A Window into a Life

Today’s guest is Eileen Obser.  She has been teaching creativeObser - cropped writing courses for twenty years. Her stories and personal essays have been published in a number of major newspapers and national magazines, including Newsday, and Ms. Magazine. Her memoir, Only You, covering her teenage years, was Published by Oak Tree Press last year.  She lives and teaches on the east end of Long Island, in East Hampton, New York.  Okay, Eileen.  You’re on.

I am delighted to be Jim’s guest blogger this week and wish to write here about memoirs.

As a memoirist, and as a teacher of memoir and personal essay for over 20 years, I find so much pleasure in my work. My adult writing students, ages 18–90, constantly surprise me and often, themselves, at memories of the past that they can summon up during our workshops. Whether tapping into happy or unpleasant scenes from their childhoods or later on, sharing these reminisces brings them a great deal of satisfaction.  Revealing traumatic experiences can often cause a calming effect or lead to a path of healing.  I’m thinking now of powerful, well-known memoirs such as The Liar’s Club, The Glass Castle, and Angela’s Ashes, to name just a few, whose authors were able to rise above the sufferings of their youth.

Frank McCourt, in the famously quoted second paragraph of his book, writes,  “When I look back on my childhood, I wonder how I survived at all.” Of his miserable Irish upbringing, we read, “You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace.” And, “It’s lovely to know the world can’t interfere with the inside of your head.”

While I encourage students to read these and many other memoirs, I don’t expect them to write whole books or best sellers. Nor do I push them to go down so deep into the tragic parts of their lives if it could cause them harm now, in the present.

My own memoir, Only You, set in my teenage years and encompassing, obser -View 1 Only You Oak Tree coverreally, the first 20 years of my life, was written over many years, starting when I was in my late 40s. I went as deeply as I felt comfortable, satisfying my need and desire to reveal myself, without exaggerating or exhibiting self-pity. Again, it was a slow process. As I grew older, the painful memories, along with the happy ones, became more understandable. I could be much more objective in relating them to the reader.

I’m very pleased that my family, and friends from the teenage years, have read the book and complimented me for writing it, for capturing so many memories this way. Not one person faulted me for “overdoing” it, or for hurting anyone’s feelings with the story.

Certain students make me proud because they are indeed taking it slow and writing strong memoirs that they share in our workshops. “Keep going,” I tell them – we all tell them. Let us know more. And so they continue, fulfilling their needs to write and, at the same time, to communicate their life experiences with us, their readers and colleagues.

A quote from William Zinsser, the author of On Writing Well and Writing about Your Life, among other books: “Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition. It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate construction.”

And from Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird and, most recently, Small Victories): “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

What’s your story, I wonder? And have you started writing it?

Eileen’s website: www.eileenobser.com

See Only You on amazon.com

Follow  Eileen on Facebook

 JIM:  If you want to share a particular memory from your early life, feel free to put it in a comment.   AND, don’t forget to “like” or “Share” this page.  Thanks.


8 thoughts on “A Window into a Life

  1. I’ve written a few short stories that encompass things from my life, but that’s about as far as I go with writing about memories. Some of the events from family stories have found their way into my novels (maybe even somewhat exaggerated) but a story about me hiding my toys in the dirt (as a toddler) became the original idea for the story when I started writing Black Cat’s Legacy. Thanks for bringing the subject to the forefront, Eileen. Good blog subject.

  2. I cannot wait to read Only You. Eileen has encouraged me to write about a piece of my life, which has greatly influenced my thinking about memoir. It doesn’t have to be a life story. It can simply be a harrowing couple years! I am piecing it together by writing it as letters to Eileen. It works for me!

  3. I can testify that Eileen is a good and honest and brave memoirist, and Only You is a book well worth reading. I’ve taught memoir writing myself, and I would recommend Only You to anybody who wants to see how it’s done right.

  4. Wonderful that people can write about their lives and perhaps heal themselves of tragedies. I enjoyed this interview and maybe it will help me finally write my own memoir, which I’ve put off for years. Thanks.

    • There’s never enough time (sigh). As a writer, you know this so well. Please, Velda, just make that time for yourself — it’s such a gratifying experience. Thanks for responding here.

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