Delving into a stack of diary-esque memoirs offers revealing insights

No advice to writers is complete without telling them to read. Read more. Read the classics. Read voraciously. Reading is essential.

The act of reading informs one’s writing, whether consciously or unconsciously. It improves vocabulary. It gives insight into how to solve dialogue or plot problems. It inspires.

Importantly, it behooves a writer to read other books in their chosen genre. For example, if you liked The Percussionist’s Wife, you’ll probably like Perfection by Julie Metz. Her story of uncovering her husband’s affairs after his sudden death was the primary inspiration for my memoir.

As I continue to revamp my current Work in Progress, the story of the year I turned 15 and learned to French kiss, I determined my primary audience is young adults (though, as author Edwidge Dandicat tells blogger Lisa Guidarini about her young adult novel Untwine, “I do think though that this is a book adults can also read and enjoy”).  My best-friend-since-seventh-grade (who is also a character in my WIP) suggested a close reading of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, so I checked it out. Um, no. Fiction and ridiculous is entertaining, but not my genre.

Other options do exist. In the spirit of reading within my genre, I dug up a number of diary-based memoirs written for teens and preteens, and found three good models.

  1. Stick FigureStick Figure: A Diary of My Former Self by Lori Gottlieb (2000, Simon & Schuster): Gottlieb reprints (with liberties, I have to believe, given her extremely well developed precociousness and wit) her diaries from fourth grade when she developed an eating disorder and underwent treatment. As she herself notes, “At first the diaries were amusing — utterly naive one minute, startlingly perspicacious the next.” How’s that for vocabulary building? Perspciacious means “having ready insight and understanding of things.” (How naive I am, even at 49.) I appreciated her memoir but I found it interesting — given how important are the first 50 pages of any book — that she draws all her conclusions in the epilogue.
  2. We should hang out sometimeWe Should Hang Out Sometime: Embarrassingly, A True Story by Josh Sundquist (2014, Little, Brown and Company): This amusing memoir excavates Sundquist’s failed teenage love interests. As a 25-year-old, he revisits the women and asks them what went wrong, his goal being to figure out how to right the ship and land a girlfriend. Not only is this memoir appealing to teenagers trying to navigate the stormy waters of love, Sundquist is a role model for disabled people. He lost a leg to cancer as a child and went on to become a Paralympian skier. Sundquist, with plenty of funny self-deprecation, sprinkles his adult discoveries between the tales of his teenage dates gone sour.
  3. Miss American PieMiss American Pie: A Diary of Love, Secrets and Growing Up in the 1970s by Margaret Sartor (2006, Bloomsbury): Of the three memoirs, I liked this one best (though I feel compelled to tell you, my well-read friend Barb who recommended it to me, didn’t like it). Sartor literally reprints six years of diaries word-for-word. I loved this (but it’s exactly why Barb didn’t like the book). I trust Sartor edited many irrelevancies from the manuscript, but it reads pretty much like a teenage girl’s diaries (“Finished Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I think it changed my life, but it didn’t exactly improve my mood”). I was blown away by how she established suspense in what appears to be a true (and fairly benign) life narrative. Sartor offers a well-developed prologue to establish context (“The story my diaries tell is a quarter century gone. It’s not complicated, dramatic, or epic, but things happened”), but like Gottlieb, the epilogue offers the lessons learned.

Evolution of mindset. That’s what all these young adult memoirs share. How someone grew up and figured it out. (To be fair, probably all memoirs depict evolution of mindset but I’m speaking of coming-of-age memoirs right now.)

“I suppose that if a person is going to publish her diaries, she should have important insights to share,” Gottlieb writes in her epilogue. This, of course, is the crux of my current challenge. What’s my point in reliving my 15th year and my first French kiss? My story is not complicated, dramatic or epic either. But things happened.

My success at rewriting my manuscript hinges on mining for meaning among the naive diary entries of a girl wasn’t wise to the ways of the world (and, quite honestly, probably still falls short). As Sartor notes in her epilogue, “Autobiography is necessarily limited by the mind’s locked drawers and the author’s skewed perspective, but putting it plainly, the girl in my story would have been nicer and wiser were it not for the misfortune of written evidence.”

I’ve hit upon a spectacularly simple purpose: To motivate young readers to initiate a conversation with a trusted adult (preferably a parent) about subjects like kissing, relationships and boundaries using my book as a talking point. As adults, we sometimes forget how vexing these subjects are to tweens and teens who haven’t yet experienced the appeal of someone else’s tongue in their mouth. I’ve already started a compelling reading guide to add to the end matter.

Exploring one’s sexual awakening is enlightening to an adult, too, and illumines one’s prejudices and fetishes, I believe (which is why I think adults might like the book, too).

While I continue reading voraciously, I’m newly inspired to get back to work on this WIP which has haunted me for literally years now.

And that’s the point. Reading inspires.



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