Resources for Writing Memoir
Recently I tweeted this advice on writing memoir: “Please don’t submit your memoir until you’ve read 20 good memoirs and 5 books on writing memoir—and learned from them.”
I didn’t mean you shouldn’t write your memoir until you’ve done all that. But while you’re writing, I hope you’re taking the craft seriously, and learning about it by reading other memoirs, and reading books about how to write it. By the time you get to the point of submitting to agents or publishers, you should be very well acquainted with the genre.
After my tweet, many people asked me for recommendations, so here’s a short list. You can also Google “best memoirs” and find a lot more.
My favorite books about writing memoir:
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
Still Writing by Dani Shapiro
Your Life As Story by Tristine Rainer
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington
Inventing the Truth by William Zinsser
Living to Tell the Tale by Jane Taylor McDonnell
Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas
Writing for Story by Jon Franklin
Story by Robert McKee
Follow the Story by James Stewart
A few of my favorite memoirs (there are a lot more):
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (of course)
Lit by Mary Karr
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
The Color of Water by James McBride
Wild/em> by Cheryl Strayed
Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman
Marley and Me by John Grogan
Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Wall
Leaving the Saints by Martha Beck
Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent
sorry…. it’s Tell IT Slant (oops)
I’ve read many memoirs and most of the ones already mentioned here, but I must add The Tender Bar–the best one I’ve ever read (and I used to say that about The Liars’ Club). You must read both of those. Also anything by Lamott.
The best how-to book is Tell is Slant.
[…] Rachelle Gardner literary agent at Books N Such agency–advice on memoir […]
“A Boy I Once Knew” by Elizabeth Stone is great example of memoir writing.
I’ve read many on your list and agree they are wonderful. I also enjoyed The Boys of My Youth by JoAnn Beard, This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein. Finally, I never imagined I’d connect so much with Boy Alone by Karl Taro Greenfeld.
Shauna Niequist author of Cold Tangerines, Bittersweet, and Bread and Wine is one of my favorites. I’m also halfway through Jesus, My Father, the CIA & Me by Ian Cron.
[…] 5. Meanwhile, create a reading plan for yourself. Set a goal for the next year or so of reading at least 20 good memoirs and 5 books about writing memoir. I have a blog post in which I said exactly that, and also gave plenty of recommendations for books to read. The post is a couple of years old, so you’ll be able to find many books that are more recent. But here’s the post: Resources for Writing Memoir. […]
Thanks for the list. I’m not one that has read many memoirs, but I must weigh in here. My favorite memoir, and one that has helped shape the American consciousness, must be Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
Congrats on your SEO success. I just did a Google Search for Best Selling Literary Memoirs and this page came up at the top. Because I have visited your site before, I wondered whether a cookie was influencing the organic results, so I went to a desktop in a contiguous office. Same results. Might be a niche to continue developing…
I am LOVING Garlic and Sapphires. Thanks for the suggestion!
Thanks for this list Rachelle. I really enjoyed reading ‘Almost French’ by Sarah Turnbull, but then I think one of the biggest selling points for reader’s about memoirs is the ability to relate to the story in some way, be it big or small.
I liked Stephen King’s memoir On Writing and loved A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas. Thanks for the reading suggestions!
[…] pay special attention to the books that are recommended for those wanting to write memoir (in the resources post). Spend six months to a year in this process of studying and learning, while you’re also […]
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This really answered my problem, thank you!
Wow! This is too funny. Someone tweeted this today, July 22, 2011 and I didn’t even realize it was over a year old! Still totally applicable. Glad to have found this, albeit it a year late. 🙂
The Glass Castle is also on my favorites list. For those looking for similar memoirs I also recommend This Boy’s Life (Tobias Wolff) and Stop Time (Frank Conroy). This is a great post, Rachelle. I’m going to link to it from Hippocampus Magazine’ resources page.
>To Be Told by Dan Allender the book and workbook are good for writing your story also.
>*Walking With God by John Eldredge
*When the Heart Waits by Sue Monk Kidd
*Free to Be Me by Betty Robison
*Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
*Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
>Memoir is a favorite of mine, if done well. A few excellent books in this genre:
Angela's Ashes–Frank McCourt
Lit–Mary Karr (and Liar's Club)
Me Talk Pretty One Day–David Sedaris
Crazy For God–Frank Schaeffer
Walking Through The Fire–Laurel Lee (& her subsequent books)
Pilgrim At Tinker Creek–Annie Dillard
The Irrational Season, Circle of Quiet–Madeleine L'Engle
Now I can't wait to check out the books others have mentioned!
>One of my favorite memoirs is "The Dance of the Dissident Daughter" by Sue Monk Kidd.
>One of my favourite books about writing memoir is Vivian Gornick's 'The Situation and the Story: the art of personal narrative.' From this I also learnt about a superb memoir, 'All the Strange Hours: the excavation of a life' by Loren Eiseley. An amazing story from an amazing man.
>I just tweeted this. Thanks for sharing! 🙂
The Victorian Heroine
Why i can’t see the pictures on your blog ?
>I just finished "The Cracker Queen" by Lauretta Hannon (fabulous!) and loved memoirs by Hollis Gillespie ("Trailer Trashed"), Susan Isaacs ("Angry Conversations with God"), Donald Miller ("Blue Like Jazz") and Anne LaMott ("Traveling Mercies").
>I think these haven't been mentioned:
"Change Me Into Zeus's Daughter" by Barbara Robinette Moss (poverty, alcoholism, amazing ch1)
"Waking" by Matthew Sanford (paralysis+yoga)
"A Match to the Heart" by Gretel Ehrlich (struck by lightning)
"Crazy for the Storm" by Norman Ollestad (11yr old only survivor of plane crash)
>I agree with many others on: On Writing – King; Glass Castles – Walls; Year of Magical Thinking – Didion; Last Lecture – Pausch. I would add two that I read many years ago and helped broaden my perspective of the world as a young person every bit as much as The Diary of Anne Frank. They are: Eighth Moon, by Sansan, as told to Bette Lord and If I Die at Thirty by Meg Woodson.
>Many of my favorites have already been mentioned–in addition to those, I'd like to mention "She Got Up Off the Couch" by Haven Kimmel, "A Wolf at the Table" by Augusten Burroughs, "Fat Girl" by Judith Moore, "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" by Bill Bryson.
>I love memoir and am writing one myself. Most of my favorites have already been mentioned — among them, Ann Patchett, Mary Karr, Jeannette Walls, Joan Didion, Martha Beck — but let me add:
LIMBO by A. Manette Ansay
Thanks for all the new ideas!
>Awesome post! I ditto so many of the recommendations, especially Anne Lamott, David Sedaris, Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face and Alice Sebold's Lucky.
Some others that I don't think have been mentioned:
Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett (esp. if you liked Grealy's book)
JoAnn Beard's The Boys of My Youth
Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief
And if you want to try something different, consider memoirs that are told in third person, such as J. M. Coetzee's Youth: Scenes from a Provincial Life and Gaylene Perry's Midnight Water .
I thought this was a great second-person memoir: An Italian Love Affair by Laura Fraser.
Two memoirs that use a combo of first and third person to great effect: A Shining Affliction by Annie G. Rogers and Prozac Diary by Lauren Slater.
As for books on craft, Vivian Gornick's The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative is good (the second half is a tough read, but I really found the first half to be insightful).
Thanks again for a great post and an equally great discussion in the comments!
>By far my favourite "how to write a memoir" book – _Fearless Confessions_ by Sue Willam Silverman.
>I agree with many of the suggestions here – Kelly Corrigan's The Middle Place, anything by Anne Lamott. I'd like to add one I don't see: An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken. Beautiful, spare, painful and lovely.
>Great post. I specialise in teaching people to write memoir and also mentor people through the whole process so this is definitely one to retweet.
As an expat who has lived abroad for 22 years in 5 countries I have focused on helping other expats to write their memoirs and, in case there are others here keen to see what memoirs I recommend in this genre, here goes:
Don'Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs, she thinks I am a piano player in a whorehouse by Paul Carter because it is funny, crude at times and a darn good read – by a bloke who works on rigs.
Sol Searching by Keidi Keating, because she's turned chicklit into memoir and she's only in her 20s and wrote this self-depracating, honest story of her crushing loneliness when she arrived and then how she built a fab business in the Costa del Sol.
Petite Anglaise, by Catherine Sanderson, because it began as a blog and has a real plot about a real expat looking, often vainly for love in Paris.
I have a free report on my website about the seven secrets for writing life story if anyone would like to go and grab a copy.
>Rachelle — Thanks, I'll look for that in the used bookstore then.
>Susan Isaac's "Angry Conversations with God" is an unexpected favorite of mine. The story of her spiritual journey had many familiar elements and I think it's one of the best examples of "snark" done right.
>I too enjoyed Thin Places by Mary DeMuth
It wasn't an error, but I guess I should have mentioned that Zinsser's book was from 1987 and I think it's out of print.
Zinsser has a more recent book on memoir that is also good: Writing About Your Life.
>Hi Rachelle! Thank you for your list of books. I'm planning to write my grandmother's biography (probably not for national publication), and I don't generally read memoirs, so I'm really glad to have a place to start with this genre.
I think there is a transcription error in your list of books about writing memoirs, though. Amazon says "Inventing the Truth" was written by Russell Baker, not William Zinsser. Zinsser wrote a book called "Writing About Your Life."
>Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng
come immediately to mind.
Thanks for generating a great reading list!
>Memoirs, eh? Why don't they write these as fantasies or science fiction? I don't read a lot of memoirs (or write them, for that matter), but a few I've read that i liked:
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
any short story collection by David Sedaris
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
I'm calling those memoirs. If they're not, well… they're memoir-y. I give up.
I'd like to see someone mention A Million Little Pieces or The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. 😉
>A client at the organization where I work is writing a memoir, and I've read part of it – it sure is going to be an interesting read! (I work in supportive housing for previously homeless and mentally ill adults). But she was originally writing it for therapeutic measures, but a few staff have jumped on it and said "Well why doesn't Jessica help you out at editing it and publishing it? She's written a novel!" Oh my dear. I may read a few of these choice gems even if it doesn't go that far!
>Loving the comments! I've read my fair share of memoirs they make for fun reads, sort of like 'reality reading'. I've enjoyed several titles already mentioned.
Here's a few that have made great beach reads in the past; Paula Deen 'It ain't all about the cookin' It details her marriages and how she started from nothing and worked her way up to the top. It also gives an account of how she got her literary agent.
Also, I confess, I've read all four of Jen Lancaster's memoirs. (Yes four). I don't think I've laughed that loud or consistently throughout a book (or books in this case) ever.
Have a great day Rachelle!
>I'm probably repeating a lot of everyone else's favorites, but these are mine:
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek–Annie Dillard
Anne Lamott's trilogy: Traveling Mercies, Plan B, and Grace Eventually. Not sure if Bird by Bird falls into this category, but it should. 🙂
Blue Like Jazz–Donald Miller
Facing East, and At the Corner of East and Now, both by Frederica Mathewes-Green. She mixes memoir with Eastern Orthodoxy, the first book with the Orthodox Church Year and the second with an EO worship service.
The Middle Place–Kelly Corrigan
On Writing–Stephen King
Evangelical Is Not Enough–Thomas Howard (brother of Elisabeth Elliott). Still wanting to read his follow-up books that trace his entering the Roman Catholic Church.
Confessions by Saint Augustine. Just ahd to throw it in–perhaps the first Christian memoir???? 😉
>What a great list of book titles. I'll just add Mary Karr, whose latest memoir, Lit, is amazing.
I was just told by a big Canadian publisher that they've received so many "high-concept" memoir proposals these days and they are feeling memoir-ed out. I was quite shocked, if only because I don't think it's a genre that's going away. Finding the gems is their job. But also, I tried to imagine him saying that about fiction….
>My three favorite memoirs are:
Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
Lucky by Alice Sebold
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
>I've actually never read a memoir. But I'll remember this post, Rachelle, because some day I want to write one about my love story, since my husband & I courted.
>Sorry, meant to say Chasing Superwoman! Whoops.
>Loved Angela's Ashes and The Glass Castle. Enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love — but thought it needed to be edited down a bit!
Just finished Evolving in Monkey Town last night and loved it — I feel a real kinship with Rachel Held Evans, even though our religious background and upbringing are very different.
Love, love Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott…but not sure if that's considered memoir, personal narrative, or essays.
Chasing Supermom is next on my list — I "met" Susan via one of your tweets. Thank you for that — she is wonderful!
>Here's a question from someone who knows nothing about memoirs. Is it the same as an autobiography, but it's just not called that anymore?
>My all-time favorite memoir is Annie Dillard's An American Childhood. From Ruth Reichl, I like her Tender at the Bone even more than Garlic and Sapphires.
>I don't read a lot of memoirs but Angela's Ashes is my favorite. Also, just finished Evolving in Monkey Town and loved it!
>OK – is there anything better than recommending a book to someone you respect (an agent no less) and the put it up as an example of what they love? (OK – maybe writing a book and that all happening.)
I can tell by the speed from downloaded to blog post that you didn't put down Orange is the New Black either. (I know you had a lot of recommendations for it,not just me, but still, small thrill.)
>Here are a few of my fav's:
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
Manic: A Memoir, Terry Cheney
Return to Sawyerton Springs, Andy Andrews
Three Weeks with my Brother, Nicholas Sparks
Have a Little Faith, Mitch Albom
On Writing, Stephen King
Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt
God in the Alley: Being & Seeing Jesus in a Broken World, Greg Paul
Some are funny. Some are sad. All are real and raw and help us see more of humanity . . . and in the process, more of ourselves. Today, I'm thankful for memoir-ists.
>Love in the Driest Season by Neely Tucker. Loved this book.
>Author John Saul does a wonderful workshop on the writer's "what if," that 25 word or less summation of your story. It applies as much to memoir as to any other genre.
I found that keeping the What If in mind helps tremendously in knowing what to edit out. I think memoir more than other genres requires we go down some of those side paths of story as we write. It's part of the discovery process. But it also makes editing difficult. The What If helps to clarify what belongs, or doesn't, and to give the author editorial distance.
>Thin Places by Mary E. DeMuth. Absorbing, gut-wrenching, well-written, profound. A must read.
>Here are some favorites, by rough type (obviously, memoir transcends type) –
Oil Notes by Rick Bass – Vocation
She Got Up Off the Couch, by Haven Kimmel – Childhood
Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen – the obligatory "I used to be crazy" memoir, but a good one
Needles, by Andie Dominick – Illness
Thin Places, by Mary DeMuth – Abuse
On Writing, by Stephen King – Writer's Memoir, Memoirist's Writing.
American on Purpose, by Craig Ferguson – Addiction and Immigration and Humor
The Kids Are All Right, by the Welch siblings – Family tragedy, orphanhood, survival
>Such gems in the comments! YOUR LIFE AS STORY is the best book I've read on writing memoir so far. Also enjoyed THINKING ABOUT MEMOIR.
I'm reading THE GLASS CASTLE now!
>Great post, you wrote this just when I needed it!
I am in the process of editing my memoir, and I will be sure to read several of the books you mentioned.
I loved Glass Castle and Marley and me. A Boy Called it is probably one of my favorit memoirs. It is utterly heartbreaking, but you can't help but feel a connection.
I was not too crazy about Eat, Pray, Love, and honestly I can't even say why.
I am currently reading You say Tomato, I say shut up, it is funny but not as comical as I thought it would be. Still a fun read though.
>Kelly Corrigan's "The Middle Place" was the first memoir I read that made me shout, "YES!!" I absolutely love that book and her wonderfully personal voice. She has inspired me in so many ways. Her newest book, "Lift," is also great.
>My favorite was Kate Braestrup's "Here if you need me" – about her life as a police chaplain after her policeman husband was killed in a freak accident. It's a wonderful exploration of life, death, and love. My most recent favorite for very different reasons is "Publish this book" by Stephen Markley, a 24 year old cheeky, clever, ironic author. It was a fun ride.
Memory Writers Network
>I read a lot of memoir and autobiography/biography. Some of my favorites I read years ago, like Agatha's Christie's autobiography. Daphne Phelps has a lovely one–A House in Sicily. Summer at Tiffany's was also an exciting memoir. I love travel memoir, too, but I'll refrain. I could spend all day listing my favorites.
>Eat, Pray, Love is my favorite. I read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress not too long ago. It was good, funny.
>I agree with several of your choices. LOVE Eat, Pray, Love and Marley & Me. Rick Bragg was a huge surprise to me, and I just fell in love with him when I read All Over But the Shoutin'. I just love when an author surprises me.
>After reading your tweet last week, I began putting together a list of the memoirs I've read over the years …it's getting longer than I thought it would.
Here's some of my favorites …
Gifted Hands by Ben Carson
Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Girl Meets God: A Memoir by Lauren F. Winner
Angry Conversations with God: A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir by Susan E. Isaacs
The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan
O Me of Little Faith by Jason Boyett
Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans
I'm posting the 30+ list on my blog today.
>All of Anne Lamott's memoirs, especially Operating Instructions and Traveling Mercies.
Expecting Adam by Martha Beck–This inspired me to write my own memoir on a similar theme, although I was not successful in finding a publisher until I changed the manuscript so it's not pure memoir. Publishers seem very hesitant to publish memoirs by unknown people, despite the impression that memoirs are very successful.
>Gotta admit I was howling (in spite of its profane content) in B&N while perusing "Marrying George Clooney." The author claims to have written most of the book during the insomnia-driven, sweaty nights of menopause. One of her recurring fantasies is that she marries George! If nothing else, it's a brilliant title… 🙂
>"Birds, Beasts and Relatives" by Gerald Durrell.
>"All Over But The Shoutin'" was one of the first books I read in the memoir genre, but it definitely had me hooked! One of my recent favorites is John Grogan's "The Longest Road Home," essentially the story of his faith journey. Next up is journalist Roger Rosenblatt's memoir about helping to raise his grandkids after his daughter dies. It's called "Making Toast."
For as many memoirs as I've devoured, I've only read a few of the memoir-writing books Rachelle recommends here. That's my next goal! I am trying to decide what form my own story should take, and am studying these books for clues and direction.
Whether I succeed in writing a memoir or not, it probably will always remain one of my favorite genres. I think the attraction is that memoirs often have a "literary" feel. In the middle of reading, I can stop and read a gorgeous sentence aloud to my husband and say, "Isn't that fantastic, the way he put those words together?" For all I hear about avoiding writing in a way that draws attention to itself, I sure don't mind reading a simply amazing paragraph and appreciating the author's genius!
Very few novels stick with me in the way a well-told memoir does—and if there's anything I ask from wonderful writing, it's that it never let me go…..
>oh- and thanks for the good suggestions of 'How To' books. I think the problem with a lot of memoir-wannabes is that either their story is really boring (not trying to be mean), or that their voice is really boring.
I could read Augusten Burroughs talking about a trip to the grocery store and think it was the best story ever written, because he's so hilarious. Or a historical memoir because it's such a good story and written well.
Two more- I think they would fall into the memoir category.
First They Killed My Father- by Loung Ung (a story about a Cambodian girls life when the Khmer Rouge took over- she tells it in the POV of her as a child)
"Wild Swans" by Jung Chang- This isn't just memoir because it covers her grandmother and mothers life, along with her own growing up in China- but I'd still say that it's an excellent book that you could learn a lot from!
Ok, I'll quit now….
>First Comes Malaria, Then Comes Love is a super funny memoir of a first time author, Eve Browne-Waite.
>I'm sure you already know this, but they are making Eat, Pray, Love into a movie! The previews looked really good and I love Julia Roberts.
I don't read a whole lot of Memoirs. But of the few that I've read, the one that really sticks out as my favorite was:
Thin Places, by Mary DeMuth
Talk about a powerful read!
>I adore this genre. I gravitate toward memoirs. I’m at home writing women’s fiction for now, but someday I hope to try my hand at memoir. Some of my favorites: Agree with your Marley (posted about this yesterday) and Glass Castle, a nod to Evolving in Monkey Town, Angela’s Ashes (did I read somewhere it doesn’t count as memoir?). Anything Lamott or Miller wrote in this genre, and Mennonite in a Little Black Dress cracked me up. I’ll be checking back often today to look for new books to order.
>Rachelle, thanks for your list. I enjoyed Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.
>My friend just finished Eat, Pray, Love and suggested it to me. I'll add it to my list once I'm done with BOTY entries.
I admit I don't read many memoirs. I need to step outside of my reading box. Your list is a great start to choose something new.
>Thanks for this post Rachelle. I take the art of writing memoir very seriously and am currently investing in having a professional third party read it. I also have numerous beta readers who read for me. You are right, one can get too close to the work.
Having a story and being able to tell it are two completely different things. I believe in mine and I want to give it every chance by making sure I do my homework.
I am well on my way to having read through your list of suggested titles as well as others. Thanks for this list. I intend to study them all.
Thanks again 🙂
>My favourite memoirs are Long Quiet Highway and The Great Failure, both by Natalie Goldberg.
I'm sure I'll think of others as soon as I've posted my comment – thanks for the recommendations, Rachelle 😀
>Not all memoirs have fairy tale plots and fantasy endings. The thing about writing a memoir, you are correct, is that the writter is the closest to the material. I think knowing when to expand and when to pull back is key in where your story is going and in keeping the reader along the journey. But the other thing about a memoir is that it is a collection of facts, written for a pourpose or to simply share the journey with others. If an ending seems tacked on in the end it is because there has to be some message for the reader, a last thought to leave them with. By the time you hit the ending, you are out of the story telling of facts and in to the promise of hope for the future. So it does seem a bit odd and different than the rest of the book. That should be expected. I cant change my past, therefore, my memoir tells the true journey of where I've been, ending with the hope for the future, in where I am today and where I am going from here. There is ugly and there is beautiful. There are a million ways to twist a story to fit the reader, or to rewrite it until it is marketable. I choose to write my memoir in fact and visceral emotion. I cant make it a lie. I know that you represent Christian based books. I have a God, but my spirituality does not change the fact that past might be a little too uncomfortable for some to read. Please note the difference between a bad past and a bad story. They are not the same thing. Yes it takes a lot of work to write a best selling book. If it is a profession or a career choice to write, than training is in order. I think that risk taking is appropriate in the right situations. I know there is an audience for my book. I believe in it. Thank you for your opinion. I just dont want people to feel discouraged after reading this post. If you believe in your work and you've given it your best effort and no one has picked it up yet, keep trying. You will get there.
>This Boy's Life? A classic.
>The Last Lecture – uplifting and inspirational while being a tear jerker all at the same time.
>I second "The Glass Castle". What a fantastic read. I couldn't put it down.