Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

24 books in 28 days

Filed in Books, Writing :: February 1, 2010

It's nearly thesis defense showtime.  If you've got 28 days, I've got 24 books to read and think about. 

The most recent draft of my memoir has been distributed to my committee members (3 brilliant writer/ scholar/teachers) and to the graduate school (the associate dean who read it called to tell me she liked it).  My MFA thesis defense is scheduled for March 2, four weeks from tomorrow.

During February, I'll be taking a break from editing to read and/or re-read the 24 books on my reading list, which I posted here if you want to take a look, in preparation for the defense.  I'll be thinking about memoir as a genre, how my book fits into it, which books influenced my writing and which I should should remember during my next revision.


Penelope Trunk wrote a great post last week called "Being an expert takes time, not talent."  The whole thing is worth reading, but there are two points important to what I'm doing in February. 

The first is what it takes to be an expert: "[Y]ou need to work every single day at being great at that one thing if you want to be great."  I want to be an expert on memoir, particularly writing it, so for the past couple of years I've been reading and reading and writing and writing, and for the next month I'm going to focus every single day on reading and thinking about memoir.

The second point is the importance of teachers.  Unlike the voices Virginia Woolf warned against and I reminded myself to guard against in my last post, my teachers have encouraged me to be true to my vision and tell my story as fully and vividly as I possibly can.  Penelope Trunk writes about another function of teachers, and other ways to get what we need in order to become experts: "It turns out that the teacher isn't the important [thing] per se, but rather, what you need is immediate, helpful feedback.  And this is what you get when you have a blog.  So maybe I am still on my path to being an expert, and I'm just crowdsourcing my coaching."

When I read Trunk's post, I thought, well, I have a blog.  Maybe I could write here about the 24 books on my list in the 28 days before my defense.  24 books in 28 days.  I won't be writing reviews or summaries, but I'll be working toward being an expert in memoir, trying to see my work as fitting into the tradition of other memoirs, and the books themselves and the readers of this blog will be my teachers.

I hope you'll tell me in the comments where I'm getting it and where my thinking needs adjustment. 

Filed in Books, Writing


  1. whollyjeanne

    bring it on. i look forward to it. was once a personal historian and workshop facilitator. since grad school, i’ve switched to personal memoir and stories (as in my own). am really looking forward to that 3-way conversation on all things memoir. have longtime been a student of memoir and own many of the same books on your list. so i’ll close the way i began: bring it on. i look forward to it.

  2. Penelope Trunk

    I spent a lot of time trying to be an expert on writing about my life. So this post makes me think a lot about that — what goes into making someone great at memoir. I think something that made a big impact on me was studying storytelling structure, rather than studying memoir per se. Because memoir is really about the reconstructing of memories, so it’s an inherently non-linear act, being stuffed into a linear format. Some books that really helped me to think about structure are:
    The Pleasure of the Text – Barthes
    Hopscotch – Cortezar
    Moby Dick – Melville
    Good luck with your month-long reading adventure!

  3. Shirley

    I am posting a blog post on your challenge to yourself. Wonderful idea! I am trolling for lists, syllabi, and great author suggestions on memoir. Thanks for adding to the resources I hope to offer others. Hope you get a lot of new traffic. And all best on the defense. My guess is that you will pass with flying colors. All best!!!
    Another excellent grief memoir is Kate Braestrup’s Here if You Need Me. I reviewed it at

  4. Jerry Waxler

    I read Shirley’s blog post about your challenge and stopped by to wish you well. What a lovely community we have the ability to build “here” in internet space.I’ve written about quite a few memoirs over the last almost 3 years, too. It’s a wonderful thing to become an expert at memoirs, because it means you are well on the way to becoming an expert at life.
    Memory Writers Network

  5. Lindsey

    Wow – I am so delighted to have found your blog. I’m an avid memoir reader and an aspiring memoir writer (though nowhere near as far along as you are).
    Your reviews of books are gorgeous. I look forward to reading more of your words. I just tonight published my review of Devotion, Dani Shapiro’s new memoir, which I cannot praise highly enough.