I often discuss books before I am finished reading them, because, for me, continuing to read a book is almost more important than finishing it. If I select a book and start it, the big test is whether or not I read forward. If I want to keep reading after I start, odds are excellent I will finish. I’m in the middle of Michelle Obama’s Becoming and I have been struck by how many things she is getting right, right from the start. To wit:
1.) She is a master weaver
From the very start, author Michelle Obama is making connections between stories and ideas, tying knots, selecting what to say, weaving together a richly textured fabric. Nothing is random. Stories have been selected for their emotional power, for the way they fit. There are threads about being a black woman, being a woman in love, being a working mom, being a daughter, being a political wife, being a friend, being a lawyer, being a person intent on having an impact. You can feel the intention at every turn, and it feels comforting. You can rest in the assuredness that you are in good hands. The master weaver has a plan and the cloth she is making will turn out to be beautiful and useful.
2.) She commands time
Her story is not a straight chronology because this is not the story of a life. It is, as the title says, the story of becoming, a story of identity. She dips and leaps, moving through time so that she can tell the story she wants to tell. One clear example comes when she is telling the story of trying to find her footing as a lawyer and building her career. She takes us through the pivots and turns, the missteps and lucky breaks. Several chapters later, when she is telling the story of Barack Obama’s rise at Harvard Law School, and his appointment as editor of the law journal, and his taking the bar, she circles back to explain how, two years earlier, she failed the bar the first time. The story was not told in the “proper” place in the story of her life, but in service of explaining the dance between husband and wife, the way someone else’s ambitions and dreams become our own, and the way those things play off each other in a relationship. It’s a powerful part of one of the threads I just referred to — far more meaningful in that context, I suspect, than it would have been had she just told it in the “right” order.
3.) She maintains narrative drive
Telling a tale with narrative drive — an engine that drives through from beginning to end — is a sophisticated writing skill. It demands, among other things, that you know your point, write with intention, leave things out, and understand the way a story rises and falls. In my experience, writers usually only do it well when they read deeply — when they have the experience of being on that ride. Michelle Obama clearly has. My favorite example is when she pauses in the scene right before Barack walks into her life. At the end of the chapter, she mentions the summer intern with the unusual name and she holds back actually saying that name, playing with that tension, not speaking it aloud until the start of the next chapter. She surely knows that every single solitary reader knows the outcome of her story, the name of that man, but she also realizes that she is in charge of the story. She repeatedly plays with the rhythm in this way, sometimes racing over months of campaigning in a paragraph, only to spend pages on a moment just before a big speech. She lingers on what is important — a broken heart, a first kiss, a father’s final goodbye. Every storyteller has to deal with a flood of possibilities — from a life, a body of work, or from the imagination — and Michelle Obama is in some ways exactly like the rest of us, but in others, on a wholly different plane. The sheer volume of her experiences feels somehow larger than life. She creates narrative drive by leaving things out, carefully managing what she chooses to tell, and monitoring the speed at which she tells it.
4.) She widens the lens
A memoir writer has the particular burden of having to make their own life relevant. Even Michelle Obama has to be mindful of this burden. It would be easy to talk about her own life, her own views, her own thoughts, and to try to hold our attention with the weight of history alone. But instead, she widens her lens to help the reader see the bigger picture. She speaks about the burden of being “first” and “black” at anything, Chicago city politics, American obesity, and all manner of big ideas, casting her net wide and giving her story context
5.) She shares her heart
While I was in the middle of Michelle Obama’s book, I had a nonfiction client wondering how to manage a sensitive topic in relation to one of her children. How do you write honestly when you know people close to you will be reading your work? How do you share your heart when you know that you will be judged and criticized? It’s a topic worthy of a lifetime of study — and one place I would start is to read Becoming. Michelle Obama knew her children would read her book, and her brother, and her brother’s ex-wife, and her mother, and the guy she dumped just before going to college, and the guy she dated in college, and her roommates and her roommates’ parents, and the law partners at the firm she had to leave, and her husband, and Hillary Clinton. Despite the burden of all these future readers, Michelle Obama still shares her heart. She still lets herself be vulnerable. She still says what’s real. I often talk about being generous of spirit in your writing; this is what I mean. It’s a moving example for all storytellers to claim your story and claim your power.
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