Memoir: The Subtle Fibers of Life

by Casey O’Neil


Who is entitled to write his reminiscences?
          Because no one is obliged to read them.
          In order to write one’s reminiscences it is not at all necessary to be a great man, nor a notorious criminal, nor a celebrated artist, nor a statesman—it is quite enough to be simply a human being, to have something to tell, and not merely the desire to tell it but at least have some little ability to do so.
          Every life is interesting; if not the personality, then the environment, the country are interesting. Man likes to enter into another existence, he likes to touch the subtlest fibres of another’s heart, and to listen to its beating…he compares, he checks it by his own, he seeks for himself confirmation, sympathy, justification…

—Alexander Herzen, My Past and Thoughts

Love's WorkI found this passage quoted in Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work, one of the most original and affecting memoirs I’ve ever read. It is a philosopher’s account of the surprising moments and relationships by which she measured her life, made more urgent by the fact that she was dying of cancer. “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not,” is the book’s epigraph, and Rose so vividly embodies the latter half of that admonition that the book left me feeling lighter, touched by an unsentimental and indestructible hope. “Surgeons are not qualified,” she tells us, “for the one thing with which they deal: life. For they do not understand, as part of their profession, ‘death,’ in the non-medical sense, nor therefore ‘life’ in the meaningful sense, inclusive of death.” She knows what she’s talking about, and she has given us the beating heart of a meaningful life in a book I will be rereading as long as I’m alive.


…I got drunk at a Christmas party. Afterward, imagining that I’d been insulted by the various people I’d insulted there, I started crying angrily in the backseat of my car. A friend was driving. He asked me what was wrong, and I felt the need for a better explanation than the real one, whatever the real one was. My friend knew I’d been in Vietnam. “Did you ever kill anyone, buddy?” I said.
          “No,” he said. “Did you?”
          “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Tracy Kidder, My Detachment

My DetachmentAs a second-lieutenant in Vietnam, Tracy Kidder (author of Mountains Beyond Mountains) ran a small rear echelon unit involved in communications intelligence—a job that involved no combat and no killing. In letters home he played the part of the soldier he wished he was—battle hardened, wise, and humane—but the reality was much different. When one of his own men threatened to kill him, Kidder quietly muttered his tough reply only after the soldier was out of earshot. In Good Prose, his book about the craft of nonfiction, Kidder describes how his memoir couldn’t work until he fully inhabited its most embarrassing and least heroic moments. My Detachment is the result, a powerful and often funny memoir of a young man who, having wandered into a disturbing and complex situation, found himself unsure of who he was and wishing he was someone else—something I relate to more than I might like to admit.


I tried another scheme. I approached my nemesis, who was smoking his pipe near the convenience store, and offered to pay him to fly to the moon and stay there until my work was done. I was told by three different people that this particular angakok was quite capable of flying to the moon.
          He jammed his thumbs up into my nostrils and pushed me so hard that I stumbled backwards. This was shockingly painful. I took this to mean that my request had been denied…

Howard Norman, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place

I Hate To Leave This Beautiful PlaceI Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place obliterates the distinction between strange and normal, so by the time the Inuit shaman makes his appearance above, his thumbs-up-the-nose maneuver feels almost natural. This is a memoir of the unexpected, perfectly rendering those moments in life that feel impossible to explain. In the process of breathing life into his various experiences—working in a bookmobile, translating native folktales at the earth’s northern edge, inviting an old anti-Semite to jump out a hotel window—Howard Norman gives us a sense of who he is. Awake to life’s amazing and alarming symmetries, he doesn’t make the connections for us, preferring instead to let events speak for themselves. He knows that the best memoirs are actually mysteries—as strange and contradictory as our actual lives, too disturbing and unbelievable and beautiful for us to know exactly what they mean.


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