Maybe you have a story to tell. Maybe you want others to know they’re not alone. Maybe you want to write a memoir.
Writing about ourselves can be powerful, as can reading what other people write about themselves. We find universal, collective connection through sharing our personal stories together. We make sense of the past together. We own our histories together.
Memoir is a unique genre—it’s not autobiography or a chronological retelling of one’s entire life events. Rather, it’s telling a narrow and specific story around a life theme or event, and importantly, the interpretation of those events and what they mean for all of us looking forward. People write memoirs about all sorts of life events, major and small: divorcing their partner, learning to surf, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. There is always something learned, which is then shared.
If you’ve been wanting to write your own memoir, you should. Maybe you’ve been unsure where to start, how to find the right memories, how to write dialogue you don’t remember, and other questions about the genre. Below is a curated collection of books to help you learn how to write a memoir, four of which are books about memoir writing and three are examples of memoirs that you can learn from as well.
The Art of the Memoir—Mary Karr. “Everybody I know who wades deep enough into memory’s waters drowns a little.” Considered by many to be the book about memoir writing, Karr’s treatise on the subject is a perfect place to start your biblio-education of memoir. The Art of the Memoir gives the why of memoir writing. While the other books on this list will offer you the methods, tools, and the how of doing memoir, this book will provide you with the important foundation of the why of doing memoir—the methodology or theory behind the tools. It’s a theoretical overview of memoir and memoir writing, including subtopics like the catharsis of writing memoir, the ethics of writing about real people (sometimes doing so negatively), and finding the truth in memoir when people sometimes have different recollections of the same events. Start here.
Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir—Sue William Silverman. “We interpret facts about the past in order to reclaim them, make sense of them.” If the first book on this list gave you the why of memoir, these next two give you the how of memoir writing. I’ve read many books about writing memoir, and Fearless Confessions is both one of the most practical how-to guides and teaches unique concepts and techniques.
You’ve probably heard the writing advice “show, don’t tell,” and Silverman offers clear tools for doing that in a memoir, including using what she calls savory words, slant details, and revealing your theme. Silverman includes thoughtful exercises and illustrative examples throughout the book.
Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay—Adair Lara. “You need a good way to tell your story.” Lara’s book is a gift to anyone looking to learn how to write a memoir. Naked, Drunk, and Writing is a hands-on how-to guide to all the steps of memoir writing—from idea generation and planning your story to finding an agent and publishing your memoir. You will learn all the necessary stages of the journey here.
A particular favorite chapter is “How to Trick Yourself Into Writing,” which gives clever techniques and tools to try in order to developing a regular writing practice for crafting a memoir. She encourages the reader to write a lot—not only to develop usable material, but to cultivate a relationship to memoir writing and a writer’s identity.
Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir—Natalie Goldberg. “Too often we take notes on writing, we think about writing but never do it.” If you are struggling to write your memoir—feeling stuck, having no ideas or memories, feeling like you don’t have a story to tell (which you do!)—then use this book. Goldberg has written several other books on writing and this one is the most oriented toward method and to actually getting some words on the page. Old Friend from Far Away can help you get the what of your memoir.
This one may take you months to read because each page and each chapter is a writing exercise, some only a line or two long. “What was missing? Go. Ten minutes.” Others ask you to inventory every time you remember saying goodbye or to write about any memories associated with a bicycle. You will dig up memories you thought were long gone or didn’t know you still remembered at all. Goldberg says writing is an athletic activity, so get your writing muscles in shape by picking up this book and a pen and getting to it!
Memoirs are worth reading in their own right. The memoirist can teach you a new lesson about the world that you could find instructive, interesting, or comforting. Memoirs are like getting a secret peek into someone’s life—but they want you to peek. And more than that, memoirists want you to get inside, to swim around, to drink. In addition, you can learn about writing memoirs from reading them. Below are three memoirs to enjoy in their own right and to read to better understand the craft of memoir.
The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death In Order—Joan Wickersham. [content warning: suicide] “It had never occurred to me that the other shoe might turn out to be, after all, the original shoe, dropping again, years later, when I was awake and available to feel it.” One day, Wickersham’s father, leaving no note, no clues, and seemingly no reason, takes his own life. His daughter writes in the form of a highly organized and categorized index to try and understand why her father took his own life. It’s a story about how a suicide can affect the family left behind, and about the sometimes impossible and unanswerable questions it leaves forever. What you can learn from reading this memoir is how to write in a unique form and how to write a story that’s not told linearly or chronologically.
The Long Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning—Long Litt Woon. “If you want to hear a mushroom sing, you simply have to use your ears.” Long tells two seemingly unrelated stories about her life that end up being more connected than you’d think: grieving the death of her partner and discovering and falling in love with mushroom foraging. This memoir is incredibly informative and offers fascinating knowledge and detail about mushrooms and how to find them. It speaks to reconnecting with nature and with others, especially after a major loss. What you can learn from reading this memoir is how to intertwine your story with informational writing and how to tell two stories at once.
Strangers Assume My Girlfriend is My Nurse—Shane Burcaw. “You can’t truly know that you want to spend forever with someone until you’ve pooped in their arms.” Burcaw is a disability activist, speaker, writer, and non-profit director living with spinal muscular atrophy. His memoir will make you laugh out loud. This collection of short memoir essays will teach you about living with a disability in everyday ways that prove that the commonplace details of his life—and ours—can be endlessly interesting.
Burcaw is in an interabled relationship, and in the titular essay, he writes about how strangers continually assume that his girlfriend is his nurse. He advocates that disabled people can and do have fulfilling romantic and sexual relationships. What you can learn from reading this memoir is how to use humor in your own memoir and how to write your memoir as a collection of snapshots. If you enjoy this collection of personal essays, he wrote another one called Laughing at My Nightmare and he maintains a YouTube channel with his now wife Hannah.
Reading memoir is an exciting and engaging opportunity to create and experience connectivity in the mundane, the everyday, the quotidian and the real, the gritty, the universal. What develops between memoirist and reader is a type of friendship that lets us know that no one is ever really alone in their story.
And if you’re interested in learning how to write your own memoir, there are three ways you can teach yourself how to do it: by reading books about memoir, by reading memoirs, and by getting out there and writing your own. So, grab your pen!