The word “memoir” is French for memory and is a genre of literature where the author writes about his or her memories. Not to be confused with a “autobiography” which is a more linear historical and factual version of one’s life, from beginning to end.
My first introduction to a memoir was my senior year of college – the summer of 1991 at Western Michigan University. My professor, Tom Bailey, assigned a reading and essentially a book report on A Country Year: Living the Questions by Sue Hubbell.
I was intrigued to know, even then – before my quest to promote all things Michigan – that Sue had been born and raised in Kalamazoo. She was Suzanne Gilbert then, a student at the Western Normal High School. She eventually landed in the Ozark Mountains where she was biding her time post-divorce as a beekeeper and writer. I felt an instant connection to her – not for her love of bees and nature (because at the time I had no interest in either) – but for her fiery independence and ability to not only survive but thrive in a rugged, gritty and isolated world.
I still have the paper I wrote that summer about Sue’s memoir – her first of eight books, which over time continued to capture and hold my attention. I wish that I had thought to contact her before her passing in 2018, to let her know how she inspired me and how today – 30+ years later – I am rereading her works with as much interest as that first time. Even today, I learned of another collection of essays published in 2004 which I had not heard about, a copy has been ordered and should be here by next week. I can’t wait!
In researching for my new book, about notable people with ties to Kalamazoo, I sent an email to an artist named Liddy Hubbell in Bar Harbor, Maine. She is married to Sue’s only child, Brian (a former member of the Maine House of Representatives). I received a reply from Liddy within about an hour and a message from Brian the following day, with answers to questions I had posed to him along with a lighthearted photo of Sue during her high school years. I had already uncovered her yearbooks and student newspapers through the archives at Western Michigan University, and all this new information thrilled me. I even shared my college paper with Brian and Liddy, I guess as some sort of proof of my longstanding interest in his mother’s work.
While I have no desire to live off the grid in the Ozarks (or anywhere), and while I have no inkling to learn how to use a chainsaw, fix a pick-up truck, find the beauty in bats or spiders, or tackle any number of tasks she mastered during her solo years in the mountains, I live vicariously through her writings and aspire to be the type of storyteller published in esteemed outlets like The New York Times.
My next memoir experience came as a recommendation from my friend Chris Byron, a historian, author and then librarian with the Grand Rapids Public Library, around 2007. It was a witty title called America’s Boy: A Southern Boy’s Triumph Over Husky Jeans, Beauty Queens, and Broken Dreams from a new author named Wade Rouse. Ironically, Wade was also from the Ozark region. Chris and I shared a love of Michigan – and part of my unwavering dedication to sharing the history of our fine state comes from spending time with Chris, and her husband, Tom Wilson.
Not long after I devoured America’s Boy, Chris and Tom invited me to join them at Saugatuck Brewing to meet Wade and his partner (now husband) Gary. I was elated! At that point in my life, I hadn’t met many authors – especially ones I admired like Wade.
Over the years, I anxiously awaited each of Wade’s new titles – the early ones being retrospective essays about various points in his life. Those published under his own name like Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler (still one of my favorites given our mutual early career paths in educational PR), At Least in the City Someone Would Hear Me Scream: Misadventures in Search of the Simple Life (based on life in rural Allegan County, not far from where I lived at the time) and It’s All Relative: Two Families, Three Dogs, 34 Holidays, and 50 Boxes of Wine (A Memoir) all grace my home library shelves (several of them blessed with Wade’s autograph).
Wade’s humorous look at life and his clever way of describing everyday situations always brought a smile to my face (and often laugh-out-loud moments). As Wade and Gary were now almost neighbors (although I lived on the east side of the county, and they on the more glamorous west coastal side), I was able to forge a personal friendship with them that remains today. Even when I moved 3+ hours north, I kept a watchful eye on Wade’s book tour schedule and would make plans to attend whenever possible.
Since launching his Viola Shipman series (Wade’s nom de plume – a homage to his grandmother), it’s like getting another literary friend within the circle. These lovely Michigan-based novels tug at my heartstrings (and I am not alone) and every time one of them – like the latest, Famous in a Small Town – lands on a best seller list or is featured on a national TV news program, it puts a spotlight on my home state.
Each year, I wait with bated breath for the new Michigan Notables list from the Library of Michigan. Dating back to Michigan Week 1991 (and then called Read Michigan), this annual list features 20 of the top titles either by Michigan authors or about any number of topics related to the state. In 2014, that list included Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm by Mardi Jo Link (which also won ELLE magazine’s Readers’ Prize Picks in August 2013 and a Housatonic Book Award from the Master of Fine Arts in Creative and Professional Writing program at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, Connecticut).
Much like Hubbell’s titles, Bootstrapper centered around a single mom, raising children, making a living and surviving on her own. In many ways my life paralleled those of Sue and Mardi – I too was divorced, with kids, trying to make my way as a writer while enduring the day-to-day existence and trying to not lose it (and by “it” I mean my mind, my sense of self, my independence and whatever else I had of value). While I didn’t have to scrounge to grow my own food or chop my own wood for a fire to keep warm during the cold winter months, I had challenges of my own and reading about other women who lived through the same and came out smiling on the other side helped motivate me.
I’ve yet to delve into Drummond Girls: a Story of Fierce Friendship Beyond Time and Chance (2015), but I do have an autographed copy on my bookshelf next to Mardi’s other titles. According to promotional materials: “The eight Drummond Girls first met in 1991 at Peegeo’s Food & Spirits in northern Michigan where, at the time, they were all waitresses, bartenders, or regular customers. When one of them got engaged, they celebrated with a trip to Drummond Island–their first trip together to the remote 36-mile chunk of rock, dive bars, dirt roads, and beautiful forests – and it’s where they became bonded forever. They’ve made this voyage every year since then as a way to retain a piece of their wild youth, despite the taming influence of marriage, motherhood, and management. This year, their focus is Beverly, oldest of the Drummond Girls at 65, whose memory is beginning to lapse. Undaunted, the other women intend to help Beverly remember all they’ve shared–every campfire, every late night talk, every secret confided.”
I’ve had the opportunity to meet Mardi several times over the years and admire her research skills and knack for Michigan true crime storytelling. It’s a genre that I am obsessed with – likely from too many years (and spinoffs) of Law & Order and other cop/lawyer shows on TV (and now on HLN, which I listen to religiously on road trips in my car). Her darker titles are something for another post, but I recommend them for anyone who appreciates a good local murder story (or three).
Five or so years ago, I met writer Stewert James (the pen name for Tom Renkes) while hanging out in downtown Petoskey (likely, Chandlers). His smile, wisdom and optimism drew me in and I felt honored to be able to sit and converse with him about my dreams and aspirations, while hearing him share about his life’s adventures – like this crazy solo kayaking trip he had planned along the southern shore of Lake Superior for 1,000 miles between Grand Marais, Minnesota to Grand Marais, Michigan. Tom’s an adventurous and experienced soul, and I had complete faith in his ability to conquer this goal in honor of his 60th birthday.
After his successful voyage, I went to the Carnegie Library in Petoskey to listen to him speak to a standing-room-only crowd about the excursion – complete with props (his journals, paddles, maps and other gear), a handful of photos and tons of exuberant stories about the trip. Now, I enjoy an occasional paddle on the rivers and lakes of Michigan, but I can’t even fathom such an expedition – but I sure did enjoy hearing about it. I even suggested a recap of his jaunt to my then editor of Michigan BLUE magazine, and they published the essay under the headline “In Search of Calm Waters” in the summer 2019 issue.
When my book came out in March 2019, Tom and I were among the featured authors at a book event at Mackinaw Trail Winery and I think that what when our casual acquaintance became a true friendship, as well as a business partnership.
As he was wrapping up his historical novel, The Penny – based on family stories from his wife, Christine, he asked me if I’d work with him with PR locally as well as set up a southern book tour through Georgia. I jumped at the opportunity to work with him – sadly, this was during the pandemic, and my plans were often extinguished as public events were limited nationally. But we forged on – with promotion and with our camaraderie.
Tom remains one of my biggest cheerleaders and life coaches (although he likely doesn’t realize I see him as such). The times we’re able to grab a cup of coffee or a cocktail (or even just a quick phone call…as he is one of the few people I will actually pick up for) are those fill-your-well moments that I need when the chaos of life becomes overwhelming.
Earlier today, I read an email from Tom, including a review or foreword I guess you’d call it, of his next book. It’s a memoir about that momentous paddle along the Lake Superior coastline drawn from the very journal pages that he penned along the way. And while Tom was the only living person in the kayak that month, he was accompanied by the spirits and insights from influential figures like Anthony Bourdain, Ernest Hemingway, Thoreau, John Muir and Robert Service (who I admit, I had to Google…turns out this poet is known as “The Bard of the Yukon”). I haven’t read this memoir yet (as it hasn’t been published) but I’m anxious to get my hands on a copy (even one printed off on 8.5×11 pages from Office Depot). While such a courageous pilgrimage isn’t something I’d embark upon and while Tom sports a much more adventurous character than I could ever hope to possess, his determination fuels my fire to accomplish whatever I may put in front of me. I’m just happy to have access to first-hand accounts of his quests, with his stories and pictures.
Years ago, while living in Walloon Lake (or maybe even Petoskey), I began working on my own “memoir” – handwritten in a heavy black notebook with a magnetic clasp. I misplaced it after moving to Gaylord and searched high and low for it this past April in preparation for the Walloon Lake Writers Retreat (which Tom helped facilitate). Frustrated and angry at myself over this lost collection of scribblings, I began to think about what I had written. What had I done that was remarkable enough to warrant such a book? What tragedy had I suffered, what obstacle had I overcome, what life lesson did I have to share? The future of this publication remains to be seen, although I did recall where I had stashed the journal – my safe (go figure). So, at least now I don’t have to start from scratch and maybe after my next historical manuscript is sent off to the publishers this December, I’ll dig out those pages and see where to go from there!