Memoir as Love Story

My best friend in college was devoted to romance novels. While I was busy analyzing Moby Dick and Their Eyes Were Watching God for American Lit., she was deep into Harlequin Romance territory. I don’t really know if they were Harlequins–I’d only flip through one occasionally, looking for the juicy parts–but I do know they could be purchased, and cheaply, at Walmart.

Other girls headed out to parties (we did that sometimes, too), but plenty of Friday nights would find us at Walmart, hunting for my friend’s next love story near the checkout lines. I can understand(ish) the appeal of the stories. I love love. Though I’ve never been drawn to read–or even watch–what we typically think of as love stories. (Embarrassing fact: this American woman right here has yet to ingest a sugary Hallmark Christmas movie. Will meet-cute elude me again this year?)

In my MFA program in fiction, we did have to write a piece of erotica, but that’s just the juicy parts, and not necessarily a love story. We writers in the literary vein do hear, often, that our stories are depressing. They are about love, of course. But they’re often also about loss and longing, and maybe redemption provides some resolution. But literary stories usually don’t conclude with a syrupy, happily-ever-after kiss staged in a small-town gazebo where the shy but hunky townie in a flannel shirt embraces the big city girl with the sharp tongue and even sharper stilettos–in gently falling snow. Unless maybe it’s satire.

Of course, there’s much more to love stories–real and imagined–than romantic love. You remember: philía, éros, and agápe, or brotherly or sisterly love, romantic love, and unconditional love. And while we might not think of the memoir as a genre of love stories, I argue that it is just that.

I hadn’t read much memoir before starting this blog four years ago. But blogging is good training in writing (and reading) mini memoirs. And my mission to delve into the literature of my native Rust Belt place led me to more memoirs than I could count (or read or review, but I try!).

They are different, all the memoirs I’ve discussed here at the blog, but each and every one is a love story:

Oh, hey, why not start with the controversial guy? I was so confounded by Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (and adapted to film recently, to, shall we say, mixed reviews?) I noted right here, in the early-blog days, that I read it, but I didn’t review it. I’m sure on a second pass, I would find what I found on the first read: in a failed attempt to understand the people (and not just demographic statistics) of his native place, J.D. Vance fell in love with himself in this memoir, and not in a self-actualizing, come-to-Jesus kind of way; but in a self-aggrandizing, come-to-J.D. kind of way.

On the other end of things, David Giffels is a writer who is incredibly in tune with the place he comes from–and his place in it. So much so that The New York Times called him “the bard of Akron”–Akron being Ohio’s “Rubber City,” for, ahem, rubber and tire manufacturing, a la Goodyear. Through his essays, including those in The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches from the Rust Belt, David falls in love with his hometown over and over. In memoir, including his All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House and Furnishing Eternity, he lets us readers share in his complicated and often funny family life–and love.

In Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood (no relation, except as inspiration for my blog name!), Paul Hertneky’s stories of childhood and young adulthood in steel-country Pennsylvania give the reader a glimpse into “America’s blue-collar heart.” In delving into his personal past, the memoirist allows us to explore the roots of the author and the roots of the Rust Belt’s industrial rise and fall–and fall in love with a storied American past.

Amy Jo Burns’ Cinderland is a coming of age memoir in which the memoirist invites the reader into a burning secret of her past, childhood abuse that caused her pain and grief. In her essays, too, the author delves into the false notion of the female as “a body for consumption.” As I’ve come to know Amy Jo, more, through her writing and online conversation–I see her work in memoir as getting to the burning heart of self-love as first love. (And if you haven’t read Amy Jo’s novel, Shiner, one of my favorite books of the year, what are you waiting for?)

In Sonja Livingston’s memoirs and essays, the author lets us in on her journey of the spirit. It comes down to faith–not doctrinal, but “raw” faith, the faith that draws us forward from the heart into the unknown. In Ghostbread, the author lovingly revisits her childhood, growing up in poverty in Rochester, New York. In The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, she undergoes an external journey to find the missing statue of the Virgin Mary from her childhood parish; at the same time, she looks inward, as many of us (try to) do at this time of year, especially. The love of the journey is palpable–sensual and real–in all this writer’s works.

Which brings me to my current read. Eliese Colette Goldbach’s Rust is a memoir of an unlikely Cleveland steelworker, who comes to reclaim the hometown she’d always meant to leave behind. It’s also a memoir exploring the female body politic–writ large on society and small on one woman, struggling to find hope. I won’t spoil it, because I’m hoping Eliese will talk with us here at the blog. But this memoir is a love story if I’ve ever read one.

So, tell me, what’s your favorite love story? What’s your favorite memoir? Do you write memoir, yourself? Share in the comments. I love to get a good discussion going!

Interested in more Rust Belt author interviews? See here. Are we social? Find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark

ALL THE WAY HOME and the back- and heart-breaking art of the DIY

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I was sixteen before I knew a dad who didn’t drive a pickup truck.

Of course, this speaks as much to my limited teenage powers of observation as it does to my rural Ohio upbringing. Still…

My dad’s life was–and is–in his truck. A dad without a truck? How else would one: haul his 84 Lumber finds to turn the attic into proper living quarters;  bring home fresh-split logs–and the log-splitter–to stoke the wood stove in winter; tow a rotted shell of a boat to be restored from the ribs up–in the workshop designed and built yourself.

In my eyes, my dad was the original DIY-er, before that catchy name was put to skillful industriousness, craftsmanship, and thrift.

As such…reading award-winning Akron, Ohio, author David Giffels’ memoir All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House felt like going home. Cursory jacket copy summary:

With their infant son in tow, David Giffels and his wife comb the environs of Akron, Ohio, in search of just the right house for their burgeoning family…until they spot a beautiful, decaying Gilded Age mansion. A former rubber industry executive’s domain, the once grand residence lacks functional plumbing and electricity, leaks rain like a cartoon shack, and is infested with all manner of wildlife. But for a young man at a coming-of-age crossroads–“suspended between a perpetual youth and an inevitable adulthood”–the challenge is exactly the allure.

The tried-and-true tropes of female coming-of-age couldn’t be more different than those Giffels explores in this man vs. house tale. But in the reading of this heartfelt and oftentimes harrowing (as in Giffels hanging upside down out a second-story window to paint exterior trim) memoir, I completely understood his feeling compelled–even obsessed–to DIY.

Read more

Interview with award-winning author and journalist David Giffels

David Giffels headshot 2017

We are where we come from—and where we choose to make our home. For David Giffels, that’s one in the same: Akron, Ohio, Rubber Capital of the World, where he grew up and now lives, teaches, and writes. The Hard Way on Purpose: Essays and Dispatches From the Rust Belt (2014) is his fourth book, following his 2008 memoir, All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House. His new memoir, Furnishing Eternity, came out January 2, and I will be talking with David about it soon, right here!

In 2017, I spoke with David about Northeast Ohio’s brand of funny, fellow Akron native Lebron James, why the hard way is the best way, his latest book—and more.

David — In The Hard Way on Purpose, you use humor to great effect. You call Akron “the Ralph Malph of the American industrial belt.” With your identity so closely tied to the place, when the place gets beaten up—nearby Cleveland is “the mistake on the Lake” to many still—do you take it personally? Do you deflect with humor?

It’s part of the culture here to laugh at ourselves. When you’re in any culture that’s been misunderstood, degraded, or used as the punchline to a joke, one of your defense mechanisms is to get to the punchline, first. Most Rust Belt cities—but especially this area—have a long tradition of this kind of humor. Here, a lot of people have traced it back to Ghoulardi, a 60s late-night B-movie horror host on local TV. He had this dark, ironic, anti-authoritarian sense of humor that influenced a lot of the people who’ve become our local cultural spokes-heroes: bands Devo, The Cramps, and Pere Ubu; and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. There’s a certain kind of homeliness to where we live, and instead of being ashamed of it, you can make fun of it—and be a part of it, too.

How did you learn to write funny?

I guess it partly comes from having two parents who had really good senses of humor. I don’t know if I learned how to do it. One of my first professional jobs was writing for MTV’s Beavis and Butthead. I learned a lot from that. I talk about this in my new book: I was writing these clever-sounding lines, but it was not working. I was trying to be the Noel Coward of MTV. And show creator Mike Judge said, “Just make it stupid.” It was a great piece of advice. A lot of humor writing comes from letting down your guard, letting things roll.

the hard way on purpose cover-1

You were a newspaper columnist before becoming a professor of creative writing and an author, and you wrote about Cleveland sports teams. One of the essays in The Hard Way on Purpose focuses on fellow Akron native, Lebron James. I have to ask, how do you like Lebron now? Read more