Two lives, two journeys: Memoirists capture and share experiences

Authors Tara Kelly and Ralph Sneeden read from and discussed their recent memoirs, “No Last Words” and “The Legible Element” at the White Hart Inn in Salisbury, Conn., on Thursday, Oct. 26.

The memoirs are two different animals, and as the excerpts demonstrated, the authors are two different writers: Kelly’s prose is bell-clear, her use of each detail decisive (she is a journalist), while Sneeden takes the scenic route, wandering associatively among his memories (he is a poet).

Marriage and divorce provide the framework for “No Last Words”—specifically, Kelly’s apparently glamorous marriage to a playboy alcoholic which, over the course of the book, she learns to see more and more clearly, until she can finally free herself from it.

In the passage that Kelly read aloud, her husband commands her to “wood” Raven—that is, to more or less take apart then reconstitute a boat named Raven. After some initial resistance, she agrees, and the Maine November finds her alone in a boatyard, alternately taking refuge in the workmanship of the task, and struggling against the dull bludgeon of tedium.

Speaking afterwards, Kelly nearly described the book as detailing “the things that happened to me,” but stopped herself—“everything that ‘happened to me’ happened because I said ‘yes,’” said Kelly, “until I said ‘no.’” 

In the writing of the book, she sorted among different selves, with differing degrees of agency she said—“the Tara it ‘happened to,’ the Tara who’s remembering it now, the Tara who’s putting it on the page.”

“The Legible Element” is a made up of essays that share the trope of water, as Sneeden seeks to better know himself by experimenting with different water sports (surfing, sailing, fishing, scuba diving, swimming, and skating).

In Sneeden’s words, the book describes “the foibles of a complete amateur bumbling through these activities because he wants to be connected with water in some way.”

The self he seeks in the book is amorphous and inclusive. He said he wanted to examine “the guilt or shame or selfishness—all things people have accused me of.”

“I wanted to get as close as possible to what I’m actually like,” said Sneeden.

Moderated by John Coston, Editor-in-Chief of The Lakeville Journal, the conversation was the latest installment of the White Hart Speaker Series hosted by Oblong Books in Millerton, N.Y., and the Scoville Memorial Library in Salisbury, which has hosted such writers as Simon Winchester, Samin Nosrat, and Susan Orlean in informal conversation.

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