In my book on memoir, Memoir: Conversations and Craft, I had the great good fortune of interviewing seven distinguished Canadian writers who have written memoirs. They were my “dream team” of authors, chosen because I admire their writing and referred to them often when I taught memoir workshops. With luck, I thought half of the group would say yes to my request of an interview to be included in my book. To my delight, all seven said yes.
I heartily recommend their memoirs.
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Writing Style and Focus
Causeway: A Passage From Innocence, by Linden MacIntyre
Can a writer be both punchy and elegant? Yes, they can. I have always enjoyed Linden MacIntyre’s writing style. I read Causeway: A Passage From Innocence, MacIntyre’s "hauntingly bittersweet memoir of home, fathers and sons, and the bridge between dreams and demons,” when I had been living in Cape Breton for about ten years. I couldn’t put the book down. It appealed to me as a "Caper-in-training" (how I referred to myself), and as a "come-from-away" (how others refer to anyone not brought up in Cape Breton).
It may also have been the first time I understood how well a memoir can come together when the writer focuses on a significant historical event that affects their life. In this case, it was the construction of "The Causeway" from the Mainland of Nova Scotia to Cape Breton Island, completed in 1952. For Cape Bretoners, the world was forever changed—which of course, is always for good, and otherwise.
An Insider's View
Pomp and Circumstances, a Journey Into the Palaces of Europe with a Canadian Lady-In-Waiting, by Claire Mowat
This is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison and Other Complications, by Diane Schoemperlen;
Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History, by Edmund Metatawabin.
One of the joys of memoir is that it opens doors to places into which we readers do not ordinarily have access. Claire Mowat’s Pomp and Circumstances, a Journey Into the Palaces of Europe with a Canadian Lady-In-Waiting is one such memoir. Mowat’s book is a gentle and engaging read, with the author’s dependably uncluttered prose steering the course. As always with this type of memoir, it’s fun to learn how people of privilege and power live. But Mowat is anything but sycophantic or naively overawed. Instead she’s clear-eyed and practical, and with an open heart and mind, enjoys the different experiences as they present themselves.
A more dramatic insider’s view is presented by Diane Schoemperlen, in her true story, This Is Not My Life: A Memoir of Love, Prison and Other Complications. Schoemperlen’s memoir, a love story, will have your eyebrows set high from the first brilliant sentence and for the duration of your read. Along the way, you will learn a lot about the inequities and peculiarities about Canadian penal system, which was one of the author’s main motivations for writing the book, namely to instigate positive changes for inmates and their families.
As compelling and as heartbreaking is Edmund Metatawabin’s memoir, Up Ghost River: A Chief’s Journey Through the Turbulent Waters of Native History. I won’t lie, it’s a tough read. All I could think at times, stomach roiling, was, These are children, you monsters! Leave them be. But the more settler Canadians learn about the residential school system, the better: it’s the minimum contribution to reconciliation that we (speaking as one) can make. If indigenous children and their families lived these horrors, settler Canadians can at least read about them, and honour them in our hearts. Metatawabin’s book is also full of wisdom, humour, hope, and healing.
A Memoir of Its Times
They Left Us Everything: A Memoir, by Plum Johnson
I read Plum Johnson’s RBC-Taylor-award-winning memoir, They Left Us Everything, the year it was published, 2014, and a phrase from it has stayed with me ever since: “brown furniture.” What Johnson is referring to is the dark, heavy, real-wood furniture that ruled the parlours, drawing rooms, and bedrooms of many homes in the 19th and 20th centuries. And Johnson had 22 rooms of said furniture to find other homes for, along with much else, during the course of settling her mother’s estate in Oakville, Ontario. The young people of today, you see, don’t want that brown furniture. Or crystal or china or silverware, or fancy linens—it doesn’t interest them. Homes barely do. I know several young people (20s and 30s) who aim never to own their own houses. We’ll see, says I. The world can be a chilly place as the years go on.
My other main memory of this well-written, original memoir is Johnson’s optimism and focus. She simply never met an obstacle she didn’t find a way to overcome, including fractious family members. And finally, her observations about family history (bring on the skeletons, we all have ‘em!) are both amusing and honest.
Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada, by Lawrence Hill
Speaking of elegant prose...
Lawrence Hill never met a genre at which he didn’t excel: fiction, non-fiction, features and daily journalism, screenwriting, and memoir.
Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada was published in 2001—and is every bit as relevant and thought-provoking now, years later. Ask any person of colour, and any white person with eyes and ears, racism hasn’t gone anywhere in this country, except perhaps further underground than in earlier years. Some would say that in a Trumpean world, racism is thriving and blatant, not just in Canada, but around the world. This memoir, like Metatwabin’s, can be tough going. Read it, as a person of colour, for the beauty of the language, and the fascinating interviews. Read it, if you are white, for those aforementioned good reasons, and to educate yourself about race politics, and (for one example), the questions you should never ask people of colour. Read it, everyone, to better understand and resist the constant pulse of racism around us—and to celebrate our common dreams and needs.
Upcoming Memoirs for 2021
Since I interviewed Donna Morrissey several years ago now, her memoir-in-progress has had a lot of different working titles. I won’t list them or you’ll be writing her publisher to champion one of the titles I heartily disliked! Joking—but trust me, Pluck will suit this memoir just right.
And perhaps not for the reason you are thinking. Of course Newfoundland-outport-born-and-raised Morrissey has the quality of pluck, in spades. Her upbringing wasn’t easy, for all that there seems to have been more love per square inch in her family than in most. Early loss and heartbreak was a part of that childhood, as were complications that come with life in a remote coastal area of Canada. More heartbreak came to the family with an accidental and early death, and due to that and other pressures, mental illness for Morrissey, which she courageously managed, and overcame.
No, pluck is perfect because somehow, it’s a Morrissey word. Morrissey loves language. She treats it with respect—and high humour and wit. Uncommonly used words always appear in her work. As a reader, you are aware of her Celtic roots in some of her word choices, and her Newfoundland origins in many others. Morrissey makes language dart and dance, lunge and leap, sing and soar—especially her dialogue. She has fun with her writing, which is always fun for a reader. So while I haven’t read Donna’s memoir yet—as no one has, beyond her editors—I can tell I will be first in line to purchase it. The elements I love in Morrissey’s fiction will be there in her nonfiction, I am certain, though the voice will be its own new creation.
Here are some other memoirs I recommend. With the exception of Lorna Crozier’s new memoir, all of these are included in the 12-page bibliography in Memoir: Conversations and Craft. They are dazzling works, all.
Through the Garden, Lorna Crozier
About the book: When Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane met at a poetry workshop in 1976, they had no idea that they would go on to write more than 40 books between them, balancing their careers with their devotion to each other, and to their beloved cats, for decades. Then, in January 2017, their life together changed unexpectedly when Patrick became seriously ill. Despite tests and the opinions of many specialists, doctors remained baffled. There was no diagnosis and no effective treatment plan. The illness devastated them both.
During this time, Lorna turned to her writing as a way of making sense of her grief and for consolation. She revisited her poems, tracing her own path as a poet along with the evolution of her relationship with Patrick. The result is an intimate and intensely moving memoir about the difficulties and joys of creating a life with someone and the risks and immense rewards of partnership. At once a spirited account of the past and a poignant reckoning with the present, it is, above all, an extraordinary and unforgettable love story.
Told with unflinching honesty and fierce tenderness, Through the Garden is a candid, clear-eyed portrait of a long partnership and an acknowledgement, a tribute, and a gift.
One Native Life, by Richard Wagamese
About the book: In 2005, award-winning writer Richard Wagamese moved with his partner to a cabin outside Kamloops, B.C. In the crisp mountain air Wagamese felt a peace he’d seldom known before. Abused and abandoned as a kid, he’d grown up feeling there was nowhere he belonged. For years, only alcohol and moves from town to town seemed to ease the pain.
In One Native Life, Wagamese looks back down the road he has travelled in reclaiming his identity and talks about the things he has learned as a human being, a man and an Ojibway in his fifty-two years. Whether he’s writing about playing baseball, running away with the circus, attending a sacred bundle ceremony or meeting Pierre Trudeau, he tells these stories in a healing spirit. Through them, Wagamese celebrates the learning journey his life has been.
Free of rhetoric and anger despite the horrors he has faced, Wagamese’s prose resonates with a peace that has come from acceptance. Acceptance is an Aboriginal principle, and he has come to see that we are all neighbours here. One Native Life is his tribute to the people, the places and the events that have allowed him to stand in the sunshine and celebrate being alive.
Heart Berries, by Terese Marie Mailhot
About the book: Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman's coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in British Columbia. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Bipolar II, Terese Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot's mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father—an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist—who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.
Mailhot "trusts the reader to understand that memory isn't exact, but melded to imagination, pain and what we can bring ourselves to accept." Her unique and at times unsettling voice graphically illustrates her mental state. As she writes, she discovers her own true voice, seizes control of her story and, in so doing, reestablishes her connection to her family, to her people and to her place in the world.
Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age, by Darrel J. McLeod
About the book: Growing up in the tiny village of Smith, Alberta, Darrel J. McLeod was surrounded by his Cree family’s history. In shifting and unpredictable stories, his mother, Bertha, shared narratives of their culture, their family and the cruelty that she and her sisters endured in residential school. McLeod was comforted by her presence and that of his many siblings and cousins, the smells of moose stew and wild peppermint tea, and his deep love of the landscape. Bertha taught him to be fiercely proud of his heritage and to listen to the birds that would return to watch over and guide him at key junctures of his life.
However, in a spiral of events, Darrel’s mother turned wild and unstable, and their home life became chaotic. Sweet and innocent by nature, Darrel struggled to maintain his grades and pursue an interest in music while changing homes many times, witnessing violence, caring for his younger siblings and suffering abuse at the hands of his surrogate father. Meanwhile, his sibling’s gender transition provoked Darrel to deeply question his own sexual identity.
The fractured narrative of Mamaskatch mirrors Bertha’s attempts to reckon with the trauma and abuse she faced in her own life, and captures an intensely moving portrait of a family of strong personalities, deep ties and the shared history that both binds and haunts them.
Beautifully written, honest and thought-provoking, Mamaskatch—named for the Cree word used as a response to dreams shared—is ultimately an uplifting account of overcoming personal and societal obstacles. In spite of the traumas of Darrel’s childhood, deep and mysterious forces handed down by his mother helped him survive and thrive: her love and strength stayed with him to build the foundation of what would come to be a very fulfilling and adventurous life.
Paper Shadows: A Chinatown Childhood, by Wayson Choy
About the book: In 1995, during the publicity tour for his much-acclaimed first novel, The Jade Peony, Wayson Choy received a mysterious phone call from a woman claiming to have just seen his mother on a streetcar. He politely informed the caller that she must be mistaken, since his mother had died long ago. “No, no, not that mother,” the voice insisted. “Your real mother.
Inspired by the startling realization that, like many children of Chinatown, he had been adopted, Choy constructs a vivid and moving memoir that reveals uncanny similarities between his award-winning first novel and the newly discovered secrets of his Vancouver childhood. From his early experiences with ghosts, through his youthful encounters with cowboys and bachelor uncles, to his discovery of family secrets that crossed the ocean from mainland China to Gold Mountain in the form of paper shadows, this is a beautifully wrought portrait of a child's world from one of Canada's most gifted storytellers.
Inside Memory: Pages from a Writer’s Notebook, by Timothy Findley
About the book: Inside Memory invites the reader to share Findley’s life and work. Drawing fromhis personal journal entries and eclectic reflections, recollections and even an out-take from one of his early novels, the award-winning author shares his extraordinary life with his readers.
From his early days as an actor in London’s West End, through to his transition to a writer, Findley entertains with the fascinating people and real life settings that have shaped his life. At the same time, he reveals the creative landscape of his mind and his work, a journey that shows how memory informs and infuses every aspect of his books. Above all, Findley tells great stories, showing once again that he is a true master of his craft.
Memoir opens doors we could never ordinarily walk through—into the lives of Olympians, queens, victims of war and other tragedies, teenage rock stars, former streetwalkers or geishas—along with the doors to the lives of extraordinary/ordinary people. The best memoirs are maps of the heart and mind, and Marjorie Simmins invites you to explore the map of your own life. Here are the probing questions and dynamic writing ideas, coupled with inspirational interviews with best-selling memoirists, to light your own imagination afire. How do you access the details of your earliest memories, make them immediate and dramatic? How do you drive the story forward? How do you make a stranger care about your life?
Memoir: Conversations and Craft is intended for any reader or writer who is fascinated by the renegade memoir form—personal life stories that demand to be read, refuse to be forgotten. Whether you wish to compile memories from childhood to share with grandchildren, or whether you burn with the makings of a literary memoir, this reflection on writing can galvanize you.
Donna Morrissey, Linden MacIntyre, Plum Johnson, Lawrence Hill, Edmund Metatawabin, Diane Schoemperlen, and Claire Mowat—some of Canada's top fiction and non-fiction writers—speak with candour, humour, and compassion about their journeys to memoir. Often touching, always helpful and frank, the interviews cover a broad spectrum of the writing experience. The time to write a memoir is always now—and the benefits are transformative.
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