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Reading list for memoir writers

While writing and researching my memoir, I read over fifty memoirs in order to learn from other authors and to get a feel for where my book might fit in.

Agent Donald Maass suggests that authors read the top ten current books in their genre in order to get a feel for what’s already been done and what draws readers in.

If you’re writing a memoir, I recommend researching not only top-selling memoirs but also those with themes similar to the one you want to write.

Below are just a few of the books I read and recommend. I’m not including a summary of each book but a few sentences on why I liked the book or what I learned from it.

Memoirs:

“Paula,” by Isabel Allende.  Allende’s beautiful and passionate memoir about the death of her daughter showed me the importance of writing to a positive reconciliation.

“Another Bullshit Night in Suck City,” by Nick Flynn.  An unusual memoir in that it uses everything from lists to a short play to poetry to tell the story of the author’s relationship with his father who is a homeless man.

“Fierce Attachments,” by Vivian Gornick.  Gornick’s voice is one of the most consistent, mature, and resonant voices I have encountered in memoir.

“The Horizontal World,” by Debra Marquart.  The author uses her imagination to fill in the blanks of family history. A great technique for imagining what might have been. This book’s setting figures strongly in her story.

“True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall,” by Mark Salzman.  In writing about his experience teaching juvenile offenders, Salzman uses self-deprecation, humor, dialogue, imagery, scene, and summary to bring his time as a writing teacher in a lock-down environment to life. A true study in craft choices.

“Lying,” by Lauren Slater.  Slater’s book is an example of prose that has that lifting off the page quality because her connections and metaphors are fresh and original.

“I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted:  A Memoir,” by Jennifer Boylan.  I liked how Boylan uses the metaphor of growing up in a haunted house to correspond with growing up in a haunted body.

“Dog Years,” by Mark Doty.  I admire how the author simultaneously tells the story of his dog’s life and death along with that of his partner’s. This story is about something we all face—love, loss, and grief. I’m going to start reading it again tonight.

“Autobiography of a Face,” by Lucy Grealy.  A beautiful book. Through her language and use of vivid details, the author is able to make us feel what she felt—the pain of rejection and the fear of never being loved.

“The Florist’s Daughter,” by Patrcia Hampl.  I love how the author portrays both her parents. Her characterizations are fresh and so vivid that I feel as if I really know her parents, even years after reading the book.

“Angela’s Ashes,” by Frank McCourt.  A family story of struggle and suffering through the eyes of a young boy. The author nailed the language and wisdom of growing up in this world. Great use of the child voice.

“Running in the Family,” by Michael Ondaatje.  One of the most original and creative memoirs I read. Ondaatje is also a poet, which makes this book a beautiful and uplifting read.

Craft books on memoir writing:

There are many good books on the art and craft of writing memoir. Here are three of my favorites:

“Writing the Memoir,” by Judith Barrington.  Contains definitions and a large bibliography of memoirs for future reading.

“The Situation and the Story,” by Vivian Gornick.  Explains what memoir is and how to go about creating the retrospective voice. My favorite.

“The Art of Time in Memoir,” by Sven Birkerts.  A wealth of information about how the adult retrospective voice works and how different authors move around in time. It also explained the different methods of writing memoir—using the retrospective voice, the child voice, letting scenes unfold and convey their meanings without the author’s voice interjecting, etc.

More reading list ideas:

For more ideas, see how I created a project-specific reading list.

Check out Carly’s idea’s on how to create a personalized reading list.

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