My Favorite Memoir Writing Books

I’m teaching a new workshop in the fall (Marcia Meier’s Memoir Boot Camp Supreme!), and as I was going through my books on writing memoir, I realized it might be helpful to share some of my favorites with you. So, in no particular order, here are some exceptional reads on memoir:

  • The Situation and the Story, the Art of Personal Narrative, by Vivian Gornick. This slim book is packed with sage wisdom about how to craft a story from your life. Gornick says: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”
  • The Art of Time in Memoir, Then, Again, by Sven Birkerts. Part of “The Art Of…” series by Graywolf Press, Birkerts’ book is a lovely meditation on the purpose of memoir, which is to bring understanding and reflection and meaning to lived experience. Philosophical and deep, it examines how successful memoirists have deftly utilized time in memoir.
  • Voice Lessons, On Becoming a (Woman) Writer, by Nancy Mairs. In this memoir, Mairs takes her readers on a wide-ranging exploration of her own journey to becoming a writer. Notice I did not say “successful” writer, because part of what she discusses is, what is success? Is it publication? Acceptance by other writers who are already in the published fold? Work that wins awards and fellowships? She has accomplished all of these, but she implies throughout that it is the realization that one has found her voice, to say what she needs to say no matter what others think, that really marks a woman writer as having come into her own.
  • I Could Tell You Stories, Sojourns in the Land of Memory, by Patricia Hampl. Delving deeply into what memoir is and what it isn’t, Hampl leads the reader through thoughtful essays focused on her own experiences as a younger woman reading Whitman, on her acquaintance with a woman who came to the United States during World War II who carried a terrible secret she could not tell, through meditations on Sylvia Plath, Simone Weil and St. Augustine’s Confessions. But the most compelling, it seems to me, are Hampl’s own meditations that bookend the collection: “Memory and Imagination,” at the beginning, and the final two essays, “The Need to Say It” and “Other People’s Secrets.” These three essays reveal insights into memory and writing memoir that were both engrossing and instructive for my own writing.
  • Writing the Memoir, From Truth to Art, by Judith Barrington. Writing the Memoir is more “how-to” than anything else. The subtitle is “A practical guide to the craft, the personal challenges, and ethical dilemmas of writing your true stories,” and the book lives up to its advertising. There are writing exercises in each chapter, and step-by-step instructions on how to get started on writing a memoir. This book is meant for beginners, however, so if one is already an experienced writer of memoir or personal essay, it would not be one I recommend. That said, there is much here for someone just getting started.
  • Wild Mind, Living the Writer’s Life, by Natalie Goldberg. Fans of Goldberg’s popular Writing Down the Boneswill appreciate her frank and honest style. In Wild Mind, she puts more of herself on the page, letting us into her process as she writes the book. I love both Bones and this book for Goldberg’s wisdom and encouragement. We writers can never get enough of that.

There are a number of other memoirs by writers that have become standard books about writing: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life, and I recommend all of them as examples of how to write memoir as well.

Memoir is a special kind of storytelling. It is not autobiography, which is a chronological, factual retelling of the progression of a life, but a snapshot of a time in a life that had particular meaning. The memoirist’s job is to make a story of that time, with a beginning, middle and end, that somehow reveals or brings about an understanding of something universal. It’s a look at the human condition through a certain set of experiences that offers meaning and resolution for readers, even if in real life few weighty issues are ever fully resolved.

If you’d like to explore your life with me, consider taking my upcoming Memoir Boot Camp Supreme!

Discovering a Vanished Life

This week I finished another of the 10 books I am reading this spring for my master's degree program.

Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories is a collection of previously published essays on memory and autobiography. Delving deeply into what memoir is and what it isn’t, Hampl leads the reader through thoughtful essays focused on her own experiences as a younger woman reading Whitman, on her acquaintance with a woman who came to the United States during World War II who carried a terrible secret she could not tell, through meditations on Sylvia Plath, Simone Weil and St. Augustine’s Confessions. But the most compelling, it seems to me, are Hampl’s own meditations that book-end the collection: “Memory and Imagination,” at the beginning, and the final two essays, “The Need to Say It” and “Other People’s Secrets.” These three essays reveal insights into memory and writing memoir that I found engrossing and instructive for my own writing.

In fact, “Memory and Imagination” turned out to be a powerful catalyst for me in terms of discovering what my own memoir is about. Hampl says, “…I don’t write about what I know, but in order to find out what I know.”  She talks about how a first draft can be the key to understanding the real story, the story that reveals meaning. “We carry our wounds and perhaps even worse, our capacity to wound, forward with us. If we learn not only to tell our stories but to listen to what our stories tell us – to write the first draft and then return for the second draft – we are doing the work of memory.”

She describes how she realizes the first draft of a memory about her first piano lesson is most likely about her father. I have struggled for several months to write about a trauma I suffered as a child. Suddenly it occurred to me that my story is about my relationship with my mother, a difficult relationship that was forged and cauterized in that moment of trauma.

Later, in “The Need to Say It,” Hampl says, “…(M)emoir is not about the past. As I understand it, memoir is not about nostalgia. Its double root is in despair and protest (which, at first, seem no more kissing cousins than memory and imagination). …

“Out of dread of ruin and disintegration emerges a protest which becomes history when it is written from the choral voice of a nation, and memoir when it is written from a personal voice. The dry twigs left of a vanished life, whatever its fullness once was, are rubbed together until they catch fire. Until they make something. Until they make a story.”

Now I am about the task, to make a story – a raging fire – of a vanished life. Thanks to Hampl, I finally have a framework from which to fan the flames.