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Making Sense of the Memoir

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I learned some things while writing my memoir The Last Hunter: An American Family Album. For me, a fiction writer, the memoir was new territory, a literary form I had always lumped in with the autobiography. But clearly they were different. If an autobiography is the true and full story of one's life -- the entire trip so to speak -- a memoir examines recurring scenes along the way. A memoir is for making sense of patterns in our lives (mother issues, spiritual growth, addictions), and their roles in how we live and think.

One largely unexamined aspect of my life was hunting. I grew up in the Midwest, and to pick up a shotgun or a rifle in the fall was a given. Hunting was seamlessly integrated into Minnesota farm life, and so embedded in rural culture that, in November, schools closed for the opening days of the deer season. This fact never seemed remarkable to me until years later, when literary life began to supplant my woodsman's side. When great books became more important than a well-oiled Winchester. When travel and "distance," as Blaise Pascal wrote, "lends perspective."

In fact, it was a young woman editor who suggested I write The Last Hunter (in my family, c'est moi). I was initially skeptical. I had paid enough attention to recent memoirs to know that writers such as James Frey and Margaret B. Jones had, by their dishonesty, cast a pall over the whole genre. And second, who would read a book about killing things?

"But it's not really about hunting," my editor insisted. "It's about family, and tradition, and great change. It's about sentences and literary form."

"Maybe," I said. "But readers don't hunt and hunters don't read. That leaves almost no one to buy this book. My own two kids don't even hunt. I've got these fine old guns that no one will ever shoot."

"That's the interesting part!" she said. "Just write it. We'll worry about readers later." (I'm a lucky guy to have such an editor.)

The writing went surprisingly well. The more I wrote the more I remembered. How my uncles all carried their rifles differently. The dark rosettes of sliced deer heart frying in butter in a heavy, cast iron pan. The whistle of duck wings in early morning dark. The sweet, spiced smell of mincemeat that we cooked and canned family-style -- all hands to the kitchen -- over a long day filled with stories and laughter and good work. But also the ever-increasing pull of the city on me and particularly my children. My editor was right: the book quickly became far more about the arc of family life than about guns.

Still, hunting has a brutal side. Crippled birds not found. Blood trails and gut piles. Shooting accidents (my family has had its tragedies). It soon became clear to me as I wrote: tell the truth or stay home. There are enough censors out there; the last thing I wanted to do was join their ranks. No "creative nonfiction" to muddy the works. Clarity and truth: the memory deserves no less.

Another lesson became evident. While The Last Hunter necessarily had to be a closely observed, personal story, it also had to connect to the main. To the general reader. A memoir should hold up a mirror, or least a fragment of one, with which other people might begin to examine their own experiences. If a subject matter such as hunting is far afield (even offensive) to some, a memoir in the least ought to provide readers an unvarnished look at how other people go about justifying their lives.

My hope is that The Last Hunter gets open-minded, omnivorous readers (the best kind) to revisit their ideas on hunting and the outdoor life. As well, I hope my memoir gets hunters to pick up this book and read it -- and, by finding their lives represented, give new respect to the act of reading.