Book recommendations and writing tips from the writer of Notes to Self and Ruth and Pen
I’m delighted to share three books that have helped shape me as a writer – and as a person.
These books are by women writers who do not apologise for putting difficult emotions onto paper, or for publishing them, or for sharing things that are usually silenced. Instead, these authors use their experience and skill as writers to understand the world and to open it up for others. While these books have been useful to me as a writer, most of all they have moved me as a reader – making me feel less alone, making me feel part of another’s life, and also making me realise that other people do not have it all figured out. We are all a little lost. And all we can do is keep going, keep reading, keep writing.
Are You Somebody? by Nuala O’Faolain
I read Are You Somebody? by Nuala O’Faolain when I was a student and I could not believe that someone had written my life.
To be clear, my life is nothing like Nuala O’Faolain’s. Yet something about this autobiography made me feel understood – made me feel seen, I guess we’d say now. I had never before read a woman writing with such emotional and physical honesty about her abusive family and neglected upbringing, her passionate but destructive engagement with life, alcohol and men, and her reliance on a love of reading and writing as a path through the chaos. O’Faolain writes with devastating candour about the grim realities of waking up hungover and alone. But she also writes with great beauty about discovering a world of travel and poetry and laughter. Most of all, on the page she is entirely herself – no apologies. If there is one thing I could wish for any writer, it is this: be yourself, fully yourself, only yourself.
The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum
In 2016 I was starting to write about my own life, and wondering what I dared to put out into the world. I had two stories in my head – the no-holds-barred version and the edited-made-nice version that I thought people might want to read.
And then I read The Unspeakable, an essay collection by Meghan Daum. In the collection’s first essay ‘Matricide’, Daum writes about her mother’s death – specifically, about when her mother was in end-of-life care at home for gallbladder cancer. Not wanting to pay another month’s rent on her apartment, Daum and her brother – watched over by disapproving hospice nurses – began to pack up their mother’s belongings while she was still dying. When I read this essay, I could not believe that Daum would admit publicly to having done this, and that alongside this confession she would also write about all the mixed emotions that went with her mother’s dying from love to resentment to anger. It was electrifying. It was, I felt, incredibly courageous. And I resolved that if Daum could do it, then I could too. I binned the edited-made-nice version.
The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
By the end of 2017, I had most of a manuscript and, following the rules I’d learned from O’Faolain and Daum, this first draft was pretty hard to read (as it had been to write). One friend read what I’d written about my father and said it was very ‘dark’. Around this time, I read an essay by Ariel Levy in the New Yorker magazine, which was later published as part of her memoir The Rules Do Not Apply. In ‘Thanksgiving in Mongolia’ Levy writes about the birth and death of her son. This resonated with me as I had written about my own miscarriages and also the stillbirth of my niece, Elena. What I found so wonderful about Levy’s writing was that she conveyed not only the heartbreak of her son’s loss, but also her joy at his existence, even though he only lived for a short time. This was another lesson (as O’Faolain’s book had been too) in the practice of allowing for beauty as well as trauma.
What both Daum and Levy also gave me, of course, was a love of the essay as a form. I had been an academic for a long time before turning to memoir, so I was already familiar with writing essays – but in an academic style. I loved discovering how this short form of non-fiction could also be a powerful genre for writing about yourself. Each essay gives enough space for just one thing, gone into deeply, and then an ‘out’ before anyone gets bored. Or maybe a better way of putting it is that the essay is an ideal space to reflect on a moment or an emotion with the hope that by the end of writing (or reading) something will have shifted or changed or switched. It’s a lot to put on a small piece of writing, this hope for alchemy. But sometimes this magic happens, and it is beautiful.
The relationship between reading & writing
One of the gifts of writing about my own life has been the opportunity to take control of the narrative. I say ‘take control’ though of course, there are limits – I can’t change what happened. But I can change my relationship to what happened, by deciding what parts of the story I want to tell. It’s like taking ownership of the experience, which is important even if – or maybe especially if – the experience has been difficult.
Sometimes we cannot find a happy ending to the stories that make up our lives. It still surprises me, but I have found that happiness can come in trying to make work that is meaningful.
But I know that it is all too easy to say, ‘Write what is true’.
It takes courage to actually do it.
Sometimes what we need is to read our way into courage.
These three books are some of the many which have inspired me not just with their skill and beauty, but also because the writers take risks. When they write about all the messy and difficult stuff in their lives, they reveal who they really are. That is brave.
If you’re thinking about writing your own life, I say ‘Go for it’. And then I have my final piece of advice: Remember that you do not have to show it to anyone else. It can be meaningful – and brave – just to write it for yourself.
Emilie Pine, January 2023