Sunday Book Review – Writing Hard Stories by Melanie Brooks

Sunday Book Review

Book reviews by D.G. Kaye


Today’s book review is on memoir writer, Melanie Brooks’ book – Writing Hard Stories. I always try to read a book on my craft in between reading other genres I enjoy too. I was drawn to this book, not only for its whimsical cover (covers do attract), but for the content of the book, which is a series of interviews the author conducted with other more well known memoir writers. Brooks was searching for the heart of why and how each writer goes about writing their memoirs – what inspires them, how they get over the tough parts to write, overcoming fears of featuring people in their lives and how their work will be accepted.




Some of the country’s most admired authors—including Andre Dubus III, Mark Doty, Marianne Leone, Michael Patrick MacDonald, Richard Blanco, Abigail Thomas, Kate Bornstein, Jerald Walker, and Kyoko Mori—describe their treks through dark memories and breakthrough moments and attest to the healing power of putting words to experience.

What does it take to write an honest memoir? And what happens to us when we embark on that journey? Melanie Brooks sought guidance from the memoirists who most moved her to answer these questions. Called an essential book for creative writers by Poets & WritersWriting Hard Stories is a unique compilation of authentic stories about the death of a partner, parent, or child; about violence and shunning; and about the process of writing. It will serve as a tool for teachers of writing and give readers an intimate look into the lives of the authors they love.


Insights from Writing Hard Stories – Melanie Brooks

“Why we endeavor collectively to write a book or paint a canvas or write a symphony…is to understand who we are as human beings, and it’s that shared knowledge that somehow helps us to survive.”—Richard Blanco

“Here’s what you need to understand: your brothers [or family or friends] are going to have their own stories to tell. You don’t have to tell the family story. You have to tell your story of being in that family.”—Andre Dubus III

“We all need a way to express or make something out of experiences that otherwise have no meaning. If what you want is clarity and meaning, you have to break the secrets over your knee and make something of those ingredients.”—Abigail Thomas

“What we remember and how we remember it really tells us how we became who we became.”—Michael Patrick MacDonald

“The reason I write memoir is to be able to see the experience itself…I hardly know what I think until I write…Writing is a way to organize your life, give it a frame, give it a structure, so that you can really see what it was that happened.”—Sue William Silverman

“After a while in the process, you have some distance and you start thinking of it as a story, not as your story…It was a personal grief, but no longer personal…[It’s] something that has not just happened to me and my family, but something that’s happened in the world.”—Edwidge Danticat

“Tibetan Buddhists believe that eloquence is the telling of a truth in such a way that it eases suffering…The more suffering that is eased by your telling of the truth, the more eloquent you are. That’s all you can really hope for—being eloquent in that fashion. All you have to do is respond to your story honestly, and that’s the ideal.”—Kate Bornstein

“You can never entirely redeem the experience. You can’t make it not hurt anymore. But you can make it beautiful enough so that there’s something to balance it in the other scale. And if you understand that word beautiful as not necessarily pretty, then you’re getting close to recognizing the integrative power of restoring the balance, which is restoring the truth.”— Richard Hoffman


My 5 Star Review:

I read this book about Brooks’ journey to seek out and learn about some esteemed memoir writers to learn about their journeys to writing memoir. Brooks was seeking the essence of how they go about writing their stories, what are the hurdles for them – the most difficult parts, how they feel their work will be received, and will their stories connect with readers and possibly help readers with their own similar journeys in their lives. As a memoir writer myself, I was absorbed into all the stories.

There is a commonality with memoir writers – the journaling, the scattered notes and journals splayed around our living spaces, the pain on the pages relived, the coming to terms with how we’ve been abused, injured, slighted, or triumphed in life in some way. Many of us memoir writers start out wanting to fictionalize our stories, sometimes afraid to step up and own them personally, only the brave step up to the plate and write our own truths. Read this book and find out how various writers hone their craft.


I also want to share for my readers, some memorable lines I took from some of these stories:


Andre Dumas:  “Don’t leave out the family from your story. Tell your truth as you remember it.”


Sue William Silverman“It’s like writing that pressure out of the pressure cooker. Each word that comes out is like taking a little piece of pain with it and putting it on the page.”


Richard Hoffman“. . . writing and publishing are two different things. Don’t confuse them. As soon as you start thinking, ‘Well I could never publish that then the censor is right in the room with you with a pencil crossing stuff out . . .”


Suzanne Strempek Shea:  “. . . how much easier it is to look at what you’re hiding from them to keep it in the basement. It’s much scarier, has much more power in the dark than brought up to the light.”


Mark Doty“It’s nice to get a compliment or have your writing praised, but when somebody can say, ‘Your book showed me this,’ or ‘This is what I got from it,’ that’s what I love most.”


Edwidge Danticat:  On not talking about her WIP “I feel very vulberable where it’s happening if they criticize, it might lead you to kill something because you are giving more value to their opinion than perhaps even they are.”


Jerald Walker:  “Will I get tired of writing about my own experiences? And I think the answer is no. As long as there are people in my orbit who I think deserve some attention, I like being the vehicle to deliver it.”


Kate Bornstein:  “Tibetan Buddhists believe that elopquence is the telling of truth in such a way that it eases suffering. And the more suffering that is eased by your telling the truth, the more eloquent you are.”


Melanie Brooks:  “During a presentation I attended at the Miami Beach Fair, Mary Karr said, ‘Writing memoir, if it’s done right, is like knocking yourself out with your own fist.’ In one sentence, she summed up what we all discover when we venture into this territory: writing hard stories is excruciatingly hard work!”


Allan Hunter:  “Pain is like a stone. If you put it in your pocket, it weighs nothing at all. If you put it inside your shoe, it will cripple you. The same little bit of pain. You are moving the grief from where it is doing no good to the place where you can carry it more easily.”


Melanie Brooks“We find language to unravel the complexities of what happened, and we re-stitch those complexities into narratives that can become meaningful to others. And those are the narratives that have the potential to give others the courage to find their own.”




62 thoughts on “Sunday Book Review – Writing Hard Stories by Melanie Brooks

  1. “You are moving the grief from where it is doing no good to the place where you can carry it more easily.” Oh, my goodness, this resonates so much, Debbie! Both my mum and my sister have, in the past, told me to stop talking about our experiences. My sister especially believes it all should stay private.


  2. Wow–there are some great quotes with great memoir-writing advice. “You don’t have to tell the family story. You have to tell your story of being in that family.” It seems so obvious but so oft forgotten. This is wonderful, Deb.


  3. Kate Bornstein: “Tibetan Buddhists believe that elopquence is the telling of truth in such a way that it eases suffering. And the more suffering that is eased by your telling the truth, the more eloquent you are.” I think that resonated the most with me Debby.. Excellent review.. thank you ♥


  4. Fascinating, Debby. I’m always amazed at the personal commitment of memoir writers. I don’t think I could do it at all. The quotes were evocative, profound, and personal. I can see why they struck you and were so memorable. ❤


    1. Thanks Diana. So glad you enjoyed the post. Diversity makes us all so fascinating. I could never write fiction like you, so we’re even! 🙂 ❤


  5. This sounds like a fascinating book, Deb. I face many of the same challenges when writing my inspirational articles. How open and truthful dare I be? And I have tidbits and snippets in notebooks and on myriad pieces of paper scattered round. Kate Bornstein’s quote reminded me of you and your desire to serve the needs of others ~ which you do, so eloquently and humbly ❤


    1. You are too kind my friend. No doubts you would enjoy this book too, if not just for the writing education, but for many author’s spin on writing their own memoirs and how the writing tugs at their cores and how they overcome confliction. ❤ xxx


  6. It is very difficult to tell your story… it is like reliving the pain, which can be beautiful only for the readersI Love those insights you have quoted Deb. Sue William’s words are going to reverberate around me for a long time.


  7. Thank you for this share Debby, And I particularly like How we should write our truth from how we remember it..

    One of the problems I had when putting my poems together in order and then writing I suppose my memories that reflected why some of them were written, I wrote from how I perceived at the time..
    Then I stopped.. to dissect it, and wondered was I being unfair, or over dramatic in what I remembered. It triggered a lot of hard memories.. So I stopped. And saw I needed to let it all go.. ALL of it.. But I needed to write it out in order to look deeper into the wounds.. ( I am sure you follow )

    Sending Huge hugs.. and again thank you for sharing Melanie.. 😀
    ❤ ❤ ❤


    1. Hi Sue. Thanks for sharing a bit of your process here. All good books on writing memoir will state to just write, write your heart out, don’t stop to edit, write our truth, how WE remembered it. After the rough draft it’s edit time. This is the time to re-evaluate what you will cut out and clean up. If you second guess yourself as you write it will cripple the flow. As you go through drafts you will certainly go deeper and probably trigger more memories too. The first draft, often touted as ‘sh*t’ is really gold, giving us the canvas go forth and enhance our stories. 🙂 ❤


  8. I’m doing some memoir work as part of following the artists’ way, but not sure I could ever publish for all to read. What a brave road memoir writers walk! My praise to you and others who walk that road. I enjoy reading it and am sure this book would be an inspiration.


    1. I love Julia Cameron’s books. Great exercises in that book too – Morning Pages. 🙂 Memoir writing can be therapeutic but when it comes to publishing, it can really test your strength and convictions. 🙂


  9. “During a presentation I attended at the Miami Beach Fair, Mary Karr said, ‘Writing memoir, if it’s done right, is like knocking yourself out with your own fist.’ Yeah and amen to that.

    I had a happy childhood with hard parts, the hard parts I visit often as I revise, revise. I am happy to read the above comment that I am walking “a brave road.” Sometimes it feels otherwise.

    Thanks for all this, Debbie!


  10. Hi Debby – this does sound like an excellent read … interesting to see what they say and how they go about things – cheers Hilary


  11. Excellent review, Sis. Do you know almost every time I visit your blog I have to refollow? It’s the craziest thing. Hugs and love. ❤


    1. Thanks sis. What do you mean refollow? There is no follow button here because I’m self hosted. There is a sign up for blog posts delivered notifications. That is so weird! Hugs back my friend xoxo ❤


      1. The “follow this blog” button pops up every time I visit. Not kidding. People are probably clicking the button thinking they are following you. (Eye-roll)


      2. Wow, that is weird. For the life of me I’ve never seen the ‘follow this blog’ here. I think WP is doing some very strange things lately – like the 30+ spam comments I’ve been getting since the past 2 weeks! ❤


      3. Wowser! I don’t get that even on our free sister blog. Something must be up with your spam protection. You’re self hosted so you might need to take a peek at that. ❤


  12. This book sounds amazing, Debby! Thanks for sharing your favorite quotes. It really gives a lovely overview of the content. This will be a must read! Love this; “…you have to break the secrets over your knee and make something of those ingredients.”—Abigail Thomas

    Breaking secrets over one’s knee…why didn’t I think of that? Thanks for sharing this wonderful review, Deb.


    1. Thanks Lis. So glad you enjoyed. And I had no doubts you would appreciate this. Great book seriously #recommended, particularly for our kind of writers. ❤


  13. Wow. Thanks for this review Debby! I’m liking and relating to all the quotes that are mentioned in the book and in your blog post. I really love the line Mary Karr said. I truly hope I can knock myself out with the memoir I’m currently writing! 🙂


  14. This looks like an essential read for anyone considering memoir writing … and for those not! I’m in awe of anyone who writes memoirs as there are so many obstacles along the way; must be so hard to revisit ones own path, no matter creating a fluid readable narrative whilst keeping in mind all others affected by the book. Wonderful thoughtful and all-encompassing quotes.


  15. Thank you for this review Deb, I am always on the look out for anything to do with memoir. This quote hit me between the eyes:

    “The reason I write memoir is to be able to see the experience itself…I hardly know what I think until I write…Writing is a way to organize your life, give it a frame, give it a structure, so that you can really see what it was that happened.”—Sue William Silverman.

    Framing the story, framing my life, making sense of everything that happened. It’s as simple and as complicated as that ❤ ❤ ❤


      1. Thanks Deb…and apologies for my very late reply. Been a crazy week, say no more, ha! Hope you are well on the way to a full recovering and have a wonderful weekend my wonderful friend! 🙂 ❤ 🙂


      2. Thanks my Lovely. No need to apologize. Will we ever get used to the idea that our lives are ongoing sagas? LOL 🙂 ❤ ❤


      3. Hello my lovely (and I won’t say sorry, even though I was about to lol!)!!! Arrgh…ongoing sagas? We should collaberate on a book about them! Seriously, I have barely had a minute to think straight and haven’t managed to get onto WP. My plans to get a post out before the BB have come to nought, this is my first fly-past in ages and here you are, your beautiful smiling face. V is all moved in now, and dealing with with the aftermath of all that, letting the dust settle and of course ongoing ‘stuff’ at the house (still settling in from our move 7months ago!). I don’t want to see another packing box for a very long time lol!!!!! Hoping beyond hope I can soon get back to some kind of writing/blogging balance again very soon. So glad to have the chance to pop in though and say to you my dear friend and wish you a lovely weekend and hope all is well with you and you are enjoying some lovely spring weather at long last. I am at least getting out in the garden to make the most of it and discover what garden we have out there after all the rain and snow! Off to the BB tomorrow, going up for the day so an early start. I will wave to you from London and look forward to the day when we shall meet for sure! All the best with your nomination Deb! Much love and huge hugs snd see you soon! 🙂 ❤ ❤ ❤


      4. Aw Sher, thanks so much for dropping by and updating and uplifting me. ❤ So glad you're finally getting settled and V too! Believe, me we have the same chaos interrupting our writing life, lol. It's been quite a year so far with hubby and it's difficult to concentrate on writing when we're filled with worry and anxiety. I know exactly what you mean.
        I can't wait to see you on video again at the Bash, and ya, you better say hi to me! LOL. Have a blast at the bash and say hi to all our friends for me! Big hugs and love to you my dear friend, ❤ xoxoxo ❤


      5. Thanks so much dear Deb, and you bet I’ll be saying hi to you! So sorry to hear that hubby’s health worries continue, and yes, it is exhausting trying to concentrate on writing at such times, as we both know too well unfortunately. It helps so much uplifting one another other 🙂 ❤ And we will keep standing! Keep smiling your beautiful smile my dear friend and I'll see you in London!!! Big hugs and love right back to you ❤ ❤ ❤ xoxoxoxo


      6. Hi Deb! Phew…I have been bogged down by yet more packing boxes moving my youngest back home and at long last beginning to emerge. Still no post at the Summerhouse, next week it is back to some kind of normal hopefully and will get an update post out and about the BB, although I didn’t take any photos – I figured blogland is saturated enough with my endless selfies lol! I let the others do the work this time and will link to them, but I expect you’ve already seen their posts. Hugh will have the videos lol. A long weekend here, so will sign off and start again fresh next week and return here and everywhere where I have been long gone lol. Hope things are well wit you sweet friend…have a wonderful weekend! Huge Love and Hugs… 😀 ❤ 😀 xoxoxoxox


      7. Hi Sher, thanks for filling me in. Lol I have seen a few posts, waiting for Hugh’s. Glad you’re finally getting settled. Take the weekend off and relax! Things are always creeping up here too. Lol the new normal it seems. Big hugs! ❤ xoxo 🙂


  16. Thanks so much for sharing, Debby. As you know, I have such profound respect for fellow writers who dare this journey of enlightenment. Its power of healing extends far and wide. Bravo to Melanie. XO


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