We draw inspiration from our lives and also from our reading! In particular, as memoir writers, we can draw inspiration from reading memoirs written by others. This month, I’d like to feature memoir writer Michael Perry. He’s written several excellent memoirs (which I’ll list later), but this month I’d like to focus on his book, Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting.
What can we learn from Michael Perry? Well, for starters, notice how this memoir covers just one year in his life. This is the year that he and his new wife settled on a Wisconsin farm as they awaited the birth of their first child. The immediate family includes Michael, his pregnant wife Anneliese, her (now their) six year old daughter, Amy, and — by the end of the book — newborn baby Jane.
How can just one year’s experiences fill a 352-page book? Well, Perry is a master of description, as you’ll soon see in an excerpt. Also, he is a master of weaving the past into the present. So, there are many pages devoted to memories of his childhood, memories that often spring to mind in response to events happening in the present. Thus, as he settles into the new role of father, he reflects on his own father. As he ventures into raising livestock, he reflects on the farm life of his childhood. This is a great narrative technique for all us memoir writers. After all, don’t many memories emerge in the context of our current lives? And, how wonderful to weave them together into one beautiful tapestry.
Perry’s life is not always idyllic. Indeed, most of his memoirs include tragedy. But even when he is trying to heal a broken heart, he writes with a steady hand and eye. In this way, he no doubt inspires readers to face sorrow in their own lives while finding the strength to go on, gaining courage from those with whom we interact on a day-to-day basis.
Okay, enough with the heaviness. Let me turn to a lighthearted example from Coop. The following anecdote shows his humility and also shows how size can be written about through comparison, not just through inches or other official measurements:
“Not so long ago I stepped through the front door to find Amy in the middle of the kitchen unrolling a flag-sized poster of me. It was from a book tour stop somewhere back along the line. My visage was full-color and big as a cheese platter. Amy held the poster unfurled before her, and I admit I savored the moment right up until she turned and laid it face-up on the bottom of the guinea pig cage. I am well aware that on a scale of one to Britney, I peg the fame meter roughly three notches below the lieutenant governor of Maine, but even so this was a severe calibration. ‘WHAAAT?!?!?’ I said, theatrically feigning great dismay. Amy giggled and scattered wood chips over my gap-toothed mug.” (p. 161, paperback version)
And here’s an example of one of Perry’s memories of his childhood:
“In the winter, darkness fell well before supper. By the time I followed Dad out for the evening’s milking, Orion was climbing from his kiva in the woodlot behind the barn, and the clear night air was tin-pail cold against my nose. The barn windows glowed an opaque yellow, and during the walk I anticipated the bare-bulb interior, bright with all the naked incandescence reflecting off the whitewashed walls and rafters. When I pushed through the milk-house door and into the light, the warmth — a thick sachet of alfalfa and manure — rolled around me with such fullness I felt I could tug it to my shoulders like a quilt.” (p. 69, paperback version)
And, as promised, here’s a list of his other memoirs:
Population: 485 — Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time
Truck: A Love Story
Off MainStreet: Barnstormers, Prophets & Gatemouth’s Gator
I’ve read all but the last one (which is on my reading list), and Perry has earned a place as one of my favorite current authors.
I hope the excerpts above provide you with inspiration this month. Think about scenes from your own childhood when you felt a warmth that you could tug to your shoulders like a quilt. Or, think of an anecdote, like the one about the poster being used to line the guinea pig cage! Has there been a moment like that in your life, either recent or long ago, that humbled you even as it made you laugh? Finally, if invited to write about just one year of your life, which year would you choose?
Let us hear from you!