How We Spend Our Days: Abigail Thomas

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer … Continue reading

how we got here from there

IMG_2110I don’t write memoir. But I like the way Abigail Thomas writes, the way she tells the truth. “My truth doesn’t travel in a straight line, it zigzags, detours, doubles back. Most truths I have to learn over and over again.”

I got hooked on the truth in her fiction first, Getting Over Tom, An Actual Life, and Herb’s Pajamas–the last two are little hardback squares. I loved Safekeeping, her first memoir. Its short sections are a concrete example of her life zigzagging and doubling back, the many truths of herself.

Thinking About Memoir is another little book. A rectangle instead of a square. Thomas writes, IMG_2175“Memories survive on a wisp of a fragrance, or a particular shade of blue…” Then a phrase you’re probably sick of me using, but oh, then I really knew I was in: “This is… about letting one thing lead to another. Follow the details.” She concludes the two-page preface with this,”Memoir is the story of how we got here from there.”  And this story is fascinating whether you write fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or memoir.IMG_2172

She writes, “Be sure to include what you can’t make fit neatly into your idea of yourself, or whatever it is that ruffles the smooth surface of your life story.” This may be the most important thing I’m taking from this book at this moment. Nothing is supposed to be perfect. Let the messy real show through.

The only book of hers I have not read is Three Dog Life, a memoir of her husband’s brain injury. In an article published on June 20, 2009, Marion Winik recounts a moment in that book where  Thomas writes about being accused of “stealing a memory.” “Is memory property?” Abigail Thomas asks. “If two people remember something differently, is one of them wrong?”

IMG_2174And here in this book she adds, “Memory seems to be an independent creature inspired by event, not faithful to it…” I can just imagine this little creature up in my brain somewhere, in a little cave with a kodak instamatic and a pen and a pencil, maybe some file cabinets, doing the best he can to keep track of everything, and interrupted yet again as I get a whiff of  something sweet. His long, floppy ears perk up, and off he goes, scurrying around, eventually delivering summer camp in Vermont, walking to the stables.

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IMG_2110Some of you may have noticed that on the Reading List page, I’ve been adding how I chose the book or books I’m currently reading. Well, the story of how I chose Abigail Thomas’ Thinking About Memoir seemed too long to add on that page.

Talk about one thing leading to another….

Because of listening to the CD that came with The Writer’s Notebook , I wanted to know if I was at Tin House when they recorded the panel. So I got out my notes. And yes, I have notes from that panel in 2005. I think it was during that panel that Abigail Thomas was sitting right behind me. But that would be too coincidental. Memory is so weird. Anyway, she was at Tin House either that year or the year before, or both.

When I was there in 2004, I was taking a workshop with Dorothy Allison. In class, Dorothy had us do one of Abigail Thomas’ writing exercises (which happens to be in this book). So rereading my notes, I had Abigail on the brain. I went to her website and saw that she had a new book out. I’ve read her three novels and one other memoir by her.

A few hours later, I was in Barnes & Noble buying summer reading for my 15-year-old (I wanted to). When I turned around, Abigail’s adorable little book was staring at me. I picked it up and it felt just right in my hands at 7 1/2 by 4 1/2 inches and a 1/2 inch thick.

This chain of events meant I was supposed to buy it, right?

Anyway, I’m on page 52, and it’s great. More of substance later.

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some people buy shoes (a prequel)


my latest purchases

I buy books.

I used to feel guilty that I didn’t use the library, but no longer. I look at it this way. By buying a book I’m supporting a writer. If I buy from an independent bookstore, I’m supporting them as well. It’s an investment in what I believe in, with something in it for me.

The thrill of opening a package from Powell’s or Amazon. Or just bringing a bag home from Barnes and Noble, our only local bookstore–reaching in to pull out the books. I run my hand over the smooth cover, breathe in the smell of paper and ink, flip through the carefully printed and as yet unmarked pages.

In March I had to change planes in Paris on my way to Positano, Italy, for the Sirenland Writers Conference. I was sitting next to a 10-year-old boy. As we circled Paris preparing to land, we caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower (which I’ve seen many times since I lived in France for a year), but I don’t know who was more excited–the little boy or me. Every time I see the Eiffel Tower, I’m as excited as I was the first time. That’s the way it is with a new book.

Hence the problem of shelving.

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