- from Michael Steinberg
Patricia Hampl says about memoir: "You give me your story, I get mine." There's a simple wisdom at the heart of that seemingly off hand remark.
Most literary memoirists, it seems, spend a good piece of their lives trying to find their places in the world. What interests me most about that pursuit, however, aren't only the difficulties the narrators suffer, but the ways in which they strive to make sense of those obstacles and confusions. That shared struggle is, I believe, an important part of what connects us as fellow human beings.
Here, then, are three recent memoirs that depict that struggle most convincingly:
The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet's Memoir of Living Off the Grid
University Press Of New England, 2006. 199 Pages, Paper, $19.95. [End Page 185]
Baron Wormser's memoir is about the author and his family's non-ideological decision to live in the Maine woods without heat, running water, and electricity. As Wormser discloses, "I wanted to learn how to take care of myself." A former urban Jew, he also learns that "[I] was ready to leave behind the vestiges of assimilated religion and culture that had been bequeathed to me." And he admits that he "craved . . . something different from the largely asphalt landscape I grew up in." Wormser, who ultimately became a fine poet, reveals that in the woods he discovered a "longing to be with words in an undistracted place. 'Woods' and 'words' were almost identical."
The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere
Counterpoint, 2006. 267 Pages, Paper, $16.95.
Growing up on a North Dakota farm, Debra Marquart felt an urgent need to escape the burdens and constraints of farm life. Over time, she carves out an exotic adult life as a rock-and-roll singer, college writing teacher, and serious writer. But in midlife she discovers that she hasn't really broken free of her past. Just the opposite, in fact. In The Horizontal World, Marquart discloses that "I think about the generations of my family who have dedicated their lives to keeping our name tied to this parcel of land for 110 years, using all their strength, resources, energy, and imagination to outwit the forces, natural or otherwise, that would have so easily stripped us of belonging. And I think about how I have benefited from the sense of rootedness that this place has afforded me as I have cast about rootless in the world."
Belonging: Home Away from Home
Alfred A. Knopf/Canada, 2003. 337 Pages, Cloth, $22.95.
Canadian-born writer Isabel Huggan accompanied her husband for many years in his work around the world. She then reluctantly settled with him in the south of France, believing she'd soon return to her native country. In Belonging, Huggan writes that "we were 'only renting temporarily' . . . and that my real home was somewhere else, invisible but enduring—and permanent."
After years of struggle to adapt to a new language and culture, Huggan [End Page 186] comes to realize that "Instead, here we are. On the fine, lovely edge of something new. Something other than normal."
Unlike Wormser, Marquart, and Huggan, I did not live "off the grid," grow up on a midwestern farm, or suffer a wrenching cultural displacement. How, then, do their narratives become, as Patricia Hampl suggests, my story?
V. S. Pritchard writes, "It's all in the art. You get no credit for the living." What connects reader to writer, then, is the adept, skillful manner in which these narrators invite us to enter their most intimate thoughts and feelings. In so doing, they allow us simultaneously to share and understand their deepest human struggles.
Michael Steinberg, Founding Editor of Fourth Genre, is an award-winning personal essayist/memoirist. For more information, visit mjsteinberg.net.
Fourth Genre would like to thank Mimi Schwartz for 11 years as the Reader-to-Reader Reviews editor. Her dedication was an integral part to helping a new journal succeed and we thank her for the ongoing work that is involved in collecting, choosing, and editing...