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

40 thoughts on “Memoir as Love Story

  1. Great read Becky! I read Rust Belt Boy. The writer is actually was a school mate of my neighbor. Living in Western PA has led me to read such books. I really enjoyed getting to know some of the history in my now hometown and surrounding areas. I also read Rust, which is about a worker in a steel mill that is one of our biggest customers. It was so interesting to read first-hand about the mill. I really enjoyed both of these books and have enjoyed your recommendations! Than

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for reading my little ditty, Theresa! Love you! With Rust Belt Boy and Rust, it’s interesting to compare how the steel industry has changed, I think, over the last 40 years. Still a dangerous job today, but not like it once was. I also thought it was so cool that in Rust, the author spends a lot of time describing her jobs in the mill–fascinating to me, too! I appreciate you taking the time to be here. I’ll email soon, cousin!


  2. I don’t read a ton of memoir. When I do it’s typically an audio of a celebrity reading their story to me. I did read Hillbilly Elegy and for the longest time had no idea people hated it as much as they did. I though Educated was fascinating, especially when I tracked down the family on social media and saw what they had to say about the disputed parts. I will attempting writing a memoir after the holidays.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard wonderful things about Educated and still haven’t gotten to that one! I think there’s renewed dislike of Hillbilly right now, with the movie out–and all kinds of lists of books to read that capture a more nuanced story of life in Appalachia. Hillbilly lost me at all the demographics and statistics. Not why I read memoir, but then Vance is a lawyer. As for your memoir…you know I think you have a fantastic story to share and I can’t wait for it!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. “Sweet Thursday” is on my list, Poppy! I love that article–and anything that gets at both rules and “Hooptedoodle.” I have to admit I haven’t read Leonard but his “don’t describe too much” makes sense, especially for his style and genre. I only know him as inspiration for the TV show Justified. Did you see any of that? I thought it was well-written and fun. As for putting off writing, I am pretty amazing at that. Need to get back into my novel-in-progress, this weekend! I hope you have a very nice weekend waiting for you!


  3. John 3:16. Gets me every time. I also really enjoyed reading Becoming. There was so much in it that was so good! As for writing a personal memoir, I’d love to learn how to do that well. We’ll see how that project goes! 😁 How’s your writing project coming along?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The original agape, right? Best love story ever. I haven’t read Becoming, but it was such a success–critically and not just popularity-wise. I should. From the lovely way you write on your blog, I think you’d write a gorgeous memoir. I’m wishing for that! I got a little side-tracked last couple weeks, with my boys home, but I’m back to the novel this weekend. Still truckin’! Have a nice one, Aggie, and thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love memoirs so much! I haven’t read any of the ones you mentioned, but some favorites are: Know My Name by Chanel Miller, Free Cyntoia by Cyntoia Brown-Long and Messenger by Jeni Stepanek. I’m so glad you discovered the power of memoirs, they are amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I don’t know why I was so late to memoirs. Stuck in novel-world, I guess. They really do have a lot to offer. Of those you mentioned, I know the Chanel Miller one was huge. I should try that! Thanks for being here, Tonia!


  5. Rebecca, this post is so interesting! Though I haven’t read Vance’s memoir, I can certainly understand what you’re saying about the writer falling in love with himself, and why that’s so off-putting. Yes, that it’s exactly! Some memoirs I’ve read, I get about half-way through and just want to put them down because I’m so tired of the “I.” Which is one reason I hesitatingly write memoir myself. I have a current project that is personal, and I’m trying like all heck to avoid putting the “me” in it—but, of course, I have to, at least to some extent. 🙂 I don’t know, it’s just a real tightrope to walk.

    Thank you for listing so many great-sounding memoirs here! I will have to check some of them out. I have so much reading to do, my stacks are growing ever higher! LOL

    Are you working on a memoir project? How’s your novel coming along? It’s been so difficult to write during the pandemic (at least for me), but there’s one thing: there’s certainly lots of time to do it (maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to do!). Wishing you and your family happy holidays! Hope you have a safe and blessed Christmas,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Deb! Tightrope is right! I’m so intrigued by your memoir project and can’t wait to learn more. Yes, the “I” is necessary, but there’s so much more, too. A memoirist I know talks about memory as just the first step of memoir–and then he engages in a lot of interviewing of others and research to get a complete picture of the event.

      The more I blog, the more I realize that a lot of blogging is mini memoir-writing, so I have definitely been writing more nonfiction (and some mini memoir) since I started blogging–but nothing I’d call full-fledged memoir.

      I’m still slogging away on my novel project. My boys are home–remote schooling until after the holidays. So, it’s busy and a little distracting. I do hope I can get some writing done during the holidays–we’ll see! I appreciate your holiday wishes. All the best wishes for a lovely holiday for you and yours, too!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think that’s a great way of looking at memoir, Rebecca — interviewing others, doing research. I’m doing the latter, but you’ve given me an idea re: the former. I’m noodling around with my memoir-ish writing, but still writing flash. I’m intrigued with collage, so I imagine my project may reflect that influence. Glad to hear you’re still working on your novel!!! That’s wonderful! Keep going, keep going! A marathon is made up of one step, taken over and over. 🙂 Happy holidays to you!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I have to admit, I was “hooked” on romance novels in high school and part of college. I think I read most of the romance novels in my local library. Okay, maybe not most, but it wasn’t uncommon for me to read several books in a week. I’d even get up early before school in order to read for an hour or so. And, I’m still a sucker for a great romantic comedy, or Hallmark series – just started this (bad?) habit this year. As far as memoirs go, I started reading memoirs in the past couple of years.

    “Furnishing Eternity” was fun to read (thanks to your suggestion) because my dad is a wood-worker, and I have followed in his footsteps. Another memoir I enjoyed was Stephen King’s “On Writing” – he’s one interesting fellow and he’s led a pretty amazing life. Right now, I’m reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass” – it’s a mix of personal memoir, scientific knowledge, and plants. I don’t think I’ve ever marked so many pages in a book before. And, this book has led to many family discussions. The kids are also planning a unit study on lichens after I excitedly blurted out a bunch of amazing lichen facts one day last week. Anyway, I’m so happy I’ve added memoirs to my preferred genres of books. You’re right, they’re filled with wonderful stories, emotion, and love.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think romance must be a kind of cathartic experience, right? Anyway, if we had cable, I’m sure I’d be all over the Hallmark Channel this time of year. (Evidently, my mom’s hometown in upstate NY has been featured in many of those movies—I guess its quaint town square (and snow) is a perfect backdrop for love.)

      I’m so glad you enjoyed Furnishing Eternity. I mean, that could be a hard sell, right? Seems pretty morbid, the idea of making your own coffin. I too enjoyed all the woodworking stuff. And, we’re definitely on the same page with King’s On Writing. It was really motivational for me to read as a young writer. King sure made his own way! Now, Braiding Sweetgrass sounds fascinating. And I love that your reading inspires your kiddos—a lichen unit, that’s wonderful!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ll remember this for later reads! I feel like I have a constantly growing list. Love it. Still very interested in The Virgin of Prince St memoir. I think it’s the ‘what influences us’ and religion is a biggie.

    Favorite memoir? That’s tough. Wild by Cheryl Strayed sticks out because I could tell when I read it that she worked so damn hard to get those words right. When I read at the end that she thanked her writers group, I thought, yup. Writers groups! ❤ I also went into it expecting to not like it, and winded up surprised.

    I also liked Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. It wasn't laugh out loud funny but so fascinating – too short in my opinion. I like behind-the-scenes stuff..

    Thanks again for the recommendations!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know, the TBR tower is definitely a real thing! I think you’d enjoy anything by Sonja Livingston–she publishes quite a few essay you can probably find online, too. I love the memoir-in-essays form, and also that she is always searching and looking outward, which keeps her stuff from feeling like naval-gazing (it never does).

      I still have to read Wild! And I definitely read memoir as much for the language as for the content–so I appreciate the wordsmithing. Yes, all hail a good writers group!

      I wonder if Steve Martin talks much about his musical stuff–or if it’s mostly about his career in comedy. Either way, I’m sure it’s good stuff. Thank you for the recommendations, and for being here!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I didn’t real Hillbilly Elegy, but I watched the movie on Netflix. I don’t read many memoirs but I’ve heard a lot of good things about Educated. I think I’m going to grab that one next just because it sounds so interesting. Great post! I love reading your opinions! 🙂

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  9. I have to say, memoir is hard for me to write (I have only had a go twice) but I’m sure it comes out in the fiction I write! Not a fan of romance as a genre at all but I think every fiction has an element of it, even under the surface.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right in that there’s usually at least a little memoir (and even romance) in every fiction. I’m currently writing (pantsing) a novel, and I was surprised to suddenly be writing a romance sub-plot (eek!)–we’ll see where it goes. Thanks for commenting!

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  10. Carmen Maria Machado’s “In the Dream House” is terrific…so honest and devastating it’s almost painful to read, but if you do, you’ll be glad you did.

    I hate it when love scenes are too sappy or, worse, cringe-worthy. My first few attempts at writing them unfortunately tended toward the latter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve heard wonderful things about Machado’s memoir–I definitely need to make time for that.

      Love scenes are really tricky. And no one wants to end up on one of those notorious lists for worst sex scene in a book! Some really accomplished authors have ended up on there–eek. My rule for love scenes is that I have to show something else entirely–outside of the couple’s love–through the scene. Otherwise, it’s just filler.

      Thanks for visiting here–and for your great recommendation!


  11. I remember seeing your summer IG post about Shiner. One of my favorite memoirs is Stephen Kings On Writing. It is wonderful that we can count on you to provide us with some great suggestions for our 2021 Want to Read lists! I hope I can read fast enough to keep up with my ever-growing list. I may just wear out my treadmill while I’m busy reading. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Walking and reading at the same time is so great! As is On Writing–one of my favorite memoirs, too! Well, my reading list just keeps growing and growing. Right now I’m reading Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel, Jack, and I need to be quick about it–overdue at the library with a line of readers waiting for my copy!


      1. Halfway into Jack now, and fair warning, while it is an engaging love story, it hasn’t been an easy read. I loved that author’s Gilead. This one begins with a 75 page scene, basically, with no chapters. Critics have said that Robinson trains readers to read in a different way, and I think that’s right. Well at #34, it might be another year until your library copy makes it to you. Not sure how I got mine so fast–but it’s due already (with holds) so I better get back to reading. Don’t want the librarians mad at me!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you for the heads up, that sounds like it may be problematic for me in my 1/2 hour – 45 minute reading spurts! 😉 I hope I remember what you said when #34 comes around. I downloaded The Gold Finch book and my daughter said, “Mom, do you know how long that is?!” I turned it back in. I need to work my way up to the longer reads. Good luck finishing on time, we don’t want librarians mad at you!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Ha, yes, not exactly the kind of book to dip in and out of. On reason why I love short chapters in a book. (Like I’m writing in mine, right now.) Ha–yes The Goldfinch is a LONG one! I liked it, but it’s quite the investment in time.

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