Memoir Month: Maggie Gee and Beth Ann Fennelly

Women’s memoirs are bringing great comfort and inspiration to me at the moment, especially those of women writers. (To be honest, I seem to read very few memoirs by people who are not writers or dancers… and that has been the case since childhood.)

Maggie Gee: My Animal Life

Unusually for a writer, Maggie Gee focuses not so much on her interior life, but on what she calls her ‘animal life’ – the life of the body, the senses, sex and love, birth and parenthood, illness, aging – all the things which make Jinny in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves so irresistible.

Not to degrade my life, but to celebrate it. To join it, tiny though it is, to all the life in the universe. To the brown small-headed pheasant running by the lake in Coolham. To my grandparents and parents, and my great grandparents who like most people in the British Isles of their generation wore big boots, even for the rare occasions of photographs, and lived on the clayey land, and have returned their bones to it, joining the bones of cattle, horses and foxes.

Her accounts are frank and fresh, humorous and without an inflated ego. She is content with her husband, her daughter, her writing, but she constantly asks herself questions: How can we bear to lose those we love most? How do we recover from our mistakes? How do we forgive ourselves – and our parents? What do men want from women, what do women want from men? Why do we need art and why are we driven to make it? On the whole, she attempts to answer these through personal observations and reflections, acknowledging her luck but also detailing those near-misses. After a clear, deftly-rendered memory, she will often start a more general musing on the subject.

Above all, I enjoyed her observations about the life of a writer (creatives in general, but she singles out writers and storytellers in particular). For example, she describes how her writing career nearly derailed when she became too complacent. She admits that the literary world can feel like a jungle, that it is bowing down to commercial reality. Yet I like the way she refuses to be bitter about it – and seems to have a very kind word to say about book bloggers without an agenda other than sharing their love of books.

In the jungle, writers are opportunists. We are show-offs, trying to display our coats. We need to be the most beautiful and youthful, we need to have novelty, we need to have mates… If we fall, we must be sure to get up quickly, for if we lie there, bleeding, we will die down there… Of course, some good writers do well in the jungle… But it isn’t inevitable, it isn’t even normal. If you want to know where the best writers are, you can’t tell by reading the literary pages, or going to big bookshops, or looking at prize lists. You must read for yourself, and think for yourself, or listen to voices you know and trust: private readers: truth-tellers…

And then there is the work. Come back to that. Get up on the wire, walk the line in the sunlight. Breathe, concentrate, find the nerve.

Beth Ann Fennelly: Heating and Cooling. 52 Micro-Memoirs

If Maggie Gee is inspirational in terms of content, then the second memoir I read was inspirational in terms of form. Beth Ann Fennelly is in fact the Poet Laureate of Mississippi and these micro-memoirs (ranging in size from one sentence to 3-4 pages) are almost like prose-poems. Poignant observations, tiny vignettes, which make you suddenly see the world in a new way. The poet describes herself as being bad at remembering, so these memoirs come out higgledy-piggledy, some of them with addendums, some of them on topics she keeps coming back to (like Married Love). But of course that is all carefully and deliberately constructed.

She was recommended to me by poet Anne-Marie Fyfe, when I attended her workshop on the ‘Home Movie’ (writing about house and home). They are very funny and quirky, some seem just casual throwaway remarks, but they build up over the length of the book into something far more coherent and touching. Here are just three very short ones which I love:

I Knew a Woman

Everything she had was better than everything the rest of us had. Not by a lot. But by enough.

Mommy Wants a Glass of Chardonnay

If you all collected all the drops of days I’ve spent singing ‘Row, row, row your boat’ to children fighting sleep, you’d have an ocean deep enough to drown them many times over.

I Come From a Long Line of Modest Achievers

I’m fond of recalling how my mother is fond of recalling how my great-grandfather was the very first person to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge on the second day.

4 thoughts on “Memoir Month: Maggie Gee and Beth Ann Fennelly”

  1. Oh, those sound interesting, Marina Sofia. I like writers’ memoirs, too, as it gives me helpful perspectives on my own work as a writer. And these sound like well-written ones. Sometimes, too, I’ve read memoirs (even very good ones) that are quite bleak. It’s so nice to see that these are not that way. I can see how you’ve found comfort in them.

    1. I’ve been telling a member of my writing group who is very witty and full of life stories that she should try her hand at these micro-memoirs – such a great little form!

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