Monday, August 24, 2015

Reading in Small Chunks, Taking in Big Wisdom from Abigail Thomas's New Memoir

I've been a fan of Abigail Thomas since I first read her memoir A Three Dog Life (2006), and then immediately looked back and read her previous memoir, Safekeeping, which broke so many memoir writing "rules" when it first appeared in 2000.

I also appreciate what Thomas puts up on her website as craft advice and writing exercises that have helped many creative nonfiction writers. I've sent a bunch of students over there, and the result is always that they come back to me with some version of, "I tried X, and wrote something I never thought about before…" usually followed by some excited version of what they plan to do with their new material, and newly acquired skill or craft idea.

I dove into her newest memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like it (2015) months ago, then it was lost (along with a few other just-started-reading books) to the clutter of my office, and when it resurfaced a few weeks ago, I brought  it to the beach. That was the perfect environment for a book in segmented form; some chapters were no more than a single sentence, others ran for a handful of pages. I typically love such quilted work.

But selfishly, I found myself wishing this time to have not quite so many stops and starts. Thomas is able to build such depth and momentum in each richly constructed short section that I simply craved for each one to keep going, on and on. Though when I considered that so many of the mini-chapters could have been entire books in themselves, I realized perhaps that only further cemented Thomas's wisdom and skill in terms of structure, organization, and presentation. What's left out matters so much. Leave the readers wanting more, always!

Most of the time when I read, I have nearby a pad of tiny sticky page markers. I use them to bookmark lines I keep returning to, passages I want to read again and again to try to figure out the writer's craft decisions, or just places where the prose sounds lovely or says something interesting which I want to share with someone, sometime.

Here are a few:

In "Bad Memory," when writing about growing older and gaining weight: "…it looks as if I have an open umbrella concealed under my skirt. How did that happen? I think, oh well, I was young once and slender and pretty and I made the most of it. It's somebody else's turn now."

(I might simply say, "Ditto" but that would make me look old.)

In "Sleeping With Dogs," on why, at approaching 70ish, she prefers being single, and the company of dogs: "Lots of people on my somewhat leaky boat are on the lookout for a human companion. Not me. I have learned to love the inside of my own head. There isn't much I'd rather say then think."

(No dogs for me, and I love the clatter of family, but when they're all away for hours or a day—I quickly retreat to that place in my head where I can think and not talk.)

In "Mindfulness," Thomas notices the gift of a broken dishwasher: "…there are always dishes in the sink anyway, and now I am going to wash them as they appear. It is a contemplative activity. Here is the Fire King golden cup from the set my daughter Jennifer gave me. Here is the big mug my daughter Catherine uses for her tea when she drops by. Here is last night's cast-iron pan with the remnants of a roast chicken…."

This last hit me personally because our dishwasher was declared too expensive to fix last October, and we've all—me, husband, both sons—have been washing dishes ever since, and though we each mildly complain about it, I've noticed similar advantages. Sometimes it keeps more than one us in the kitchen longer after a meal, talking, joking. One son says it's very calming, he likes the sounds of the water. The other plugs in his iPod and nods and sings along and shuffles a little dance at the sink. When alone, I wash slowly, steal glimpses straight ahead out through the back window, and think. Or write in my head too. Or go over beautifully crafted writing I've recently read. Which is what I did yesterday, and why I am writing about Abigail Thomas today.

p.s. If you are a visual artist as well as a writer/reader, you're really going to like What Comes Next, which also offers thoughts, misgivings, excitement, and pleasure about the author's forays into painting.

Images:  Washing dishes - Flickr/Creative Commons - Jenny Downing


kario said...

I just put this book on my reading list yesterday! Can't wait to read it.

Cathy said...

I visualized you doing the dishes, and how I did the same while growing up and washing the dinner dishes with my mother. I never thought about it until now but that was a special time for us.

As always you get me thinking after reading your words, while also informing me about some wonderful book that I know I will enjoy. Sounds like my cup of tea.

Christine Wenzel said...

Lisa, thank you for introducing me to Abigail Thomas. I read your post this morning and hopped over to her's and started gobbling up everything she has written on her website. Will definitely buy her books. I also enjoy your Friday lists. Thank you for sharing such good stuff.

Lisa Romeo said...

I'm so pleased this post got on your radar! If it leads you to discover the many riches of Abigail Thomas, through any of her books, I'm happy.

Debra Marrs said...

Thanks for adding another book to my reading list, too, Lisa. I've always apapreciate Abigail Thomas's writings and can't wait to dip into this one. On the subject of dishwashers, I haven't had one since 1994, using the time at the sink as a nightly pause in my day, a form of water-energy self-care I find very soothing. It's a delight to hear how your family is in the swing of it now too. Really enjoyed the image of your sons. :-)