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Memoir writing and a review of Your Life as Story by Tristine Ranier

Perhaps, instead of writing fiction, you may have discovered–much to your horror–that your writing is taking more of an autobiographical slant. You’re not alone. Since Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes hit the scene the rise in memoir writing has been striking. Military memoir, long a domain of autobiographical writing, is seeing a new surge of war memoirs crash across our shores written by soldiers fighting in Iraq.

If writing a memoir ranks near the top of your to-do list, then Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story is a must-read. Tristine Rainer, director of the Center for Autobiographic Studies and faculty member of the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of California’s College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, brings a lot to the table as a storyteller and writer. If you seek to learn from life, understand the lessons from the past, gain some knowledge of yourself, discover meaning in your moments, Your Life as Story can serve as a guide through the labyrinth known as your life.

"Imagine you could trace your course through time and space as an astronomer tracks a planet’s orbit or a comet’s path. Imagine you could get back far enough to see the shape of your life."–Tristine Ranier

This is the opening and the promise of Rainer’s book on the new autobiography, today’s memoir. Not only does Rainer present a practical and thorough guide to lead you through the process of sifting through and shaping thousands of shards of memories, she prepares you for the accompanying gleaning and ensuing grappling process that is bound to surface when delving into the past to “make up” the truth of a life.

I’ve been a fan of Rainer’s work ever since the late 70s when I stumbled across her classic The New Diary written with Anais Nin. In 1997 I realized she’d written a new book, one focused on the emerging memoir writing, and I hit the bookstore with a vengeance. She did not disappoint me. This is not a book of simple exercises. It is not a small book. This is a book to be read, reread, devoured, and thoughtfully digested and used. Whether the life story is your own or a relative’s, or even that of a historical figure, adding the information found throughout the pages of this book will only add to your understanding and ultimately enhance the writing process. Rainer’s nine essential elements of story structure, her understanding of the definition of story, even her examination of the slippery definition of truth in autobiographic writing—creative nonfiction, as it is often called—are discussions relevant to most contemporary writers. The appendices contain suggestions for forming a memoir writing group, the pursuit of publication, and a treasure of a bibliography of autobiographic and critical works on memoir.

Whether your impulse is for personal and private revelation or ultimately for public consumption, detecting the arc of your personal story can be a rewarding experience. Rainer also offers up a historical banquet of autobiographical writing from contemporary writers that include Maya Angelou, Russell Baker, and Carolyn See to the early Egyptian inscriptions. Have our ideas about who writes autobiographies changed? Although Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography remains in print and is given new life each and every generation, Rainer’s position is that everyone’s life has a story and a unique meaning. The problem is that most of us don’t know where to begin.

Your Life as Story is a thoughtful discussion on the subject of memoirs and provides a useful guide complete with exercises designed to detect life’s stories. Rainer’s unique combination of skills and knowledge culled from a lifelong passion of storytelling whether in fiction, nonfiction, or film inform the storytelling principles that permeate every page. This book lives on my reference shelf within easy reach—even today, eight years after my initial reading—and continues to fulfill its promise.

Note: This review is cross-posted at where you can find my other book reviews.

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  • Georganna Hancock

    Thank you for bringing this book to our attention and for reviewing it. I’ll have to investigate it for use in my memoirs class. I’ve always told students (of all types of writing) that “everyone has a story”. Most of the time it’s our job as a writer to tell someone else’s story, but occasionally we are lucky enough to get to tell our own.