Saturday, July 30, 2016

An open-style memoir

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, aging, death and dying

Abigail Thomas is just a year or two beyond the age of the oldest Baby Boomers, so her third memoir, written during her years approaching age 70, and upon reaching 71, make her a pioneer for those just a bit younger. What Comes Next and How to Like It explores her life as she copes with the deaths of a few loved ones, including her late husband, Rich, whose declining years she chronicled in her prior memoir, A Three Dog Life; and with the beginnings of her own decline.

I prefer not to go into what she writes about . Many prior reviewers have covered that territory very well. I was struck by the form, format and style of this book. Ms Thomas writes with painful honesty and frequently with great grace. I do need to mention a singular image. A "chapter" of six lines, in which she describes her decision to volunteer at a hospice, is summed up thus, "I want to make Death a member of the family. I don't want it to arrive as a stranger."

Many memoirs are narrative biographies that could have been written in the third person with little loss of meaning or content. Not this one. It reads like a series of blog posts or diary entries, with lengths that vary from a sentence or two to three or four pages. Though each piece is titled, it is hard to call them chapters. They are more like excerpts from longer chapters, as though she could have written much more but preferred to leave something for a reader's imagination to work on.

This kind of writing strongly appeals to me, as a useful example. My own attempts to write stories or other long forms have been frustrating. I am an essayist and storyteller, but the pieces need to be rather brief. I can usually say all I wish to say in 1,500 words or less. What the publishing trade calls a "short story" tends to require a narrative arc that sustains itself through at least 3,000 words. Chapters in typical nonfiction books are of a similar length.

I just had to do a brief experiment, taking three books at random from my shelf:

  • The Peter Principle by Peter and Hull. Chapters range from 5 to 22 pages, averaging 10.7. Accounting for illustrations, the chapters are on the shorter side, ranging from about 1,300 to 6,500 words, averaging 3,400 or so.
  • Smart Kids With School Problems by Priscilla L. Vail. Chapters range from 16 to 28 pages, averaging 23. Lengths in words: just over 6,000 to 10,500, averaging 8,700.
  • O. Henry's Short Stories, a Magnum paperback. Stories range from 7 to 39 pages, averaging 15.5. Lengths in words: nearly 3,000 to 16,200, averaging 6,500.

Emulating any of these writers would put me way out of my league! I am comforted by an author whose attention span is closer to mine. Such a string of vignettes gradually paints a vivid picture.

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