Many First Ladies of the United States have written memoirs, but I doubt if any are as elegantly written as Becoming by Michelle Obama. I encourage aspiring memoirists to read this memoir. Not only is Ms. Obama’s life story inspiring, but her writing style is also exemplary. It provides many examples of how to render a scene, how to bring memories to life, and how to draw meaning from even the simplest of life experiences.
In the early pages, Ms. Obama gives the reader a sense of what it felt like to be a child living in a cramped one-bedroom “in law” apartment on the second story of her aunt’s small house in South Chicago. Ms. Obama’s parents divided the living room of this apartment in half, providing makeshift bedrooms for Michelle and her older brother.
Below is a passage describing what it was like for little Michelle to entertain herself in this small space:
At home, I lived in a world of high drama and intrigue, immersing myself in an ever-evolving soap opera of dolls. There were births, feuds, and betrayals. There was hope, hatred, and sometimes sex. My preferred way to pass the time between school and dinner was to park myself in the common area outside my room and Craig’s and spread my Barbies across the floor, spinning out scenarios that felt as real to me as life itself, sometimes inserting Craig’s G.I. Joe action figures into the plotlines. I kept my dolls’ outfits in a child-sized vinyl suitcase covered in a floral print. I assigned every Barbie and every G.I. Joe a personality. I also recruited into service the worn-out alphabet blocks my mother had used years earlier to teach us our letters. They, too, were given names and inner lives. (Becoming, p. 19)
This small passage tells us so much about the author. She had a great imagination, she was very interested in socialization, and she was good at using the resources available to her. She goes on to say that she rarely chose to play outdoors with the neighborhood kids. Anyone closely reading her words will not be surprised by that fact, as she has already, indirectly, shown us what kind of child she was.
Ms. Obama later describes how she became more extroverted as a teenager, but remained a diligent and hardworking young person, with the number one priority to make good grades and live up to the high expectations of her parents. Years later, her father passed away after a long battle with MS. In describing this time, Ms. Obama again paints a scene that brings us close into her mind. The way she describes the aftermath of her father’s funeral brought tears to my eyes:
Later, we drove back to Euclid Avenue. The three of us sat at the kitchen table, spent and sullen now, our misery provoked all over again by the sight of the fourth empty chair. Soon, we were weeping. We sat for what felt like a long time, blubbering until we were exhausted and out of tears. My mother, who hadn’t said much all day, finally offered a comment.
“Look at us,” she said, a little ruefully.
And yet there was a touch of lightness in how she said it. She was pointing out that we Robinsons had been reduced to a true and ridiculous mess — unrecognizable with our swollen eyelids and dripping noses, our hurt and strange helplessness here in our own kitchen. Who were we? Didn’t we know? Hadn’t he shown us? She was calling us back from our loneliness with three blunt words, as only our mom could do.
Mom looked at me and I looked at Craig, and suddenly the moment seemed a little funny. The first chuckle, we knew, would normally have come from that empty chair. Slowly, we started to titter and crack up, collapsing finally into full-blown fits of laughter. I realize that might seem strange, but we were so much better at this than we were at crying.The point was he would have liked it, and so we let ourselves laugh. (Becoming, p. 145)
This month’s challenge is to read Becoming by Michelle Obama. Read like a writer, noticing not only what Ms. Obama says but how she says it. Close readings of quality memoirs like this are guaranteed to make YOU a better writer. There is no better way to enhance one’s writing skills than to analyze, and appreciate, good writing that we are lucky to encounter!
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