7 Books to Teach You How to Write a Memoir

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 MourningLong 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!

Book Review

Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer

Publisher: The Penguin Group 
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir
Pages: 249 
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Summary

What do aggressive facial hair, childbirth, an unhealthy obsession with the year 1993, and troll dolls have in common? Una Lamarche. Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer is a hilarious collection of diary entries, observations, and convoluted graphics, some of which involve the correct way to use a public restroom.

Lamarche’s memoir tackles the most cringeworthy challenges of growing up female. Leapfrogging from one side splitting topic to another, and in no particular order, she takes the reader on a ride through the pitfalls of childhood, puberty, and even adulthood.

Lamarche recalls, with appalling and humorous clarity, her first-time experiences with drinking, sex, jobs-from-hell, and learning how to drive. As the book cover indicates this is “the book June Cleaver would have written if she had spent more time drinking and less time vacuuming.”

Thoughts

I am not sure which I did more of while reading Unabrow: laugh out loud or grimace. Anyone who has ever endured childhood, high school, or parenting will appreciate all the cringey and hilarious moments of this memoir. Lamarche is unapologetic, honest, and brash which makes for some entertaining stories.

Who wouldn’t identify with her obsession with the show Friends and the proclamation that she is the “Chandler” of her roommates? Or an apartment cleaning routine to the Led Zeppelin tune “Stairway to Heaven?” Then of course, there is the titular situation where Lamarche discusses her eyebrows, which, from birth, had joined to form a furry, face caterpillar. Her facial hair pact with her sister is one of those why-didn’t-I-think-of-that moments, and deserving of being the introduction to the book.

Despite my being slightly older than the millennial Lamarche, her stories are ones that any girl who’s ever memorized lyrics to an entire album, or has been dumped by their sixth grade friends can relate to. The random and chaotic format of the book just adds to its charm, and it was as if I was taking a peek inside Lamarche’s brain. As as a result there were some things, like the restroom graphics, that I can never unsee or forget!

Book Review

Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir by Jean Guerrero

Publisher: One World
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 320
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Sometimes, the only way to find yourself is to go back to your roots. In Crux, Jean Guerrero travels back four generations to understand her father, Marco Antonio, who has been absent most of her adolescence. She starts with her mother, Jeannette, and paternal grandmother, Abuelita Carolina, and proceeds to climb further up the family tree.

Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Marco sees sinister shadows that pursue him around the world when he tries to escape them by leaving his family behind.

Jean is shaped both by her mother’s unwavering dependability and her father’s desertion. She searches for answers in Mexico, her father’s birthplace, a country that holds as much enigma for her as an adult as it terrified her as a child.

Through a series of life-changing experiences, she finds herself at the edge of an age-old chasm and preparing for the crossing: the crossing across country borders, the crossing into lunacy, the crossing between life and death—amalgamated into one flickering fence.

Thoughts

Stretching as far back as the Spanish invasion of Mexico, it is a memoir that reads like a novel owing to the poetic symmetry of the events and characters. Guerrero captures quite a few of her unique experiences in this book along with an element of mysticism—presented with a commendably unbiased view.

Crux is clearly a product of meticulous research and a highly perceptive mind. It uses interviews and historic documents among others as its sources. The compilation of these into a coherent narrative could not have been easy, as first-hand accounts of the family’s lives in or before the early twentieth century were hard to come by. It is a fascinating read and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in human psychology and/or ancient philosophy.


Thanks to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Publisher: Graywolf Press
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 264
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary:

What does domestic abuse look like? In what ways can domestic abuse be more than physical harm? What does domestic abuse look like between two women? What does domestic abuse look like when the perpetrator is smaller than the victim? These are some of the questions Carmen Maria Machado sets out to answer in her inventive new memoir In the Dream House.

In doing the research for this book, Machado sought out experiences that mirrored her own, but found the archive of literature and history to be lacking. This is her attempt at taking the first step in adding to that archive. She constructs her story through more than a hundred narrative tropes (i.e. stoner comedy, Chekov’s gun, man vs. self), resulting in an elaborately weaved and imaginatively told story that explores themes of abuse, queer relationship dynamics, queer world building, assessment of self-worth, and ultimately the emotional endurance that humans are capable of. 

Thoughts:

What I love most about this book, and there is a lot to love about it, is the way in which it pushes the boundary between nonfiction and fiction through the exploration of narrative tropes. While this memoir explores themes that are heavy and at times difficult to emotionally process, the reader is guided along by Machado’s incessant wit and playful prose; making this book fun to read despite the nature of its subject matter. Additionally, Machado annotates her experience with motifs from folk literature (i.e. taboos, ghost cries, girl mistakenly elopes with wrong lover) creating a dream within the tightly constructed world. 

Subsequently, this is a book that can easily be read over and over again and even seems to invite just that. There are whole worlds in this work that is part memoir, part literary criticism, part musing on pop-culture, and even part dissection of the music of Aimee Mann. I suspect that each time I reread this book, I will find something new to admire and obsess over. 

In the Dream House became instantly important to me not just because of the innovative way in which it is written, but because it seeks to put in place a framework for a more complete history that previously did not exist. As with her critically acclaimed short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Machado has again brought attention to an aspect of modern queer life that was once invisible.  For this reason and many more, this book will enthrall its readers throughout its course until the wind carries the story away. 

Book Review

Relief by Execution by Gint Aras

Publisher: Little Bound Books, 8 October 2019
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 94
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Beginning with an illustration of the “deep connection to the dead” felt from the European cobblestone streets, Gint Aras begins his story when he is just about to visit the Concentration Camp Memorial nearest to his former Lithuanian home for the first time, announcing his intention to imagine himself not as a victim but as a perpetrator. Switching to past tense, Aras describes formative moments and impressions in his life, from a childhood in the violent West Chicago suburb Cicero in a physically abusive Lithuanian immigrant family to his time in Europe and then back in America.

Aras charts his progression from one who silently accepts and ignores abuse to one who identifies and confronts this behavior, whether it be the Lithuanian complicity in Nazi atrocities towards Jews during WWII to more broad racism, Anti-Semitism, and physical violence. He then ends the memoir back with his visit to Mauthausen in present tense recognizing a “relief by execution” for both prisoner and guard.

Thoughts

The tense and section changes in Aras’ work were somewhat disorienting for me personally, but his easy, conversational style immediately made me feel as involved in his realizations as he was. Though I have not suffered PTSD or uncovered a family and national history of abuse and atrocity, reading Relief by Execution allowed me to experience the emotions and sensations of these moments along with Aras.

In my admittedly brief experience, I too “sense a deep connection to the dead any time I stand on cobblestones in Europe” (1). Aras’ narrative provides a clear individual perspective on how the aftermath of WWII still affects thought patterns today, suggesting that we may not have left those atrocities as far in the past as we may wish to believe.

Since Aras provides such a personal and approachable take on the complicated conceptions of ethnic identity, race, nationality, and abuse, I would recommend Relief by Execution to anyone (high school age or older) who seeks to understand how our individual identities are affected by our cultural and familial baggage.


Thanks to the publicist at The Next Best Book Blog for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

ASU Book Group

Join fellow ASU students and faculty for a book discussion at the Piper Writers House. This month, the ASU Book Group will be reading and discussing By the Forces of Gravity: A Memoir by Rebecca Fish Ewan.

This illustrated coming-of-age book shares Ewan’s childhood friendship that was cut short by tragedy as well as her adventures searching for love, acceptance, and truth alongside her cohorts.

Professor Ewan teaches landscape architecture in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at ASU.

Be sure to pick up the book and bring a friend for this book discussion! A no-host luncheon will follow the meeting in the University Club next-door.


Location: Piper Writers House, 450 E. Tyler Mall, Tempe

Date: Wednesday, September 18

Time: Noon to 1 p.m.

For more information, click here.