Five Books to Read When You're Writing Memoir
Part 1: Indispensable books on the craft of memoir
In early 2000, a UK author cornered me to ask why Americans (and presumably, Canadians) were so passionate about writing self-reflective books. It was a snarky comment, and I think I stammered something about different cultures and tried to get away. What I wish I’d said to her, though, is: “Don’t you feel better knowing someone else has gone through something really difficult and come out the other side, transformed?”
That’s ultimately what memoir is about: the inner transformation that results from an outer journey. I often tell clients that the events are scaffolding for the inner journey.
Over the past 20+ years, memoir has come into its own as a major nonfiction genre. Many agents believe we’ve passed “peak memoir” and won’t take on memoir clients; however, there are still some agents who will take on memoir, especially by writers from under-represented communities. As Jane Friedman discovered last year, it’s not always necessary to have a ‘platform’ for memoir (but it sure doesn’t hurt!).
Image credit: Jane Friedman and The Hot Sheet.
The bottom line, though, is that a memoir must be written as well as a novel. That’s a tough mountain to face, but—as I see in my editing practice over and over—it’s far from impossible.
Memoir, like all genres, adapts to the culture. The authors we read will change, even the way stories are told may change, but the core mandate remains: that memoir read like a novel. There are dozens, probably hundreds of books on the craft of memoir; the five below are the ones I recommend most frequently (click on the subheads to learn more about each).
The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick
Every writer, in any genre, should read this thin-but-packed handbook about how to distill the infinite facts of a situation into a coherent story. (Gornick herself is a renowned memoirist and writing teacher.) Although the book is 20 years old, the basics of separating facts from stories is timeless. Bonus: learning this skill will benefit you in myriad ways, not just in writing.
The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr
Karr is one of the most renowned memoirists of our time (The Liars Club, Cherry and Lit). In this book, which is essentially a self-contained course, she drills down into what makes a memoir work. She teaches not only how to write memoir, but also how to think about it. Karr goes deep into the challenges memoirists face on the page and off, including facing your demons and navigating family and friends.
Old Friend from Far Away, Natalie Goldberg
Natalie Goldberg is one of my favorite writing teachers (and writers-about-writing). She brings her Zen Buddhist approach to each of her books; here, she shines her light on the practice of writing memoir and the tricky nature of memory. She offers a number of exercises to help writers discover their authentic voice and uncover memories from long ago (and far away…)
Seven Drafts, Allison K. Williams
If it seems like Allison K. Williams is everywhere right now, that’s because she is. Williams is an experienced author and editor who works with clients, teaches tons of classes and hosts retreats. Not for nothing, she won the Literary Citizen of the Year award from Hippocamp. SEVEN DRAFTS is the most recent book on this list; it guides readers through seven memoir revisions, each focused on a different aspect of craft. You can even start with a blank page, and she’ll guide you through the “vomit draft.”
The Memoir Project, Marion Roach-Smith
Roach-Smith is one of the few editors who are household names in the writing world. A former New York Times staff writer, she dives deep into what makes memoir work. Her no-holds-barred approach is direct, concise and effective for many memoirists. She also offers a ton of courses and free resources on her website.
Each of us has a different style we’re comfortable with, and you may find one or two of the above books more compelling than the others. Find a guide who speaks your language, and then dive in.
If you’re working on (or have written) memoir, what craft book did you find most helpful? Please share it in the comments.