Memoir Craft Writing Books
In which I provide an overview of a few books I've read about memoir
When I started writing My Own Private Waste Land, I didn’t intend to write a memoir at all. I was writing about my brother and his tragic life. Despite his being 10 years older, we were bound tightly by genetics, so much so that I spent much of my life being confused for him. When we becames suicidal and developed major depressive disorder, I unconsciously started looking over my shoulder, wondering when was my turn. But it doesn’t work that way. Still, it had an effect.
When I finally realized I was writing a memoir, I started reading as many memoirs as I could get my hands on as well as writing books and memoir craft writing books. Here’s a listing of a few that I would recommend for anyone contemplating writing a memoir.
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Memory, like the weather, is a fickle lover. It’s inconsistent, moody, and tempestuous at times. It’s inconstant and it changes its mind. Memory isn’t a hard and fast file system in your brain. It’s an ever-evolving dynamic interaction between present happenings and our remembrance of an event.
Because of memory’s inconstant nature, the art of memoir — telling the story of a piece of one’s life — is as difficult a writing task as they come.
We live in a golden age of memoir. Just scanning the papers each day, you can learn of all the new celebrity memoirs released or about to be released. People’s lives are interesting. We learn how famous people became famous and how successful people became successful. We learn that even the rich and famous have their faults and shames and have to put their pants on one leg at a time.
You don’t have to be famous to write a memoir. Everybody has a story to tell that may be interesting to others. There is a big difference between 1) writing your story, and 2) building an audience and doing the marketing necessary to get your story to its intended audience.
So let’s deal with one thing at a time: writing your memoir. You’ve decided you have a story to tell and you think it’ll be interesting to others. Now what?
Here are 5 outstanding books about writing your memoir, ones I have found useful. There are hundreds of books to help you write your memoir. There are tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of memoirs you can read as examples of the genre. Reading memoirs and about writing memoirs will give you the background and the confidence to tell your own story. Let’s dive in.
I’ve spent 4 years writing my memoir. In that time, I read dozens of memoirs and books about writing memoir. It’s the academic in me. Read, learn, apply. I hope you find something in here of value for your writing efforts.
1. The Memoir and the Memoirist by Thomas Larson
Larson’s book is by far my favorite book about writing memoir. This 2007 book covers the history of memoir as well as the difference between autobiography and memoir. He explores memory, writer’s voice, the idea of truth-telling, writing the authentic, and the idea of self or selves in writing memoir. Through it all, he illustrates how his ideas by looking at what successful memoirists have done, with careful analysis and insight into the craft.
If there is only one book on writing memoir that you have time to look at, make it The Memoir and the Memoirist.
2. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Goldberg’s book is now a classic in the field, guiding memoirist for over 30 years. Goldberg offers short chapters, 1–2–3 pages in length. They are parables about life and writing and what one must do to write a memoir. Her books is much as a primer for writing in general as for the memoirist in particular. And for that reason alone, reading Goldberg will make you a better writer, period.
Along with Larson’s book, I pick up Goldberg’s from time to time and reread a chapter here and there. It’s inspiring and keeps me engaged with my writing.
3. Fearless Confessions by Sue William Silverman
Silverman may be the least well known of the authors mentioned here but her guide to writing memoir is a heavyweight in the field. She has experience writing about a deeply personal history and has bared all to show how she was able to overcome all the doubts and anxieties that sharing everything leads to in this world. Because of her openness, her book is an invaluable look at what it takes to tell your most intimate stories.
Silverman’s book includes writing exercises and excerpts from memoirs, essays that illustrate how other memoirists have tackled the problems she writes about. But don’t be fooled. This is another book that’s as much about the general craft of writing as it is about writing memoir.
4. Writing About Your Life by William Zinsser
Zinsser is the writer and writing teacher that most writers look to with awe. His is some of the finest writing about writing that we have. But he’s also a writer himself, spent his life devoted to the written word: writing it, editing it, and teaching it.
Writing About Your Life is Zinsser’s contribution to the literature of memoir writing. Most of his writing is connected to stories of lived life. He tells stories those stories and how those stories came to be writing. So in this book, you get Zinsser at his best telling stories and then Zinsser that master teacher of writing show you how he worked with words and the problems of story-telling to tell those particular tales. He takes you through the larger world, school, places, memory, people, and dealing with the past.
As master teacher of writing, Zinsser’s book is a primer in writing surpassing most general writing books you will find. But for writing memoir, it’s an indispensable part of any memoirist’s bookshelf.
5. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir edited by William Zinsser
This is a bonus edition. Zinsser offers a few words about memoir writing in the introduction, declaring way back in 1998 that “This is the ge of the memoir.” In that, he was right and the memoir as an art has not slowed one bit. In fact, it’s probably picked up speed.
The rest of the book is filled with excerpts from exceptionally well-written memoirs by Russell Baker, Jill Ker Conway, Annie Dillard, Ian Frazier, Henry Louis Gates Jr, Alfred Kazin, Frank McCourt, Toni Morrison, and Eileen Simpson. Each of those authors offers some testimony in the appendix about memoirs that have inspired them to write as well.
BONUS — Bibliographies
Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir deserves a mention here as well. I complied the previous list before I read her book. I covered her book in great detail in this substack newsletter. For the memoirist, Karr’s book is one you can return to again and again.
In the back of the books by Silverman, Larson, and Zinsser, you will find long, detailed categorized bibliographies of memoirs, essential reading for anyone contemplating writing a memoir.
Of course, you must get started. You must write. You will not be able to read all of those books in your lifetime. There are far too many. But it’s an enormous list of essential books for memoir writers. They will serve as good models for the kind of thing you are writing.
If you are writing a memoir, keep at it. It takes time, but it’s well worth the effort, whether it sees the light of publication or not. The reward to memoir writing is internal.
Just keep writing!
Let me know in the comments which books about memoir you like! Do you have other suggestions or comments about the ones I listed above?
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I agree about Thomas Larson--he's wonderful!