Jane Taylor McDonnell’s Living to Tell the Tale is packed with practical advice for the memoir writer on important topics, such as “Talking Back to Your Inner Censors,” “Learning to Remember,” “Imagination Coming to the Aid of Memory,” “How to Find Your Plot,” and “Finding Your Inner Voice.”
McDonnell compares and contrasts memoir with fiction writing in the foreword to her book, clarifying for the reader how elements of fiction writing impact and belong in memoir writing, and addressing the common concern memoirists have with faulty memory, individual interpretation of events in the writer’s life, and how to figure out what will “speak” to readers of a memoir.
“.. it is true that the concerns of the memoirist are the same as those of the novelist. Memoir writing shares with fiction writing the obligation to life from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform an event, delivery wisdom. It differs from fiction writing in the way it approaches the task… In memoir, the reader must be persuaded that the narrator is speaking truth. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the memoirist is not what matters; it matters only what the memoirist makes of what happened.”
McDonnell speaks eloquently about her own experiences with her autistic son, the subject of her award-winning memoir, News from the Border. She also spends time discussing how research material, such as photographs and documents, can help the memoirist compose his or her story.
McDonnell discusses the work of other published memoirists, using passages from their memoirs to illustrate technical points she makes in Living to Tell the Tale, including authors such as Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), Susanna Kaysen (Girl, Interrupted), Gloria Steinem (Ruth’s Song, Because She Could Not Sing It), and Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life). Her method of backing up the finer points of her lessons with rich examples from successful authors adds an extra element of depth to Living to Tell the Tale. The book is a worthy addition to the writer’s bookshelf.
Other Memoir Writing Books and Resources
Writing About Your Life, William Zinsser
Before We Get Started, Bret Lott
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
Thinking About Memoir, Abigail Thomas
Resources for Memoir Writers
About Jane Taylor McDonnell
From the book: Jane Taylor McDonnell teaches at Carleton College, where she directed the Women’s Studies program for many years and where she now teaches a writing and reading class called “Witness Narratives; Memoirs of Survival.” She is the author of News from the Border, a “mother’s memoir” about her autistic son. The book has been translated into Italian, German, and Portuguese and won the Minnesota Book Award for Non-fiction in 1994. She continues to speak widely on the subject of autism, and she is working on a second memoir about the last illness and death of her father.
Paperback, 161 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books