The Island’s great writing guru

Nancy Slonim Aronie shows us how in a new book, ‘Memoir as Medicine.’

Nancy Slonim Aronie's new book, "Memoir as Medicine," describes the immense healing power of writing.

When you walk into Aronie’s decades-old Chilmark Writing Workshop — or maybe you stagger in, if you’re as nervous about taking up the wordsmith profession as most of us are in the beginning — you’ll immediately be put at ease when the tall, thin, curly-haired, and irrepressibly charming woman explains her plan of attack. Actually, it’s the very opposite of attack: Once a group member has read out loud a short piece of writing, Aronie instructs, “Tell her only what you love.”

What a concept.

Those writers in the weeklong workshop who have put in even a few months trying to sell their stories will grasp what a joyful experience this will be, amid form letters from publishing outlets with rebuffing comments such as, “This does not meet our standards,” or perhaps, “Please check our website to acquaint yourself with what we’re looking for.” In other words, “This ain’t it!” or “Call your uncle about becoming a paralegal … or executive secretary … or volunteer litter picker-upper.”

A wait of many years separates this second book of Aronie’s, “Memoir as Medicine: The Healing Power of Writing Your Messy, Imperfect, Unruly (but Gorgeously Yours) Life Story,” after the first successful launch of “Writing from the Heart: Tapping the Power of the Inner Voice” in 1999, which lays out the founding principle of “Tell only what you love” as a way to summon the full fragrant bouquet of a writer’s talent. Do you get it? Not through brutal criticism, but building on the author’s strengths.

Despite this gap between published books, Aronie’s career has been chockful with other writing successes: She’s a longtime contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered,” a columnist for multiple magazines and newspapers, including this very one you’re eyeballing at the moment, and she’s taught writing [from the heart] at Kripalu, Omega, Esalen, and Harvard.

Her own grueling experience with harsh critique, which led to her founding of this tender approach to teaching, took place decades ago in Hartford, Conn., where she lived with her darling scientist and husband, Joel, and two small boys. She signed up for a writing group that ended up being one of those brutalizing affairs, coming as it did out of an American school system that, let’s face it, has always driven teachers to be ruthless about their little charges’ first attempts at art. Aronie was so battered by the mean commentary that she found herself unable to write again for a significant period of time.

So Aronie heals and inspires as she teaches, but her new work, “Memoir as Medicine” (New World Press) adds a new dimension: setting down one’s own story in such a compassionate, detailed, and constructive way that the author’s self-healing in formulating this work becomes a guide to the healing we’re constantly seeking as readers.

As most of us Vineyarders know who’ve had the privilege to engage with Nancy Slonim Aronie, either as a friend or as a reader of her local essays, or as a participant in her workshop — or all of the above — her own life was saturated by tragedy when her second-born, Dan, was diagnosed with diabetes at 9 months of age, then with multiple sclerosis at 22. His parents cared for him for 16 agonizing years until he died at 38. This is the tale, often brushed with grace in the arena of this caring and, on the mother’s part, spiritualized family, that Aronie sets out to tell in this memoir that doubles as a writing primer of the highest order.

No matter how far along you happen to be on the writing trail — from newbie to professional of many decades — you will relish these sparkling chapters, and put down the book with a straightforward knowledge of how to write well. You can throw out your aged copies of “The Chicago Manual of Style,” and start fresh.

Aronie, after a good show-don’t-tell in each sample of her own writing, dishes out prompts that bring it all home, such as:

Write two pieces, one where you beat around the bush and never get to the point, and the other where you get right to the point.

Write about a time you toyed with leaving your job, your home, a relationship.

Write a letter and edit it, and rewrite it, and make it the best writing you have ever done. And then maybe even mail it.

Quote three people, beginning with “I remember when she [or he] said something like …”

You’ll find yourself frowning over each end-of-chapter prompt, trying to summon up a quickie memory, but at least from this reviewer’s experience, each investigation is tricky and mysterious enough that it might require hours of your time, and perhaps many jottings in a journal, before you arrive at your perfect subject matter. It occurred to me that even without using “Memoir as Medicine” to write a full manuscript of one’s own life, it would be fun and therapeutic to gather for a number of weeks with a group of fellow writers of all abilities and simply grind out essays inspired from each prompt. Think of this one at the end of Chapter 58: “Has someone given you permission to sound like you? Write about how that changed your writing.” [I would need to go way back in my own archives to figure out how I ended up sounding like such a crackpot.]

My favorite element of Aronie’s writing is the gentle spiritual path she navigates in and out of the biographical material. She mentions becoming instilled with a new metaphysics after reading the spiritual teacher Ram Das and his first, groundbreaking book “Be Here Now.” If the reader of “Memoir as Medicine” is drawn to this brand of truth-seeking, then Aronie’s work is additionally comforting and illuminating along the way.

For those without that spiritual edge, some enduring life lessons will be had by watching her family’s unfolding in the course of their long tragedy. In other words, on so many levels, this memoir will appeal to every manner of reader.

“Memoir as Medicine: The Healing Power of Writing Your Messy, Imperfect, Unruly (but Gorgeously Yours) Life Story,” New World Press. Available at Bunch of Grapes, Edgartown Books, and online. 

Holly Nadler has a book coming out about living on the Island without a set address. “The Hobo Diaries,” Ozark Mountain Press, will be published in the fall.  –Ed.