Archive for April, 2012

Memoir and Me

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

I can’t quite believe that five years (and a month) have passed since I resigned my position as a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer to begin a new life as a self-employed writer from home. (Please resist the image of me lounging in bathrobe and slippers.) The transition was surprisingly easy, considering I had spent the previous 20-odd years nonstop in one newsroom or another. Part of the reason was that I had a project I was passionate about — my second book, The Longest Trip Home. The day after leaving the Inquirer, I got started, but I soon found that writing from home was full of hazards. If my family was home, I couldn’t focus. If I was home alone, I…couldn’t focus. I felt restless, all too tempted to kill time on emails, Facebook, music and a thousand other distractions.

That’s when I discovered Linderman Library at Lehigh University, about a 15-minute drive from my house. It’s a stately old building that feels like it came straight off a Harry Potter movie set: massive stone walls, soaring turrets, leaded glass windows, oak beams and brass chandeliers. But it had something more: a quiet, focused energy that worked for me. I found a corner table and started writing — and didn’t stop until I had a completed manuscript. I’ve been going back ever since.

Which is a long way of saying that I am now teaching a class at the university. I call it “Memoir and Me” — I can’t resist a bad play on words — and the focus is first-person narrative nonfiction writing. My belief is if you want to write you need to read, and I’ve loaded up my students with a fairly heavy memoir list, including some of my personal favorites: Angela’s Ashes, A Walk in the Woods, The Glass Castle, Comfort, The Year of Magical Thinking, Growing Up. I can tell my students find the weekly reading onerous on top of the writing they are required to turn in, but it’s hard to read these great narrative accounts and not fall in love with the magic of a story well told. A couple of these book — A Walk in the Woods and Angela’s Ashes — inspired me deeply while I wrote Marley & Me.

The class is winding down, in its final month, and I’m happy to report that the art and craft of narrative writing is alive and well in the halls of Coppee Hall, Lehigh’s journalism building. My students, many graduating seniors, have moved me with their words…words about death and friendship, loyalty and betrayal, love and hurt, mistakes and lessons learned.

I’m the teacher, and I hope they are learning something. But what they do not know is that they are teaching me, as well. It’s a two-way street, as it should be.

Anyway, here is a piece Lehigh posted on its website this week about the class:

Or, and it is the fourth item down on the left.