Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 26, 2017

Memoirs That Change Us

I’m drawn to the heartbreak of memoirs – the beautiful stories writers tell of their own messy lives and regrets. Lots of famous people write memoirs (or have them written), but I love the memoirs written by excellent writers, a.k.a. literary memoirs. Reading of their quests for joy and meaning, we’re fortified to work harder at the same quest. Reading of their attempts at atonement, we find the need to face our own checkered narratives more honestly. In fact, one common thread noted by several memoirists interviewed for Meredith Maran’s 2016 book, Why We Write About Ourselves – is that a successful memoir must pay heed to the old adage of a fiction writer: “Be twice as hard on the narrator as you are on everyone else.” In your memoir, the narrator is yourself.

Some favorites of mine in the literary memoir category include the following – all very highly recommended by many other writers and in no particular order:

The Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard (1998)
Dear Mr. You, by Mary-Louise Parker (2015)
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed (2012)
The Tender Bar, by J. R. Moehringer (2006)
Stop-Time, by Frank Conroy (1965) – (often cited as the model for the contemporary memoir)
Just Kids, by Patti Smith (2010)
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, by Nick Flynn (2004)
An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard (1987)

One I’ll add to the top of the list is the new book by Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. In this gut-wrenching memoir, Alexie lays bare his many wounds and doubts as he reflects on his mother’s recent death and on his life as a “rez” kid – poor, ugly, often neglected and taunted. He struggles to accept his own choice to leave the reservation as a teenager, and he agonizes over the possibility that his mother didn’t love him . . . or that he didn’t love her. Half written in prose and half in poetry, Alexie artfully weaves memories with mature reflection as he moves – we hope – toward reconciliation.

Alexie recently announced he was cutting short his book tour due to a deepening despair and depression. Adding to his decision were signs from his mother that he should stop discussing the book with others and just go home, suggesting she was offended by his words and actions. As an indigenous man, Alexie believes in the power of the spirit world and dreams; a visitation from his mother one night in a dream – with her holding up a stop sign – was the final straw. He explained in a Facebook post, “As I write in the memoir, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time. As I also write in the memoir, I don’t believe in magic, but I believe in interpreting coincidence exactly the way you want to.”

Reading about Sherman Alexie’s dream experience called to mind a dream I had about my own mother just 2-3 years ago. It was one of those brief but powerfully vivid dreams – giving me a memory that seems now as real and powerful as any memory of reality. I’ve tried in vain to write a poem about the dream, but after reading Alexie’s book, I’ve decided that the Japanese hybrid form of haibun is what it calls for. Haibun uses a descriptive paragraph followed by haiku to capture the sum of an experience.


My Mother Speaks to Me in a Dream

In my car one night, you’re on the phone with Dad, just hanging up. Hurry home, you tell me. He’ll be there by eight o’clock. As if our being there depended on it. It’s dark in the car, and you’re wearing your brown coat and a scarf on your head, like you always did in the winter. Your urgency tugs at me – yes, I’ll get going, get home quickly. But you’ve been gone more than thirty years now, and you’ve never seen a cell phone let alone used one, so I become aware that I am dreaming. In this dream I have become the mother, now older than you ever were. Tell me, where is this home you speak of, where my father will be waiting? You hold the phone in your two hands and stare out at the road ahead, face softly lit by the dashboard lights, your mission clear. And then you are gone.


your voice in the dark
return, return, you implore
the urgent speed of years



  1. I love this piece. How you ever found the way to bridge the dream to real momentŠwow. Great share.

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