Since my memoir came out last summer, I've been teaching some memoir writing workshops, and one question I always hear is How do I start? There are several answers to this question, but one of my favorites is to write little bits as they come to you and then after a while see what you've got, see what makes you want to write more. In the future, I will recommend they read this book.
Winik gives us brief portraits of people in her life who have died. While Spoon River Anthology is her model, these are all real people, and the stories are from the author's point of view rather than that of the dead person. No names; instead each person is identified by some trait, such as The Skater or The Mah Jongg Player. In just a few pages she gives us a strong sense of the person. Each chapter is quite brilliant, though some are more wrenching than others: she writes of her first husband's death, her first child's.
Writing a whole book seems overwhelming. Writing a single scene or a character sketch feels much more manageable, but in fact writing a short piece well is much more difficult. I always find it much easier to write five pages about something than to condense it to one paragraph. Winik succeeds by providing vivid snippets and not falling into a formula. Sometimes she recounts an incident to bring a person to life, sometimes description, like The Jeweler who looked like a Bavarian elf, sometimes just a brief summary. But always her details are vivid and a bit wacky like this summary of The Bon Vivant's background: “He was the youngest of three boys raised in the swamps of East Texas by a Jewish salesman of women's clothing, and all three emerged from that thicket with elegant Southern manners, true modesty, and rare taste.”
Although The Graduate and The Last Brother made me cry, I think my favorite is The Queen of New Jersey who had everything until “As in a fairy tale, everything went wrong.” I think I like it because I've known so many people like this, people whom I thought had it all figured out when it turns that they just haven't been tested yet.
Because of the consistent narrator, this collection of short pieces add up to a memoir, a bit impressionistic perhaps, but the sense of a life. It is this sense of life that keeps the book from being depressing. If we live long enough, we all enter what Jane Smiley calls “The Age of Grief”. People we know have died. People we love have died. And each death marks us in some way.
In the Author's Note Winik says that the book started as an exercise in a writing workshop. Beginning to write about The Jeweler and how he died, she says, “I felt my brain begin to crowd up, as if tickets to a show had just gone on sale and all my ghosts were screeching up at the box office.” Every writer, if she's lucky, knows that feeling.