Cover Image: The Six-Minute Memoir

The Six-Minute Memoir

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Member Reviews

Thank you NetGalley and University of Iowa Press for the eARC. 
I really liked the short memoirs! Whenever I think of memoirs, I think that they would have stories filled with drama, some big life-event, or whatnot, but the stories here aren't out-of-world extraordinary— and maybe that's what makes this special? Please don't get me wrong, the stories may be simple, but the writing is far from "boring". I found myself smiling and laughing at various moments throughout this book 😊
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I liked the shortness of the memoirs, I was doubtful about it at first but really enjoyed it in the end. The stories are so mundane, yet they are sweet and interesting to read. It is also written in a very funny way. I laughed a lot while reading this. It felt nice to read about someones life.
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I’m someone who adored reading a good essay on life, theories and pretty much anything- I’m a huge geek for educational books and this one certainly hit the spot! 

It represents normal life so well, it teaches us so much too, and in my opinion the book fulfilled its purpose. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in glamorous, luxurious high style life that we forgot what it means to live ordinarily, if there is such a thing! However I think that the normality and mundanity of the lives explored makes this one so special,
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This is a hard one to review. I love the idea of writing six minute memoirs, but for some reason, I just couldn't get into this book.
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When I stumbled onto this book while browsing upcoming titles from the University of Iowa Press, one of my favorite small publishers, I was pretty excited—I’ve seen Stefaniak speak once in person and read one of her earlier works, and I enjoyed both experiences. I also have a soft spot for Midwestern authors who write essays or memoirs about their time growing up and/or living in the middle of the country, such as Michael Perry and Jerry Apps, so I was excited to see that Stefaniak had written a memoir through short essays. I didn’t have to know anything more about it, and I dove in with lofty expectations.

Overall, while my expectations were not met—the book seemed to struggle in terms of truly understanding what its purpose was and what it was trying to accomplish—it is still a worthy read for anyone who likes real-life stories of Midwestern life, even if they seem to be utterly mundane with nothing truly happening within them, a la Seinfeld.

The collection starts out with an introduction from Stefaniak explaining that the short essays are actually columns from an Iowa-based newspaper that she wrote for over the course of three-plus decades, with all of them containing nuggets from her personal life, and they are designed to be short and sweet and to the point, ‘just how life is.’ I get the concept, and it’s creative—from a macroscopic level, we measure our lives by the important/large events that happen to us, but it’s the little moments, the small memories, and the everyday happenings that actually account for 99% of our lives. Perry and Apps seem to subscribe to that belief as well, so I was excited to read the 55 short essays that comprised this collection.

After making my way through them, I can say that I feel I know Stefaniak a little bit better, but that’s about it. The essays are about many different things—her children, her parents, her time spent growing up in Milwaukee, her purchase of a historical stagecoach inn that she converted into a house with her husband—but there doesn’t seem to be a lot that happens. Unlike Perry or Apps, who infuse their mundane everyday lives with little nuggets or characters that seem to leap off the page, we are simply told the literal happenings of Stefaniak’s life, and they aren’t necessarily that interesting. Yes, it’s nice to see someone looking back on her earlier years and appreciating the life her parents gave her, but there don’t seem to be any larger lessons gained from reading about it. Or, if there are morals or lessons that Stefaniak wants to make the reader understand, they are either very surface level (value the time spent with your parents before they’re gone; realize that your kids won’t stay young forever) or just presented as is—told, and not shown (versus the age-old creative writing axiom ‘show, don’t tell’). And that’s why I feel like Stefaniak stumbles compared to other Midwestern writers like Perry and Apps—they infuse their stories and essays with life lessons without actually laying them out step by step. Readers understand their messages by taking their writing and reading between the lines. Stefaniak does not do that here—she presents the memory, states why it’s important, and then moves on. That might work for a newspaper column, but not for a 280-page book.

Some of the anecdotes also struggled to keep my attention/sympathy. The second to last section deals with Stefaniak and her husband purchasing an old stagecoach inn and converting it into a livable house, and there are long passages about how hard it was to find the money for it and how they had to sacrifice certain architectural fancies that they originally had planned for. I realize this is a personal taste issue when I say this, but I don’t necessarily want to hear about someone who has enough money to buy and partially raze a house and then build it back up again complaining about not having enough money to want a certain style of cabinets, for example. I just frankly don’t care when there are many people in America today that can’t even afford to have a roof over their heads in the first place, let alone pay for a house, so I just became disengaged with that section and other similar ones. Admittedly, as I said, I know that’s a personal taste issue, but there were a few too many sections like that for me to stay fully engaged with the entire book.

There’s a brief section at the very end too that encourages readers to write their own ‘six-minute memoirs,’ with the ideas/subjects/topics offered up tying directly into the essays that make up the bulk of the book. There is no real introduction or explanation for it though, or any kind of creative writing lesson on what makes an actual essay or memoir ‘good’ or engaging, and it feels like the editor of the book just wanted to find a reason to try to bundle Stefaniak’s newspaper columns together into something that could sell a few copies, and they used a creative writing idea at the end for marketing purposes. It seems like an afterthought, basically, and I wish Stefaniak and/or her editor would’ve tied it into the actual book itself a little better rather than just slapping it on at the end.

This is still a decent book to have at a library though—it paints a picture of a life lived in the late 90s/early 2000s, and it can be looked at as a snapshot in time of one woman living in the Midwest and how she lived her life. From an anthropological standpoint, works like this are important, so you could find worse if you’re looking for a collection that helps readers of the future understand the daily happenings of someone in the past. This collection, unfortunately, just didn’t strike me as the most well-written/organized, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important and can’t find its audience with the right group of readers.

Thanks to NetGalley, the University of Iowa Press, and Mary Helen Stefaniak for the digital ARC of 'The Six-Minute Memoir' in exchange for an honest review.
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I picked this thinking it would be more like "heating and cooling - micro memoirs" by Beth Ann Fennelly but was surprised that it was more short story-esque, which made it a little more challenging for me to read. I thought the stories were okay, but I did not think this was for me. The writing was good and I am sure this would be a lovely addition to any short story lovers.
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Warm vignettes of a Midwestern life, doubling as prompts for ones own recollections.

Thanks to NetGalley for a free ARC.
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THE SIX-MINUTE MEMOIR is a collection of essays by Mary Helen Stefaniak originally published in The Iowa Source, a monthly magazine. The title originates from them all being about a thousand words in length, which would take about six minutes to read aloud at a comfortable pace. The topics run the gamut, but her husband, children, and swimming friends make frequent appearances.

My interest ebbed and flowed, but I appreciated the self-contained nature of the essays, not knowing what the next topic might be about but having closure until I was ready to revisit the book; my favorites have something in common: they are the multi-part installments that close the book. One series focuses on the staggering renovation they did on their home, a notable historical house that they have good evidence to suggest was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The second series was a three-parter on a health scare, titled, "My Brain Event."

I also found myself marking up the essay, "Against Multitasking" for the ways it helps articulate the mental load so often shouldered by women:

"We could argue that multitasking is one of the many burdens that have held women back for centuries. It's pretty hard to write a symphony or a novel -- or even assemble a stock portfolio or change the oil on the car -- while you're cooking dinner, helping somebody with her homework, and feeding applesauce to the baby, all at the same time. Now squeeze in a full-time job on top of that, and you've got a lot of women multitasking their way through their lives of not-so-quiet desperation."

For budding writers, she closes the book with writing prompts if you are so inspired to try your hand at your own six-minute memoir.

(I received a digital ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.)
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There might not be anything particularly interesting about the short stories in this collection, most of them seem mundane and dull. But, I really liked how the author made good long-lasting memories out of every little thing that happened to her and I really enjoyed reading about someone else's life.
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I really enjoyed this collection of stories! I love the way that the author celebrates seemingly mundane moments without decorating them in complex meaning.
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The Six-Minute Memoir: Fifty-Five Short Essays on Life was a fun read. It’s a series of short memoirs that can be read in 6 minutes or less. This is a great book to read when you’re on the go because it’s readable in little snippets.

I’m very interested in memoir as a genre, and I think Stefaniak’s concept of the six-minute memoir could be a great way to start writing my own. She even provides prompts at the end of the book to help writers get started! Even if you’re not looking to publish memoirs, a six-minute memoir is a reasonable goal for a person who wants to write their personal history and doesn’t know where to start.

I enjoyed reading Stefaniak’s observations on the people and situations around her, as well as her descriptions of place. She does a great job with setting in each of these memoirs. She also makes great connections between seemingly disparate ideas. She is alternately funny and heartfelt, and always interesting.
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The Six-Minute Memoir: Getting Lost in the Details

As a writer, I always approach memoirs with some amount of trepidation. I’ve been a serial journaler for as long as I can remember, to make up for my inability to recall small details in my day-to-day life (my long-term memory resembles Swiss cheese, at least in my perception). I fear if I were ever to write a memoir, I would never be able to scrounge up enough detail—via my journals, memory, or otherwise—to craft a convincing recount of events. 
As a reader, however, I approach memoirs with a sense of awe. Other writers seem to miraculously inject perfect detail into their prose, as crisp as biting into a fresh apple. Mary Helen Stefaniak is no exception, and reading The Six-Minute Memoir: Fifty-Five Short Essays on Life was an imaginative and vivid experience. Her command of word choice allows her to convey her “stored images,” as she calls them, quite effectively, and the experience almost felt like I was watching the memories play inside my head. In one essay, she describes a spider with “jointed legs…on the vertical semi-gloss of the kitchen wall, the exploratory wave of delicate antennae, the experimental movement of just one of the eight legs.” When written this way, the spider seems so delicate and complex. It’s wonderful what effect words can have. Style-wise, Stefaniak’s voice is consistently enjoyable, bringing a lively and sarcastic tilt to every essay. 
That being said, the “Law of Anthology” (as I have self-termed it) must be acknowledged: in any set of short writings collected together, not all of them will be hard-hitters. There’s something for everyone, though. Personally, I couldn’t care less about baseball, but I’m entirely fascinated by heart ultrasounds (as explored in her story “Cardiac Dreams: In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”). Her “Hysterical Preservation” section, a five-part story about the restoration of her house, was absolutely fascinating. And if you love reading essays about Iowa, this is certainly the book for you. So, you know…different strokes for different folks.  
Outside of talking about Iowa in nearly every memoir (which is fair, as she lived there), Stefaniak loves a good allusion (she manages to reference George Lucas and The Tell-Tale Heart in the same story). In “Great Aunts: From the Family Tree, Georgia Branch,” Stefaniak has a whole Flannery O’Connor bit going on. The first sentence hits it home: “Great aunts like mine are hard to find,” an obvious reference to O’Connor’s famous short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I will admit that of all of Stefaniak’s references, O’Connor comes up quite a bit too often to be as effective as it was the first time. Yes, we get it, you like O’Connor. It worked well for the one story, but not so much every other time it came up. 
On occasion, I find it hard to enjoy memoirs, especially in a disjointed context like this one. If I don’t feel a connection to the author, it can feel like a bit of a drag to read short memoirs like this. I started to feel this toward the middle of the book, as a lot of the essays felt rather repetitive. Toward the middle, I briefly wondered if this woman actually had anything interesting happen to her, but a rare essay here or there would change my mind. The loveliest quote can be found in “Remembering Ellen: The Porridge Club Never Forgets,” when Stefaniak’s friend says, “You can cry in the pool if you need to. Nobody will see your tears.” While I didn’t shed any tears over these memoirs, I heavily appreciate this sentiment. Perhaps after experiencing this book as a Reader of memoirs, I have softened up to the idea of being a Writer of them.
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I love the layout of this memoir and how quick each section reads, but I think with all short story collections, there’s always going to be some that stand out more than others. 

The author writes well and at times quite funny too which was an added bonus. 

3.5 stars, rounded up here for lack of ability to leave halves.
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I love the premise of this book and think it's perfect for fans of Dear Sugar - also great for those that want to read more but find themselves too busy to focus on one. This was heartwarming and accessible and I'd definitely recommend to a friend. Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC!
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Thank you to Netgalley and University of Iowa Press for the advanced copy of Mary Helen Stefanik's memoir. 

If you approach this book with the understand you won't be reading something revolutionary, you'll enjoy this book. I always think - "If someone wrote a memoir, it must be a crazy story." That's not to say that this memoir isn't worth reading, Stefanik takes a different approach by recounting stories from her life that touch upon the mundane; the little moments you'll share in conversations with friends after you've checked in about work and family. 

Stefanik was kind enough to put the prompts she used for each piece at the end of the memoir. I loved getting to see where these ideas came from and how, as a writer, I could use these prompts to build my own memoir portfolio.
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For more than two decades, Mary Helen Stefaniak wrote a column for Iowa Source magazine, focusing on the ordinary, and often very relatable, details of Midwestern life of a middle aged white woman. In these short essays collected here into a memoir, Stefaniak illustrates small snippets of her life, building a (somewhat) whole picture by the time we reach the end. I loved the idea of these short memoir essays, as they reminded me of the types of things we attempted to write in my Creative Non Fiction writing class in college, relating the personal to a larger context. Stefaniak, who grew up in Milwaukee before moving to Iowa City, felt like she could be part of my mom's family (which started out in Iowa City before moving to Milwaukee!). There's not a lot of action here, so if you're looking for one of those memoirs that will blow your mind, this is not it. Instead, these are simply a pleasure to read through, perfect for if you're just wanting a smile between the stresses of your day or a little dose of serotonin before bedtime. I enjoyed these essays quite a lot, and I think someone a generation or two older than me would enjoy them even more.

3.5 stars

Thanks to Netgalley and University of Iowa Press for an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review! I will be posting this review to my instagram and blog closer to its release date and will update this post with links at that time.
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Very well-written with several astute observations about life. Thank you, publisher and NetGalley for the ARC!
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I liked the shortness of the memoirs, I was doubtful about it at first but really enjoyed it in the end.
The stories are so mundane, yet they are sweet and interesting to read. It is also written in a very funny way. I laughed a lot while reading this. It felt nice to read about someones life.
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I am probably dating myself here, but do you, Reader, remember that Seinfeld episode when Jerry and George are selling their idea for a sitcom to NBC, and one of them says the show they're proposing is about Nothing. And the television executives' jaws kind of drop and they go, "Nothing?" 

But the joke -- and it's somewhat dark and certainly very serious -- was that it wasn't really about nothing, it was about all the nothings that make up the something, they anything of life. Oh wait, should that be Life with a capital "L" or life with a lowercase "l"? I'm not sure. Some things in life are Life events, demanding the respect of an uppercase "L" and other things are... the stuff that Stefaniak writes about in The Six-Minute Memoir: Fifty-Five Short Essays on Life. That is, the life stuff (little "l") are still, despite the derision and the banality of it, the stuff of life. 

Stefaniak, in this witty, honest, sometimes painfully raw and sometimes hilarious collection of memory snippets, reminds us to take solace and joy from the mundane, because in the end, it's all we have in this life. And because of that, by dint of simply being the stuff of life it warrants writing down, it warrants a place in our legacy. Stefaniak's prose and the stories of her life she's chosen to share with us, ranging from parenting to grand-parenting, from making friends to losing them, makes that point loud and clear. 

The essays are indeed six-minute blurps, taking that long (or sometimes less time) to read and enjoy them. Each one is not necessarily connected to the last, except that they revolve around Stefaniak's life. They are not chronologically arranged, but thematically so. A reader could drop into any one of these blips on any given day; indeed, this book makes for a lovely New Year's Day gift, something with a note that says, "Read One A Day for 55 Days, then repeat the ones you loved or made you cry."

For that same reason, The Six-Minute Memoir is a book a reader could revisit over and over, as the pace of their life changes, as age encroaches with its accompanying set of new revelations and experiences. Stefaniak belongs to a different generation than mine; they've experienced grandparenthood, the loss of friends to age and illness, they've survived their children's teenage years. I, on the other hand, am a few events behind, but in Stefaniak's essays I can see a glimpse into my possible future. The stuff of life is specific to the individual, that's true, but these events are also common ones across communities, cultures, class, race, and even historical context to a degree. Surely my grandparents and my great-grant parents would relate to the moment they realized their children were no longer children, or the day their own age became more than a known, intellectual fact and more a felt, lived, notched-into-the-bone-marrow sensation. 

The Six-Minute Memoir reminds me of the very complicated word,  "quotidian." I've always loved this word, because it is such an intricate word for what is meant to be so meaningless. What I've come to realize -- and this is what Stefaniak's book is all about -- is that the quotidian is as complex as this multi-syllabic word, this word that is spelt with the enigmatic "Q". 

So many of us will never see the alps, will never ride a horse through the hills of Outer Mongolia -- but isn't my life worth a record of its own? Yes, it is! 

At the end of the The Six-Minute Memoir Stefaniak provides the reader with a chance to add our own stories to the archive. This is one of the best parts of the book, one of the elements which makes it worth purchasing and hanging onto for future use. Stefaniak gives the reader a selection of Writing Prompts, subtitled, "Write Your Own Six-Minute Memoirs". 

I can think of no better ode to this collection than to follow that directive. So, here goes. My very own 6-minute memoir... 

The prompt: "Describe... a photo you wish you had taken -- or one that you have lost." 


Melaka is a small city in Malaysia just a couple of hours drive south of the capital, Kuala Lumpur by highway. It sits on the east coast of the country, looking out towards the Indonesian island of Java and over a narrow sliver of calm sea that kingdoms, empires, and nations have desired and fought over for over a thousand years, the Strait(s) of Malacca. The strait was the pathway to China, where traders since the 8th century acquired lacquer, paints, dyes, porcelain, and silk (among other things including weapons, horse saddles, cabinetry, animal skins, you-name-it-they-got-it.) The strait was the entry point to the riches of Southeast Asia too, a place that uniquely produced fragrant spices and herbs like pepper, galangal, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon, and woods like sandalwood and teak. For centuries Roman, Greek, African, Islamic and Hindu traders came from all over the world -- from North Africa to South Asia -- to network with local tribes and chiefs to obtain these goods and access to the larger markets in China. Then in the 14th century, the Portuguese arrived, paving the way for the English, the Dutch, and later the French. 

The city that housed the port controlling this coveted bit of sea is Melaka (previously, Malacca). It became the epicenter of these mercantile endeavors and in the 15th century it became the target of these nations jealousies, a symbol and method of economic and political control over the region. Melaka was lost to the Malays who had ruled it for hundreds of years, coming under the governance of various European nations until 1957 when the thirteen Malay states re-asserted its independence. In 1963 the states combined themselves into the nation we know today as Malaysia. 

Melaka, with its history, became a UNESCO Heritage site in 2008. But even before then its significance was famous. Jonker Street was (and remains) a huge tourist attraction, for its quaint architecture, its Nyonya restaurants, its hodgepodge of old and new, precolonial, colonial, postcolonial elements, its pop-music blaring rickshaws and tee-shirt/tie-dye sarong shopping, its utter Malaysianness. 

I'd always been interested in history. I don't remember a time when I wasn't. Melaka was a favorite weekend getaway for me and I often asked my parents to go there. One year I had gotten myself a fancy, SLR camera. It wasn't a digital one, like the ones you get today. It was a manual Pentax, one of the newer ones made in China. Nonetheless, it was expensive and I had had to save up many, many months of allowances to get it. I bought it in a shop near Bukit Bintang, near where Sungei Wang and the Metrojaya shopping complex used to be. It was one of those shophouses where the aircon was always blowing out into the walkway. I really wanted a fish eye lens and some other fancy stuff, but could only afford the camera and some film. My mother and I went and I spent about $800 ringgit on it. A fortune when you are fifteen years old and have $50 ringgit a month for fun stuff and school lunches. (God, I miss my kanteen food.)

I bought black and white film and color film. My father agreed to drive the three of us down to Melaka for a weekend trip. I saw the excursion as an opportunity for a photoshoot. We wandered around Jonker Street, walked up the hill to the ruins of St Paul's cathedral, roamed through the ghastly Portuguese, Dutch, and British graves, toured the Stadthuys, the former Dutch administrative building turned into a museum. We ate chicken rice and Melaka Nyonya kuih desserts. I don't remember much actually. 

But I remember my father asking me in an exasperated tone, "Why are you taking pictures of the buildings? Where are the people in your pictures?"

He was right. I avoided taking photos of people in my photographs. I narrowed in on small architectural details like crumbling cornices, focused on the dark green moss growing on a white washed wall, the facade of a shop house. 

He said, "It's the people who are important."

I disagreed in typical teenage form, through silence and with a surreptitious eye roll. I felt that he did not understand my aesthetic. I was trying to capture a past, an embodied past. Ironically, I saw this past in the concrete objects of buildings and things, but not in people. I did not understand then, as I do now, that history and DNA are entangled, that memory and fact are two sides of the same coin, and that the treasured object (history) is not a static artifact. 

I realize now he was right and I was foolish. It took me a few decades after that weekend trip to realize this. Had I taken photographs of people, I might have noticed that 

I do not remember those photos I took. I have no idea where they are. It is likely because no one I know is in them. 

What matters in my memories are the people who were there. I remember nothing else but the sense of their presence, their smell, their voice, their laughter, their sadness or their anger. 

I wish I'd known that and taken pictures of them, my parents and myself with them.
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The Six-Minute Memoir by Mary Helen Stefaniak. I was thinking I'd like to read more memoirs and this one popped up in front of me on #netgalley. I was a little afraid they'd be very local to Iowa and rely on local knowledge. The reality was the opposite! These well-written columns were masterworks of universal observation. From slice of life stories of travel experiences, family, community and work stories, these columns took six minutes to read but clearly represented much effort and meticulous editing to leave just what was necessary. I especially enjoyed the ones that celebrated people - friends and acquaintances, at once generous and dry, eagle-eyed and witty. #maryhelenstefaniak has a sure, intelligent, funny voice. I'm looking for her novels now. Highly recommended. 
Publication date October 25. Thanks to Netgalley, the author and publisher for this advance digital copy.
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