If one is intending to write a memoir, reading other people’s version would be a logical way to improve and learn. My goal for enrolling in the memoir writing course was to enhance my writing skills. The work published in my blog seemed to me to lend themselves more to history; yet, after a few weeks into the course, I understood how they could be transformed. The resource section includes a recommended reading list with examples of various writing styles. Reading several might help steer an aspiring writer into a format indicative of his/her style and voice.
With that intention, I stumbled on this new release perusing the shelves at the bookstore. Pluck: A Memoir of a Newfoundland Childhood and the Raucous, Terrible, Amazing Journey to Becoming a Novelist appealed to my curiosity for the title alone. I recognized the author, Donna Morrissey, having several of her novels on my shelf. I purchased her debut novel, Kit’s Law, in 1999 during my first and only trip to St. John’s Newfoundland. (Spoiler alert: it is the book Donna Morrissey publishes at the end of the memoir – although you probably figured it out based on the timelines.) She went to publish five more novels, a few nominated for some major awards and winning a few for Eastern Canada authors. I have been collecting her work since but must confess, have yet to read any of them. The completion of Pluck has whetted my appetite for delving into her novels in the future.
The book opens with an eight year old Donna returning home from a day exploring the shores of White Bay harbouring the family’s fishing village, The Beaches, in 1964. She is met outside by Aunt Rose who broke the news of the death of Baby Paul even though Donna could not comprehend the meaning. It wasn’t until she approached the casket whilst the adults were still asleep when Donna discovered the meaning: The white box was on the table, the cover was off. Baby Paul was still and silent as stone. The little bump of his nose was the only curve on his tiny white face. I crept closer. The smell of soap from yesterday became stronger. I lifted my hand as my mother had done. I touched it to his forehead and leapt back with a cry of fright. His skin was cold, as cold as sea ice. I knew then what death was. The scene set the tone for the immediate fallout and for another death many years later which would have a dramatic effect on Donna and the entire family.
There are events which seem particular to the East Coast, especially to the fishing villages or small towns of Newfoundland. The prose is scattered with local humour, my favourite being, “Normal. I was as normal as a rubber boot in a microwave oven.”
Donna Morrissey stresses the value of fortitude as she witnessed in her parents, and which served her well in completing her first work of fiction. “I was daunted by [my mother’s] fortitude, and by my father’s later that spring…..Fortitude. Without it, I was to learn, all other virtues wither on the vine.” And then a couple chapters later, “And it was there, on that dark and loneliest of roads, that I’d be granted yet another grace: that of fortitude. And through it bump up against the immensity of God.”
There are similar statements about the impact of God scattered throughout the memoir without an explanation until the very end, in the Epilogue: “I did not go looking for God, the Keeper of light and the Giver of gifts. I found God through tragedy, horror, and grief, and within the gifts of grace, of joy, and of love.” There is no sense of religiosity or spirituality in the retelling of hers and her family’s story. It would appear the process itself, the deep examination and thoughtful reflection of their lives, which enlightened her to a renewed perspective.
The level of recall detail here and in other works have always intimidated my own writing, having difficulty remembering every moment of important events in my own life. Donna Morrissey addresses this question at the end in the author’s notes. She explains the efforts to confirm and check with others involved, some of whom had another perception of the story; nevertheless, “the events I describe are wholly true and recounted in good faith”, consistent with the message of other writers and that of the memoir writing course. The lesson is one which will serve me well attempting to fill in my own gaps.
Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation by Kyo Maclear is one of the recommended memoirs for students of the course. It won the Trillium book award in 2018. I had already owned a copy along with her second adult novel, Stray Love. Kyo Maclear is more commonly known for her illustrated children’s literature, having produced seven so far, and counting. Her father is the journalist and documentary filmmaker Michael Maclear, which is relevant only in that his travels and workaholic lifestyle had an impact on their relationship, as one might imagine.
The memoir writing course includes an excerpt from Birds Art Life which is a description of Kyo spending time with her dying father, in the hospital: “My work now came with a recognition that my father, the person who had instilled in me a love of language, who had led me to the writing life, was losing words rapidly. ” The section was selected because it encapsulated the lessons of the chapter: use all five senses; show, don’t tell; avoid cliches; write good sentences; and eliminate sloppy grammatical errors.
As the title states, the book is a year when Kyo Maclear takes up birding with the accompaniment of a fellow amateur birder known only as the musician. They explore the birds of Toronto throughout the four seasons while Kyo reflects on her own life with a growing family, aging parents, and a dying father. The reader is presented with extremely well written observations on birds, art, and life.
The instinct for liberty may be deeply ingrained, but we are all captive in some way to something. We may be held in place by the confinement of tradition or trapped in relationships (family, marital, professional) that grow to feel like cupboards – comfortable, well appointed but cupboards nonetheless. Or we may be stalled by our fear of immensities and the free fall of the unknown. We may be captive when we choose financial stability over artistic freedom, when we live our lives like agoraphobics, confusing the safety of a locked house with security. The cage of habit. The cage of ego. The cage of ambition. The cage of materialism. The line between freedom from fear and freedom from danger is not always easy to discern.
This paragraph displays her predilection for repetition of words or phrases or sentence structure. There are numerous examples: every sentence beginning with “we”; two pages of “I remember”; a series of “stones for”; another paragraph of “I regret”. However noticeable, the style is effective in pressing a point, emphasizing an impression, rather than being overused. Although I cannot imagine employing the strategy with the same frequency, her utilization provides confidence to write in a similar manner whenever the situation warrants. The structure of the book itself is informative as well. The narrative of birding during this particular year is surrounded by issues of her history of immigration and family accompanied by her concomitant evolving emotions.
I will finish with one more profound quote: “if you watch life through binoculars, your vision is naturally blinkered”.
My last read for November was the 2021 winner of the Governor General Prize for non-fiction, alfabet/alphabet: a memoir of a first language by Sadiqa de Meijer. Her debut poetry collection was shortlisted for the GG prize in 2014 and her poem “Great Aunt Unmarried” won the CBC Canada Writes award for poetry in 2012. Sadiqa was born in Amsterdam to parents of mixed heritage and moved with the family to Canada at the age of 12. I was hooked into purchasing and reading because the back cover describes the book as “the record of Sadiqa de Meijer’s transition from speaking Dutch to English.” The description had me thinking it could inform an understanding of my parents’ experience. At only 147 pages, I would be able to finish by end of the month and cap off Novememoir. Completing it took longer than expected largely because of it’s unusual format and in part, the subject matter was not always rivetting.
The chapters tend to alternate between a lesson in linguistics and a reflection of growing up, the latter most interesting, the former sometimes very dull. The chapter entitled “stilte/silence” is the most egregious. It begins with a column of English words parallel to a column of the same word in Dutch. The first paragraph then begins “In English, the words on this list are pronounced as trochees, with weight placed on the first syllable, while in Dutch they are iambs,” etc. The rest of the chapter is a discussion of the various translations of a poem, seemingly at odds with the rest of the book.
Yet at times the description of her experience is poetic and reflects the title:
The countryside is linear and disciplined; nature in the governance of engineers. As a child on road trips, I would sometimes experience an illusion of scale; the sense that I was large enough to reach out my gigantic hand an tenderly stroke the landscape as it passed. Now, from the train, it’s almost as if language rises like a vapour, an early morning fog that fills the drainage creeks and blankets the tilled soil, and might drift to reveal the otherworldly dance of a stork, that clicking bird whose name is all long vowels and soft consonants, ooievaar. Then English suddenly feels awkward and contrived; a dream I’ve had in which my tongue didn’t work quite right.
I was amused by the discussion of Dutch words and their similarity with English; Sadiqa’s experience of living in the Netherlands as a child of mixed heritage is also revealing. The frequency of the lessons in language, however, detracts and makes me wonder what the judges saw to award it the prize for non-fiction.
Next month will be a continuation of reading more memoirs, but not necessarily Canadian.
Until then, happy reading.