The Butterfly Hours: Transforming Memories Into Memoir, by Patty Dann
I was a bit disappointed by this little book. Judging by its title, and subtitle (and especially the note on the title that said that the book had prompts for uncovering one’s life stories), I thought that this book would focus on the emotionally cathartic but occasionally difficult process by which writers turn their stock of memories into a memoir. This is something that I have personally done on a large scale and that I have done regularly on the smaller scale of the personal essay, but I was interested in seeing if the author had any insights to provide about this task that would be possible to share with others. After all, sometimes one can do something implicitly but still find it useful to have some sort of explicit procedures for how to deal with the task of writing memoirs. This book is not that sort of book. Instead, while this book does have some prompts for writers of memoir and memoir-like material (mostly at the end), this book in general is rather a memoir of the author’s own life experiences and an exploration of her memories, especially the less pleasant ones, as memoir authors tend to dwell on.
This volume is a quarto-sized book that is not even 150 pages and is divided into ten chapters. After a short introduction the author divides the book into ten lessons. First, the author discusses that one should write out of love or anger (1) and the author shows both, after which the author says that writing should steal from oneself (2). After this the author talks about how being a good writer tends to require that one be a good reader (3), and that one should not write with the thought of publication or money (4). Then the author discusses how one should be a slob (5) as well as recognizing the importance of time spent away from the computer (6). The author talks about genius (7) as well as the importance of reading one’s work aloud (8) to see how it sounds. After this the author gives the advice to revise repeatedly (9) and also to be bold and bolder about one’s writing (10), after which there is an afterword, acknowledgements, a list of assignments to help readers with prompts, and some information about the author. It should be noted that the author gives her lessons mainly through writing about her own life, making this book a somewhat meta memoir about the process of writing a memoir.
Indeed, if we are looking at this book from the point of view of a genre, this book has more to do with autobiography than it does with the memoir. After all, properly speaking a memoir places someone’s life in a greater context that can be appreciated even if the reader does not know or care anything about the author personally. One can read a memoir about someone who overcame a difficult childhood (these memoirs are particularly popular) or who survived rape or some terrible disease like cancer, and one can cheer on the author even without being familiar with the author’s life before. But autobiography makes the focus of the book the author rather than the larger context, and assumes that the reader does know and/or care about that life. This book is less about the process of dealing with one’s own memories as much as a naval-gazing exercise where the author attempts to look at her own memories of relationships with her family and with boyfriends and husbands and how they shaped where she lived and what she thought, which one really only cares about to the extent that one cares what the author has to say about these things.