Living to Tell the Tale Essay - Critical Essays

Living to Tell the Tale

It clearly had to happen: given the lava flow of memoirs into bookstores and onto bestseller lists over the past several years, someone was bound to produce a how-to manual for this increasingly popular and presumably lucrative literary form. Readers ought to be thankful that, in the event, Jane Taylor McDonnell was finally the person to do it. An experienced teacher of writing at Carleton College and the author of NEWS FROM THE BORDER: A MOTHER’S MEMOIR OF HER AUTISTIC SON (1993), McDonnell is excellently positioned to provide both the broad rationale for the genre as well as the specific technical advice that such a text must offer if it is to succeed. That this text does succeed is clear.

McDonnell begins by countering the notion that the writing of memoir is self-indulgent, an exercise in self-absorption which celebrates only the assertive voice of the “I” and troubles itself very little with the concerns of a wider human community. Far from being an insular practice, writing personal narratives, she argues, is one way to develop clear, fully-actualized citizens, individuals who have a larger understanding of themselves and consequently of the world those selves occupy. In short, the personal memoir is a form of the examined life.

Her book begins with a powerful dictum : “Writing is a second chance at life. . . All writing constitutes an effort to establish our own meaningfulness, even in the midst of sadness and disappointment. In fact, writing sometimes seems to me to be the only way to give shape to life, to complete the process which is merely begun by living.” Therein lies the key to her book. Living may be intense, but it is only in writing that we get meaningful revelations about all that intensity, that we see connections, discover patterns, gain perspective. What happens is less important than what the writer makes of what happens. These are, she says, our “necessary fictions.”

All writers will welcome the practical advice McDonnell gives throughout, from chapters on identifying one’s voice and shaping a plot to using documentary evidence, creating concrete scenes, and determining the ethics of “telling all;” and each chapter contains exercises that clearly illustrate key points. This is obviously the reference book budding memoirists have been waiting for, but anyone interested in writing more precisely, more imaginatively, more engagingly will surely want to read it.