Book Review: Death and the Art of Memoir


Art of Memoirbreath becomes air

by Alan F. Zundel

Writing a memoir means confronting who you really are.

A memoir is a protest against the silence of death.

The first assertion is that of Mary Karr, the author of “The Art of Memoir” (2015). Karr is the best-selling author of three memoirs of her own, “The Liar’s Club,” “Cherry,” and “Lit.” Her book on the art of memoir writing is based on years of teaching the subject at Syracuse University.

The second assertion is my own, after reading the stunning memoir of Paul Kalanithi, “When Breath Becomes Air” (2016). His memoir is likewise a best-seller, but you can be sure he will not be following it up with another. Kalanithi’s memoir is of his struggle with a terminal illness, and it was published posthumously.

Reading Karr’s engaging little book in itself forced me to confront one aspect of who I really am. I am not the independent spirit taking the path less travelled that I thought I was, rather I am a follower of prevailing fashion—the fashion currently being writing a memoir.

Apparently everyone is doing it. As I have. And I’d like to write another.

Her book made me squirm as I realized ways I could have improved my memoir, and I wish I had read this before finishing it. She offers a lot of sound advice, some of which could be applied to writing fiction.

But her book is more than a guide for would-be memoirists, it is a reflective and inspiring appreciation of the form itself. Karr discusses many of the classics, detailing how they cast their magical spells. Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” Frank Conroy’s “Stop-Time,” Mary McCarthy’s “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood,” Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”—the list goes on.

In fact, she provides an appendix of recommended memoirs to read—nearly two hundred of them! I wanted to run over to the library right away.

I did go to the library. (But I didn’t run there, I walked.) And the first memoir I came across was Kalanithi’s. In future editions of “The Art of Memoir” Karr will have to add his book to her list. It is destined, I think, to become a classic.

Kalanithi’s book is brief, as was his life. In early adulthood he pursued a love of literature and was drawn to the theme of the meaning of life in the face of death. In college he shifted from literature to neurology, becoming a brain surgeon who confronted death with his patients and examined its face up close.

Then, in his thirties, about to embark on a career and start a family, he discovered he had lung cancer. Now his wrestling with death became truly intimate. Eventually he was forced to accept the inevitable that we will all confront. He was dying. In an epilogue by his wife, she continues the tale to his death and burial.

Kalanithi’s book is a tribute to his love of literature in the way he artfully strips his prose down to present a story that is powerful in its simplicity. His final paragraph, some words to his infant daughter, had me in tears.

Both books had me reflecting on my own life, which of course is where any memoir has its start.

The memoir I already wrote came from of twin sources. One was my propensity, throughout my life, of observing and remembering particular details as though my life was a story that would need to be told at some point. Why I did this I don’t really know. I suppose I fell in love with stories early on, and so I saw my own life in the form of a story the outcome of which I eagerly anticipated.

Until I realized what the ultimate outcome had to be!

When my father died I began delving into genealogy, sensing that the stories of the deceased would completely disappear along with their protagonists unless someone did the work of preserving them. I began retrieving bits and pieces of the stories of my ancestors, and the first iteration of my memoir was an attempt to tell the story of all these people whose stories culminated—ta da!—in my own life.

Then my mother died. My focus shifted to how the quirks of my parents created the contradictions of my own personality. The larger genealogy fell away, leaving me to confront who I was in a way I had not completely thought through. I wrote the memoir as a way of thinking it through.

I left off the story at what seemed like a natural breaking point, a time in my twenties when I started to resolve this particular inner contradiction and moved across the country to start my life anew. (As if!) I jumped ahead in the final chapter to tell of my parents’ death, but left out the intervening thirty-five years.

I’ve been wanting to continue the story, but not sure how to shape it. I am neither dead nor, as far as I know, facing immanent death, so the specifics of the end are unknown to me. Nor am I at the peak of a career or at some other vantage point from which to give meaning to my story.

But Karr and Kalanithi’s books have pushed me closer to envisioning my next memoir. Karr made me want to write it, to again undertake the challenge of writing well. And Kalanithi set me to thinking about death again.

My next memoir will begin with that “new start” and end with a death. These were the bookends of that phase of my life, when early adulthood and its hopes and ambitions gave way to a more realistic appraisal of life. One that—necessarily—involves deaths both literal and metaphorical.

So a memoir is a protest against the silence of death. After death I will not be here to tell my story, and unless I write it down its telling will be left to the whims and interpretations of others. And, most likely, after a while will cease to be told at all.

In addition, my writing is a protest against death’s silencing of those I have loved and cherished. I cannot save their souls but I can resurrect them in my words. In truth, when I try to confront who I really am, it is their faces that I see.

Rest in peace, Brian, Keith, Ted and Ellen. I carry you with me always. Guide me so that the telling of my story does not do an injustice to your own.


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