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Good Books: Lisa Romeo on Personal Essays by Women

Lisa Romeo's love of personal nonfiction began as a child when she read letters her mother received from childhood friends now living in other places and writing about their lives. Her personal essays have appeared in The New York  Times, and O - The Oprah Magazine, in literary journals, themed collections, and on numerous websites. Romeo teaches memoir and personal essay at The Writers Circle in northern New Jersey, and with the nonfiction MFA (master of fine arts) program offered online by Bay Path College. She works as a freelance manuscript editor and writing coach, and her blog offers author interviews and other writing resources.

"I love many newer single-author essay collections, but there are certain ones I return to when I need to remember why I write essays at all," says Romeo. "I want to say that reading the first lines of these essays feels like being enrobed in a soft quilt – but it's that plus another feeling: of being pushed, urged, prodded to write my own. After only moments inside these pages, I'm challenged, charged up. Come, they seem to say, you can have a space on the page too. And, I follow, or try to."

Lisa Romeo suggests three good books by women essayists:

Living Out Loud
by Anna Quindlen

For me, Anna Quindlen was the way in to personal essay writing, a beacon, a siren. As I worked my way through a series of quasi-writing jobs in public relations, college communications, and marketing in the 1980s, it was her personal essays in The New York Times that helped me see where I wanted to go as a writer. This compilation of her "Life in the 30s" columns holds up well over time, and I return to it again and again. Wrestling with how much of your personal life to put on the page? See "Pregnant in New York." Wondering if you can write about your children?  Consult "A Secret Life." Worried about putting your spouse on the page? There's a lesson on page 73. I teach from her essays often. All of Quindlen's subsequent essay collections make fine reading too, but my dog-eared, slightly yellowed (signed by Anna!) paperback copy of this early gem remains a favorite.

The Woman at the Washington Zoo
by Marjorie Williams

This book was suggested to me by a faculty mentor early in my MFA program, and at first I wasn't sure why: the first third is comprised of the late author's magazine profiles of major political figures, and while the writing is superb and there's much to admire, it wasn't until I got to Part 2: Essays, and Part 3: Time and Chance, that I understood the profound gift this book is to a personal essayist. Williams, who died of cancer in her mid-40s, apparently at the height of her best creative work, is magnificent on every level one can imagine an essayist can aspire to: she moves deftly, beautifully, seamlessly, from and between the most personal, family moments—and the larger universal human questions of illness, mortality, health care, and hope. What emerges is a bold portrait of connectedness, alongside the most singularly private, quiet confronting of what it means to be vital and in the middle of life, motherhood, career, and marriage, facing the inevitability of everything ending and not on one's own schedule. Her essay, "Hit by Lightning: A Cancer Memoir" may be the best essay I've read on this confluence of the human condition.

The Opposite of Fate
by Amy Tan

Very often, I come to an essay collection because I have tried and failed to track down one particular essay I want to read. "Mother Tongue" is the essay that brought me to Tan's collection, and I probably re-read that one piece at least yearly. It has everything a writer hopes to craft into a narrative essay, and yet none of it shows; only rich story emerges, clear and complex, simple and multi-layered. Unlike some miscued essays collections by novelists, there's a clear intent here to be personal; her "I" narrator is not just a character. I don't always love essays in which writers write about writing, or ponder the writer's life, and not every essay in here is about that, but those that are completely cancel out my wariness: Tan avoids every cliché, and shows up as a human being first, who happens to be a writer, who naturally lives out many portions of her life as a writer in the world (and still delivers one fun peek into what writer/readers want to know about big writing deals, in "Joy Luck and Hollywood"). And there's so much more—her cross-cultural marriage; expectations of appearance and body image; the forces exerted by her family history and ancestry—that (as all excellent essays do), invite a reader into the narrator's very specific situation, seemingly just to hear the story, but alas, it's there where we learn something important about our own, very different story.

Reader Comments (8)

Your recommendations make me wish I already had those books in my possession, and could spend some quiet time this morning sipping tea, and savoring the words.

June 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Williams

Great recommendations. I guess I have to hit Amazon again, right? Those other books were on their way before the sun set yesterday. LOL

June 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarol Cassara

Thank you for this great list of books!! I can't wait to get them all! Hooray for summer!

June 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKathy Radigan

You know, so many reviews just leave me cold but each one of these tell a story about you and how you could relate to each book. I think that is very important to a reader. Isn't it true that we have such a difficult time reading something we can't crawl into in some way. Even the flight of fancy carries us to a place we would like to see for ourselves.

Thank you so much.


June 16, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterb+ (retireinstylelbot)

Thanks for the nice comments - glad some of you will be reading these fine books. And yes, if I can "crawl into it" then that book stays on my list forever!

June 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Romeo

Can't wait to check out these essay collections! Thanks Lisa Romeo!

June 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterIlonka Michelle O'Neil

Hello Readers!

This is Drew Myron, "curator" of 3 Good Books for Push Pull Books. Thanks so much for your feedback. It's heartening to read your responses to Lisa's book choices. Isn't she great? Bookish and knowing with a comfy come-on-in style.

Thanks for reading & responding. And thanks to Lisa for the great book suggestions!

June 19, 2014 | Registered CommenterDrew Myron

Thanks, Drew. My pleasure!

July 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Romeo

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