Reading Kelly Corrigan’s Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say is like reading a letter from a dear friend whom you can talk to about anything, who makes you laugh when you feel distinctly humorless or who can just sit quietly with you when talking feels like too great an effort.
Not surprisingly, in the 10 years since her first book, the bestselling memoir The Middle Place, Corrigan has become a voice that people really like to hear, whether in TED Talks, her podcast series “Exactly” or in her subsequent memoirs, Lift (2010) and Glitter and Glue (2014). Her latest memoir, Tell Me More, is a collection of essays about 12 phrases that she is working on saying more and have proved central to Corrigan’s life. They can be difficult things to say, like “I don’t know” and “No,” or phrases that are ostensibly easier to utter—but perhaps aren’t—like “Yes” and “I love you.” In every entry, Corrigan unpacks her life with poignancy and humor as she wrestles with relatable issues, from family blow-ups to unruly pets to debilitating grief, and muses on the things that give life levity and beauty.
But beneath every illuminating, empathetic entry in Tell Me More, there is grief and love that ebb and flow for Corrigan’s friend Liz, who recently died of cancer. Corrigan is a cancer survivor herself, and the disease marks a place in each of her books. “I’m 50, and it feels like half the people I know have had cancer,” Corrigan says during a call to her home outside San Francisco, where she lives with her husband, two daughters and their dog. “Frankly, cancer, in the ways I’m dealing with it in the book, is just my version of crisis. . . . Your version might be unemployment, financial setbacks, your parents have Alzheimer’s—you can sub in anything you want. [Tell Me More] is not so much about cancer, but about crisis.”
Cancer played a part in Corrigan’s initial decision to pursue a career in writing over a decade ago. “I’ve always written in a journal to help make sense of my life, and I’m a huge letter-writer,” she says. But her father’s terminal illness provided a new, urgent deadline to begin writing. “Self-publishing was just becoming a thing [10 years ago], so I self-published The Middle Place. The visual of handing my dad a book was enough to motivate me to write it.” The book’s later traditional publication, she says, was the “realization of a lifetime fantasy.”
It also began a transition into a writer’s life, one that’s grounded in communicating stories and learning about others’ lives. That’s a dream setup for Corrigan. “I ask a lot of questions. I’ve definitely been teased by friends for wanting a conversation to go deeper or further.” After all, she says, “That’s why readers are readers: We have some unanswered questions. Every friend I have, I’m asking them hard questions all the time. I want to know how everyone’s doing everything, [about] their relationship with their parents, their biggest fight with their spouse, who they despise at work and why. I want to know! I think that’s more interesting than almost anything.”
Corrigan’s burning curiosity isn’t one-sided, though, and in Tell Me More, she turns that gaze on herself with great skill and insight. During the writing of the book, Corrigan says she “needed and wanted something to hold onto. . . . My father and friend died, and I’m not a much better person for it—I’m still getting sucked into trivial, quotidian bulls**t. I’m still feeling sorry for myself.”
“It’s the ultimate compliment you could give me, that I helped you understand your life better.”
The result is a mix of workaday aggravation and philosophical beauty. For example, the chapter titled “It’s Like This” is about a hectic weekday morning gone maddeningly wrong, but it’s also a meditation on grief, impatience, her daughters’ quirks and the ways she and her husband handle stress. It’s also an excellent representation of how our initial reactions to events might be influenced by something else entirely. As the author writes, “Hidden in the morning’s frustrations, like a rattlesnake in the woodpile, is something else. I close my eyes so I can listen for the other thing—the further-away, much worse thing—in the quiet of my own head.”
When asked why she thinks people respond so well to her, both on the page and in person, she says, “Articulating emotions and notions is something I’ve done before you hear it coming out of my mouth. . . . I think that’s why people say, ‘I wish I could put my finger on it the way you do.’ I say, right, because I’m trying hard to, that’s my job, that’s my profession. I’m very happy to do that for all of us. It’s a total thrill for me, that I’m being useful in this way. It’s the ultimate compliment you could give me, that I helped you understand your life better or put words to something you couldn’t articulate.”
Tell Me More will be perhaps even more overtly useful than Corrigan’s earlier books. Its phrasal chapter headings like “I Was Wrong” and “Good Enough” make it easy for readers to turn to sections that speak to them. “To me, Tell Me More is all the more useful [because of] the way it’s laid out,” Corrigan says. “I could be more subtle about it. . . . But again, a huge impetus for me is to be useful—to make myself useful. I needed to boil it down to something memorable for my own sake.”
During her 20-city book tour for Tell Me More, Corrigan is looking forward to hearing which of the 12 phrases most resonate with readers: “One thing I’m really psyched to hear is what other sentences people are clinging to.” Plus, she says with a laugh, “I’m so grateful anyone wants to talk about my writing.”
Author photo by Mellie T. Williams