What Comes Next and How to Like It: A Memoir/Abigail Thomas: Reflections

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

You know how it is—the winding and wending through book booths. The writers signing, the multiples of the new fresh things in stacks; it's hard to take it in, at least for me. I never return home from The Events with a bag full of randoms. I return home with the books sought out or placed in my trust. A handful.

But there I was, Friday, at the National Conference for Teachers of English at the National Harbor Convention Center. I'd be doing my own signing in fifteen minutes, but I had time. And so I walked, my eyes cast down, and there it was, a pile of books, the cover whitish and thin, two streaks of color, a title, a name. Abigail Thomas, I read. Kept walking. Stopped. Backtracked.

Abigail Thomas? At NCTE?

"Um," I said, to the Scribner person.


"Are you giving these ARCs away? By chance?"

"You want one?"


"So go ahead."

It was mine! The new Abigail Thomas memoir, coming in March 2015, but I don't have to wait that long. Not me, who loves Abigail Thomas, who sang her praises in Handling the Truth, who reads her words out loud to my Penn students. Not me. I have What Comes Next and How to Like It. I read it when I was supposed to be writing, which is to say I read it today. All day and now I'm done, I'm finished, and I'm sad about that, because books this good don't come around too often. Books this good need Abigail Thomas to write them.

"Abigail Thomas is the Emily Dickinson of memoirists," Stephen King has said. UmmHmmm.

Where to start, or have I said enough? A book about friendship and motherhood, about painting and words, about comfort and soup, about sleeping all day, about waking ourselves up, about love, an "elastic" word, Thomas tells us. Proves it. Thomas could blare, in her bio, about a lot of writerly things, but what she says first is this: "Abigail Thomas is the mother of four children and the grandmother of twelve." Yes. That's how Thomas describes herself because that, with infinite beauty, is who she is first. Who she will be. What makes her the powerhouse writer she is. (Though to that description one must add a pile of dogs.) Thomas writes, in this new memoir, about how we hold on knowing that one day we won't. How we outlast ourselves, or live with the fact that outlasting doesn't last.

I loved every torn page. The arrangement of the pages. Thomas's smart abhorrence of chronology. How many times, in class, to students, to writers, have I said: Don't tell me the story in a straight line. Break the grid. Steer your way toward wisdom by scrambling the sequence of facts.

Now I'm just going to read Thomas:
I hate chronological order. Not only do I have zero memory for what happened when in what year, but it's so boring. This comes out of me with the kind of vehemence that requires a closer look, so I scribble on the back of a napkin while waiting for friends to show up at Cucina and it doesn't take long to figure it out. The thought of this happened and then this happened and then this and this and this, the relentless march of events and emotion tied together simply because day follows day and turns into week following week becoming months and years reinforces the fact that the only logical ending from chronological order is death.

Yes. And that, by the way, is a single chapter in a book built (miraculously) of brevities. A book in which the page by page sequencing is as shattering as the pages themselves.


Catherine Stine said...

Yup, Abby Thomas is pretty amazing. I had her as a teacher in my New School MFA program. She was always encouraging, inspiring and kind. More power to her and her wonderful words.

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