Anthony Doerr is a fantastic writer. I particularly liked his short story “Village 113,” found in his short story collection “Memory Wall.” I picked up his memoir, “Four Seasons in Rome,” to gain some insight into writing personal experiences as I venture into my own memoir about owning and running a weekly newspaper.
As expected, I thoroughly enjoyed Doerr’s writing style. However, I do think there are some lessons to be learned. First, I didn’t really laugh until nearly the end, when Doerr told the story about a woman in line spewing a diatribe of Italian that Doerr could only understand in pieces.
“For a full minute her story builds. Words fly past me. I hear ‘flowers’; I hear ‘loaf of bread.’ But she is leaning in now; I am at the business end of her index finger, miles past the point where I might ask her to slow down.”
Unfortunately, this anecdote comes on page 196 of 202. There aren’t many, if any, other stories that made me laugh, and I think it’s important in memoir to scatter funny stories throughout.
Doerr does a lot of thinking and a lot of observing, excellent qualities in a writer. However, it doesn’t make for a very interesting memoir. I know you can’t manufacture action, like when his wife collapsed and had to go to the hospital, but I think it’s important to have stories to tell when writing a memoir. Things have to happen.
I consider this a great caution for me, as I’m similar to Doerr, a lot of introspection, observation. I’m telling my story as a middle-aged happily married man with two young boys. I’m not a young, single man backpacking through Europe, detailing my stories of adventure. Still, I need to make sure I’m telling stories as I go, not just introspection and observation.
Finally, a big lesson learned is being personal. The reader of “Four Seasons” can sense that something personal is being held back amid Doerr’s recounting of Pliny the Elder’s writings and Doerr’s observations of water fountains and frescoes. His memoir contains a remarkable lack of other people (he admits in the end that he wished he had gotten to know more Italians, had invited a shop owner over for dinner). When he talks about writing a short story about a village going underwater for a dam project, he never mentions the name of that story or the book that it’s in, almost as if he’s reluctant to even identify who he is. A story about flying to London to do an interview earns a couple of passing paragraphs. Did nothing happen?
Again, this is a concern of mine because I identify with Doerr. I’m a private person, not terribly outgoing, not quick to share myself personally. But that doesn’t really make good memoir. I will need to make sure that I open up more, tell stories of events and regularly try to make the reader laugh.