deeper, to look at myself in the past, to figure out why that cellar meant something to me…..I finally realized…All the feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness I had at that age were embodied by the cellar. It symbolized all the dark things that happened to me, things I thought I deserved because of the way I thought of myself at that time: as a young black woman in the South.” (Note: Jesmyn won the National Book Award for her novel, Salvage the Bones.)

The Mistress's DaughterA.M. Homes (The Mistress’s Daughter): “There were many points at which I thought, I don’t really want to be doing this. I want to stop. What propelled me to keep going was that I felt I could bring to the memoir my experience and training as a writer–finding language for primitive emotional experiences. One of the things that worked about the book was that it gave voice to people who hadn’t found language for the adoption experience. It allowed them to explore their own experience in a different way, and/or to have their feelings about it articulated and confirmed.”   

(Note: I especially liked Homes’ memoir.)

Dani Shapiro (Three memoirs: Slow Motion, Devotion, and Still Writing) “After I gave my mother the galleys, her therapist called and asked me to meet with her. What can I say? We were all New York Jews. I gave the therapist a set of galleys so she could read it before my mother did. After she read it, she said she didn’t think there was anything that would upset my mother, that it was very fair to her. I had two thoughts: First, that this therapist didn’t know my mother at all, and second, that my mother had been wasting her money for years…

…when people in her life heard that her daughter had written a memoir, they all read it as a way of trying to understand her: her doorman, her lawyer, her dentist, her neighbors. I couldn’t have imagined such a thing happening. It was like she was in The Truman Show. The whole thing was very sad and painful, but not painful enough for me to wish I hadn’t written the book.”

James McBride (The Color of Water“The narrative of the book was as thin and muscled as my life was at that time. You know, with every story you do, you’re trying to shove a lot of things into the keyhole and drag the reader with you. You have to narrow the focus of the story so it has the push of a creek in a narrow spot.”

“You write a memoir for the same reason you write a song–to help someone feel better. You don’t write it to show how smart you are or how dumb they are. You’re trying to share from a sense of humbleness. It’s almost like you’re asking forgiveness of the reader for being so kind as to allow you to indulge yourself at their expense.”

(Note: James McBride won the National Book Award for his novel, The Good Lord Bird.)

Here’s my 2016 list of memoirs to read – who knows how many I’ll get to:

In Other WordsIn Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri

Welcome To the Goddamn Ice Cube, Blair Braverman

A Common Struggle, Patrick J. Kennedy and Stephen Fried

Beautiful Affliction, Lene Fogelberg

The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander

Into Great Silence: A Memory of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas, Eva Salitis

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi

Just Kids; M Train, Patti Smith

Life From Scratch, Sasha MartinWelcome

Shepherd, Richard Gilbert

A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail, Jenna Butler

I would love to know if you have a favorite memoir, one that really spoke to you and that you’d recommend to others.

 

 

Why I Write Memoir (Excavating a Life)

SoldiersA long-time friend and important supporter of my work wisely suggested that I come out of the closet and become less close-mouthed about being a writer.

Hence this new Excavating a Life page on Books Can Save a Life, a kind of journal I’ll update from time to time as I work on a memoir.

My friend’s suggestion opened up a host of personal issues for me too numerous to delve into here: some are addressed in my memoir, and some I’ll write about in future posts. But suffice it to say I hesitated, in part because I believe in NOT saying much about the book or poem or essay one happens to be writing. Many writers would agree with this.

But not talking about a specific project isn’t the same thing as not talking about being a writer. And, let’s face it, I gave up a job I really liked and often miss because I needed more time and energy to see the memoir to completion. Since my days now largely revolve around writing the memoir (or they’re supposed to), it becomes very weird not to talk about this when other people ask me what I do with my time.

So, now I tell people I’m working on a memoir. Which generates all kinds of interesting questions and comments.

Liars' ClubYou may or may not know that memoirs have a REALLY bad reputation in some quarters. Mary Karr, whose memoir The Liars’ Club I view as a work of genius, wryly says memoir resides in the “low-rent” district of books and literature.

Some literary critics don’t even consider memoirs literature. Navel-gazing, they say, and often navel-gazing not done well.

For a time this bothered me. Was I spending my days navel-gazing?

But I’ve heard this criticism of memoir so many times now, that I’ve lost interest in it. For the most part, (not always) it no longer has the power to make me self-conscious when I write.

Without apology, I can say writing a memoir does require a good bit of navel-gazing. There’s no getting around that. The very nature of memoir is internal, psychological. It is first person point of view, however flawed and unreliable that interpretation of reality may be. (This is not an original thought on my part. See for example Brooke Warner’s thoughts at HuffPost Books.)

It is trying to figure out what the hell happened and then trying to make sense of it in a way that pulls the reader in. The writer’s journey becomes the reader’s journey, because the reader has had his own baffling, mind-blowing life. As the writer works things out on the page, the reader is right alongside her trying to come to grips with whatever blindsided her (the reader) on her own life journey.

If the memoir is powerful and offers a bit of wisdom and insight, that’s a win/win for the writer, the reader, and the world.

(This “without apology” business I learned from Eric Maisel and his Deep Writing seminar. He taught us to honor our writing, to make no apologies for it. He taught us to say this to ourselves when we need to: “That thought doesn’t serve me or my writing.” So if I get to thinking I’m navel-gazing, or if I hear someone else speak dismissively of memoir, I say to myself: “That thought doesn’t serve me if I want to complete my memoir and get it out into the world.”)

Getting back to those comments and questions I’ve gotten about memoir: A few people have a hard time with the idea that I reconstruct dialogue. How can I remember someone’s remark from twenty years ago, let alone an entire conversation? Aren’t I really just making things up? Isn’t that suspect?

If I’m making up the dialogue, what else might I be making up or misremembering? How else might I not really be writing the truth?

Considering how problematic memoir is, why not write a novel? Since I can’t guarantee 100 percent accuracy, why not write fiction? That way if I get something wrong it doesn’t matter. Fiction isn’t “the truth.”

Now, this is a loaded, much-debated issue with many facets. This is what I want to focus on here:

The Glass Castle

Another highly regarded memoir

My memoir is about growing up with a mother who had a serious mental illness. The illness was bad enough, but everyone pretended there was nothing wrong. No one spoke about or acknowledged the elephant in the room. Everyone seemed to feel it was perfectly fine to leave us kids alone with our mother, even though they certainly wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon with her. She could be, at best, decidedly unsociable and, at worst, hostile and scary.

(To be clear, my mother was a brave, strong, caring woman, and as good a mother as she could be.)

Not knowing what to do with my feelings of distress, sensing people didn’t want to deal with them and that no one was going to help us, I swallowed them. I pretended I was happy. I became ashamed of the dark feelings I shared with no one.

A parent in the throes of psychosis doesn’t really see her children. Her demons have all her attention, at least for the moment. The children become invisible to her, and the children know this. Between their parent not seeing them, and other people not acknowledging their unfortunate family situation, they begin to feel invisible.

They enter adulthood hollowed out, still feeling invisible. This they bring to their work, their relationships, their life. They pay a heavy price. They don’t really know themselves or why they do some of the things they do. Often, they don’t go after all they can in life. They hold back. They hesitate to take risks. Their lives are the poorer for it, and so is the world, which is robbed of their full talents, wisdom, and unique contributions.

As someone who wanted to write, who wanted to be creative, I found that I’d locked away my most essential, authentic self. I was alienated from my own shadow, my own best “material,” the very bedrock I should have been writing about. So I didn’t write, at least not for a long time.

One way to re-connect with one’s essential self is to write a memoir, as difficult as that process can be. One way to no longer feel invisible is to write a memoir.

I’m writing a memoir because I want to (and feel compelled to) tell my story, my own true story. I want to say what really happened, at least from my perspective. For me, writing fiction just won’t cut it.

Lord knows, the world is full of people far, far more wounded than I. In so many respects, I’ve been exceedingly fortunate. The best memoirists are not out to portray themselves as victims or to gain attention or sympathy. If they’ve made it as far as having a memoir published, they don’t need a reader’s sympathy. They are, among other things, trying to bring valuable stories into the world.

Wild

One of the most influential memoirs in recent years

I believe this is the age of the memoir, and it’s about time, because the world needs memoirs. (Though I acknowledge that reading memoirs isn’t for everyone.)

We’re bringing to light the dark secrets we hid growing up. We’re looking at what it means to be a family, what holds one together and what tears one apart. We’re hoping to change things so people like my mother get the help and support that is their right. We’re questioning long-accepted social values that have brought us to some bad places.

Just think of all the memoir writers – and readers – who no longer feel invisible, whose energy and creativity and wisdom are being liberated, helping all of us achieve a more enlightened world.

Next up: Back to books – The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (I’m loving it.) Down the road on Excavating a Life: Memoir and shame.

Please share this post with memoir lovers, memoir writers and memoir skeptics. Do you have a favorite memoir? Do you dislike memoirs? Are you writing one? Tell us about it in the comments.

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild changes lives

Pacific Coast beach, Oregon

Oregon coast (photo by Matt Hallinan)

 

One of my favorite columnists, Nicholas Kristof, wrote recently that Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, has inspired “hordes of young women” to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. 

Wild was one of the first books I wrote about on Books Can Save a Life. 

Strayed’s memoir has turned out to be not just a bestseller, but a transformational story that has given many women the courage to take enormous risks.

The other day I was reading an essay by Barry Lopez, “Landscape and Narrative.” He tells of visiting a small village in the Brooks Range of Alaska and listening to stories about animals and hunting. He says:

“The stories had renewed in me a sense of the purpose of my life.  This feeling, an inexplicable renewal of enthusiasm after storytelling, is familiar to many people. It does not seem to matter greatly what the subject is, as long as the context is intimate and the story is told for its own sake.”

Cheryl Strayed’s Wild has that kind of magic.

This summer Heather Anderson broke a record by backpacking the length of the Pacific Coast Trail, alone and without support, in 61 days.  It’s good to see women taking risks and feeling more at home in the world.

Columbia River

“Keep close to nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” John Muir

 

Lopez quote: “Landscape and Narrative” in Crossing Open Ground by Barry Lopez, Vintage Books, 1989.

I found enlightenment in the Pacific Northwest

In May, I happily stumbled on the secret to enlightenment when I attended the Medical Library Association (MLA) annual meeting in Seattle and vacationed with my family in the Cascades.

It all started with MLA speaker and best-selling author Steven Johnson, who told us about a theory he encountered while researching his latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  (Steven is a great speaker, not to mention that he reminds me of one of my favorite Downton Abbey characters.)

Some believe the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment occurred, in part, when the middle class switched from alcohol to coffee and tea as their beverage of choice. With clean drinking water scarce, people drank ale or wine, even for breakfast. When coffee and tea imports became available, many switched from alcohol – a depressant – to caffeine, a stimulant.

Coffeehouses, where “ideas [could] spill from one mind to another,” became popular, according to Johnson. “The coffeehouse was a multidisciplinary space.” (So are libraries, he said, in a nod to his audience.) People from all walks of life who normally would not encounter one another engaged in “a diversity of conversations.”

So, coffee and tea led people to a kind of hyperactive exchange of ideas, which in turn led to innovation.

Johnson predicts that the internet and social media are a new kind of global, virtual coffeehouse spawning another great age of innovation.

I experienced coffee and coffeehouses on an entirely new level during my stay in Washington. In Rochester, New York, we don’t have drive-through espresso kiosks as in the Pacific Northwest. They are ubiquitous in the Seattle area, even on the edge of wilderness. Up in the Cascades, if you need a dentist, quick, or someone who knows how to repair a transmission, you may be out of luck – but you can almost always find a cup of coffee.

My theory is, there is so little sunshine people need the caffeine to keep going.

At any rate, I also noticed that the Pacific Northwest has thriving literary communities. People here really appreciate books, and they love coffee, and they love combining the two.

For me, the combination of exceptional coffee, great bookstores, access to the internet and, last but certainly not least, absolutely stunning scenery and fresh, mountain air, was so invigorating. I felt the ideas flowing. Like I was on the verge of my own personal enlightenment.

The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle

The Elliott Bay Book CompanyWe spent several hours visiting The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle’s largest independent bookstore, which also has (of course) great coffee. Elliott Bay has a full roster of book signings and author readings, and a terrific blog. Here is what I bought there:

The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, by Karen Armstrong

Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel

Pearl Street Books & Gifts in Ellensburg, WA. Pearl Street Books & Gifts

I wanted to see the high desert on the eastern side of the Cascades, so we drove to Ellensburg, WA, where we discovered the delightful Pearl Street Books & Gifts. Owner Michele Bradshaw is passionate about books and literature.  She and I talked about our reading interests. Michele enjoys making recommendations, and it’s obvious she puts a lot of thought into creative, customer-responsive bookselling.

I liked the Magic Table, a display of enticing best-sellers and high quality fiction and nonfiction. Quality is apparent on every shelf and surface in the shop, where carefully chosen books are displayed cover side up. Michele has put together a number excellent book collections, including young adult, children’s, fiction, memoir/biography, and Pacific Northwest authors.

Pearl Street Books & Gifts also hosts 11 book clubs, a tea club, a knitting club, and yoga workouts.

While I was there, I bought:

The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche, by Gary Krist

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, by Timothy Egan

Booklust to Go, by Nancy Pearl

Queen Anne Books

Cover of Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott

Climb, climb, climb Queen Anne Avenue in Seattle and you’ll be rewarded at the top of the hill with tree-lined streets and all manner of shops, including Queen Anne Books. On the shelves are literally hundreds of hand-written staff recommendations, the sign of a great bookstore. Here, Windee recommends Anne Lamott’s latest book about her new grandson, Some Assembly Required.


Seattle Central Library

The Seattle Central Library, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and a local architectural firm.

I had a great time this spring walking the Pacific Crest Trail with Cheryl Strayed (who has just inspired Oprah Winfrey to revive her book club!), sailing the waters off British Columbia with M. Wylie Blanchet and her children, clearing forest trails with Ana Maria Spagna, and observing life through the eyes of the characters in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.

In June: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

“Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them.”

This is the opening line of The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (first-time, best-selling novelist making her debut at age 57, wrote novels in secret for 25 years when the kids were at school), which I’ll be reading in June.

Highlights from the jacket copy: 1914. A bride on her honeymoon. Adrift on the Atlantic Ocean. Not enough to go around. A power struggle. Choosing sides.

Will you read it with me?

Quote from: The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2012.

Please excuse my language (Blame it on Dear Sugar)

Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild, is otherwise known as Sugar, the advice columnist for The Rumpus, an online culture and literary magazine.

Cheryl had been writing the column anonymously until this past Valentine’s Day, when she “came out” just as her newly published memoir was rising to the top of the bestseller list.

The Rumpus is a clever, intelligent magazine. I’m a bit too old for it, or it’s a bit young for me, so I’m not a regular reader, nor do I follow Cheryl’s advice column (which is not your ordinary, everyday kind of advice column). But somewhere along the line, I came across a piece of wisdom I liked that Cheryl gave to a struggling young writer who’d sent a letter to Dear Sugar.

This bit of wisdom went viral and the people over at The Rumpus decided to put it on a mug. I ordered the mug and it came in the mail yesterday.

I’ve read all kinds of books about creativity and writing to keep my own writing going and because I’m fascinated by the creative process. A couple of pages on this site are devoted to books about writing and creativity, and I’ll be featuring some of these on Books Can Save a Life as time goes by.

But sometimes just a short, pithy, to-the-point kick in the pants is all I need.

So I’ve got my new mug sitting on my writing desk, ready to be filled with coffee or tea on a moment’s notice.

Write like a m*****f***** mug

I would say this is Cheryl’s approach to writing, to walking, to life.

Wild is to be made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.

There is a fabulous interview with Cheryl over at Bookslut, but beware of spoilers. You may want to finish Wild first, before you read it.

Hey, is anyone reading Wild? If so, let us know what you think in the comments below.

I’m heading off to the land of Wild (the Pacific Northwest) later this week to attend a medical librarian conference with some of my colleagues (profoundly intelligent readers, all of them). Then some vacation time with family, where I’ll be reading other books with a Pacific Northwest theme, exploring Seattle (including The Elliott Bay Book Company), and the surrounding terrain. Watch for posts and pictures!

Supermoon and journeys: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild

Moon in my backyard

I write this on the night of the supermoon, high in the sky outside my dining room window.

In her journal, Cheryl Strayed kept a list of the books she burned as she walked the Pacific Crest Trail:  Dubliners by James Joyce; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; The Novel by James Michener; The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California and Volume 2: Oregon and Washington; plus a few more.

Every evening she’d make a campfire, tear out the pages she’d read that day, and feed them to the flames to lighten the load in her over-stuffed pack. I imagine her performing her nightly ritual, the words on paper turning to ash.

Cheryl carried one book the length of her trip: The Dream of a Common Language, by Adrienne Rich.

Reading Wild, I remember this stray fact: In college, I wrote my senior seminar English paper on Adrienne Rich’s Diving Into the Wreck. I’d like to find that old English paper so I can read it after all these years and see what I had to say about Rich’s poetry.

Reading Wild, I remember a vacation in Portland, Oregon to visit family. Our boys were six and nine at the time.

We decided to hike with my sister-in-law and her family along the lower elevations of Mount Hood in search of a waterfall whose name I can’t remember. The map posted at the trail head indicated the hike was a couple of miles. A manageable trip for young children, we thought. The day was hot and sunny, but we walked in the shade of a beautiful pine forest along an easy, well-cleared path.

When Cheryl began walking, her pack was so heavy she couldn’t lift it, and her brand new REI hiking boots were too small.  Along the way, she shed many layers of skin from the pads of her feet and several toenails as well.

She’d walk a week without seeing anyone. She’d go days with a handful of change to her name until she reached a town where a supply pack (mailed by a friend) awaited, with necessities and two ten dollar bills to tide her over for the next couple hundred miles.

The day of our hike we walked. And walked. And walked some more. Until it got to be not so much fun anymore. Until the children were dragging, and the teenage cousin and her friend decided to go on ahead.

One of our boys (who shall remain nameless) grew cranky. The heat was intense and our water was running low. But we figured we were almost to the waterfall, so we kept going.

We walked another half hour, and then in a full meltdown, the thoroughly overheated and tired boy refused to go any further. We’d stopped next to a creek, and my husband took his handkerchief, dipped it in the ice-cold mountain water, and we took turns bathing our faces with it.

My in-laws decided to keep going with their children while we cooled off at the stream. Before long, I was ready to move on. My husband stayed behind with the tired one, cajoling him to take off his shoes and socks and wade in the stream.

Our original group had now split into four groups, which made me uneasy. Walking along holding my son’s hand, I hoped the path wouldn’t split off. What if we went the wrong way and got lost? We saw an older couple approaching as they headed back down the trail.

“Are we close to the waterfall?” I asked.

“You’re getting there. But you’ve a ways to go,” the man said. Not what I wanted to hear.

At the age of 26, with little preparation and no extreme hiking experience, Cheryl decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She was grieving for her mother, who had died in her early forties a month after a cancer diagnosis, and Cheryl had been making a mess of her life ever since. She hoped the trip would save her in some way.

My son and I heard rushing water and felt a million invisible, blessedly cool droplets on our skin before we saw the waterfall. In the clearing ahead, ribbons of spray curved and tumbled down a wall of solid rock, like a bridal veil fluttering in a breeze. Instantly, the temperature dropped ten degrees. We were like parched plants coming back to life after a generous watering.

Everyone had arrived except for my husband and the tired one; they came along a few minutes later. In this peaceful and secluded Shangri La we stretched ourselves out on large, flat rocks and talked as the kids splashed about the stream looking for tadpoles.

Having walked 1100 miles, Cheryl ended her journey at the Bridge of the Gods spanning the Columbia River, which lay between Oregon and Washington.

She’d become a different person, inside and out.

Do good books make you remember, too?

Multnomah Falls, Oregon

Multnomah Falls, Oregon

With that, I leave you “A Story for Tomorrow,” posted today on Brain Pickings.

Facing your heart of darkness, for love: State of Wonder

She was not terrified that the patient would die or she would lose the baby, she was terrified that she was doing something wrong in the eyes of Dr. Swenson.

Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is about a life severely, intentionally curtailed.

Marina Singh appears to be a successful scientist conducting important research at a pharmaceutical company; only she knows that long ago she’d bailed out of her own life.

When Marina was a chief resident in obstetrics, she performed a complicated delivery that ended badly. There was a lawsuit. Her marriage to a fellow resident dissolved. She wasn’t asked to leave the residency program, but she felt compelled to punish herself and leave on her own.

That way, she never had to face her classmates, or patients, or the brilliant, intimidating Dr. Swenson, again.  Anick Swenson had been the attending physician on call the day of the crisis. All the medical students revered and feared her.

Dr. Swenson had more important things to do than learn any of her students’ names. Patchett writes, “She was harder on the women…She would tell them stories of her own days in medical school and how when she came along the men knit their arms together to keep her out. They made a human barricade against her, they kicked at her when she climbed over them, and now all the women were just walking through, no understanding or appreciation for the work that had been done for them.”

Marina never told her mother why she abruptly decided not to become a doctor. She has never told her lover, Mr. Fox, who is president of the pharma company she works for. She never told her close friend and colleague, Anders Eckman, who has just died of fever in the Amazon jungle.

Now, Anders’ wife has begged Marina to find out what she can about Anders’ death and retrieve his body. Mr. Fox has asked her to check on the progress of a top secret research project being conducted by none other than Dr. Swenson, who makes it a practice of remaining incommunicado.

Marina doesn’t want to set foot in the jungle, and she doesn’t want to see Dr. Swenson. But she goes, because she cares deeply for Anders, who has left behind a wife and three young boys.

Here is the particular nugget of the story I keep coming back to:

“The great, lumbering guilt that slept inside of her at every moment of her life had shifted, stretched.”

When you think about it, Marina has suffered and continues to suffer deeply, even though her suffering is hidden away. She knows what she’s lost. She was a bright, capable young woman who wanted to devote herself to caring for women and helping them bring new life into the world. Yet in the space of a few hours she walked away from it all. She’d spent the greater part of her adult life only half alive, using a fraction of her potential. She seems to be very much alone; she holds the other people in her life at a distance, and she settles for a less than fulfilling relationship with Mr. Fox.

Marina has never gotten over her past. She locked it away in a dark corner of her mind and got on with things. Being forced to face down her demons is the psychological story within the story of Marina’s journey into the Amazon jungle. It turns a plot driven novel into something more urgent and real for the reader, even if the reader is only half aware of it.

This fusing of outward adventure and inner journey is what ultimately cast a spell over me and made it impossible not to follow Marina into the darkness. I’m reliving my own life issues as Marina relives hers. I test myself as Marina has to test herself. I’m working some things out.

I admire Marina, but not all of the decisions she makes as her story unfolds, and that’s as it should be when reading about a character who is real, alive.

The essential story in this book, for me, is the reclaiming of a life. By the end of the story, I’m different.  Not in a dramatic way, but nonetheless something has shifted.  A truly great book will stay with me and continue to wield its power. And I can’t begin to measure the impact of many books read over a lifetime.

Some people say the book is in danger of disappearing. But in a recent essay, Timothy Egan writes that people are actually reading more and buying more books. I think we will always hunger for the power of story and the collective wisdom of the great writers and thinkers. Certainly movies, the stage, and all forms of multimedia are flourishing. So are books. They’ll always have their place.

A word about spoilers

In my book discussions, I try to avoid spoilers. However, anything goes in the comments, where I’d like to have free, open conversation. State of Wonder is a rich, complex story and I’ve only touched on a few of its themes. Please feel free to comment on any aspect of the book.

Next up for May: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

This memoir has shot to number 8 on the New York Times Best Seller list and is getting a lot of attention. I haven’t read the book yet, but I know that it is searing in its honesty, and Cheryl’s story isn’t for the fainthearted.  I hope you’ll read along with me. If you have a couple of friends who might like Wild, please let them know about Books Can Save a Life. I’d like to get a discussion going about this book.

All quotes are from State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, HarperCollins, 2011.

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