book review

Review: “Living to Tell the Tale” by Jane McDonnell

McDonnell, Jane Taylor. Living to Tell the Tale: A Guide to Writing Memoir 
Penguin, 1998
Paperback, 161 pages
ISBN 0-14-026530-9

Jane Taylor McDonnell is the mother of an autistic child. When she set out to write a memoir about her experience, she found there were no instruction manuals on how to write what she calls “crisis memoirs.” Living to Tell the Tale: A Guide to Writing Memoir is aimed at survivors interested in writing their own crisis memoirs:

Writing is a second chance at life. Although we can never go back in time to change the past, we can reexperience, interpret, and make peace with our past lives. When we write a personal narrative we find new meanings and, at the same time, we discover connections with our former selves. I think all writing constitutes an effort to establish our own meaningfulness, even in the midst of sadness and disappointment. In fact, writing sometimes seems to me to be the only way to give shape to life, to complete the process which is merely begun by living. 

(p. 1)

A flexible form of writing, memoir can combine the techniques of fiction with essay writing, the personal with the public dimensions of an experience, and the documentary account with poetic and evocative recreations of experience. A dramatic story can be told, but there is also room for reflection on memory and the imagination and on the creation of a sense of self in the world. 

(p. 14)

McDonnell first discusses how to discover significant memories with chapters such as “`Spots of Time’: Learning to Remember” and “Using Photographs and Other Documentary Evidence.” Then she deals with the actual writing of the memoir in “A Story in Search of Its Subject: How to Find Your Plot,” “The Self in the Story: Finding Your Voice,” and “To Tell or Not to Tell: Ethical Considerations in Writing a Memoir.”

Each chapter ends with writing exercises aimed at helping the reader develop the skills or explore the area that the chapter discusses. At the end of the book a section entitled “Recommended Reading” lists the titles of books (mostly personal narratives) that McDonnell has found helpful.

© 1998 by Mary Daniels Brown

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