With memoirs being more popular than ever, you can find so many books out there on the art and craft of writing memoir. I’ve carefully studied what’s available in the market and came up with a list of the best memoir-writing books that will actually help you start writing your memoir with more ease, equip you to make a meaningful progress with your writing and get from start to a pleasing finish.
Here is my “best memoir writing books” list that includes information on why I included each book, what distinguishes it, and an excerpt I singled out. I’ve read each of the following books, own a cherished copy, and wholeheartedly recommend each of them. I hope this list introduces you to at least one inspiring resource you’ll be excited to have discovered and that saves you precious time. Enjoy!
Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir
by Natalie Goldberg
Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away was the first book I read on writing memoir. To say it’s a classic would be an understatement.
Goldberg is, first and foremost, a poet in love with words. And Old Friend from Far Away is not a book about how to put together a memoir, what topics to write about, how to outline it, or how to publish. Most of the books in the rest of this list cover those topics pretty well.
Goldberg’s book is about following that ache to write and to sit yourself down so writing becomes a practice and a daily habit. After all, it’s only if you sit down and commit to writing regularly that you can bring to life a memoir. Without establishing the practice of writing, tips, techniques and strategy alone won’t get you anywhere.
An excerpt from Old Friend from Far Away:
“Because life is not linear, you want to approach writing memoir sideways, using the deepest kind of thinking to sort through the layers: you want reflection to discover what the real connections are. A bit of brooding, pondering, contemplating, but not in a lost manner. I am asking you to make all this dynamic. Pen to paper gives muscle to your deliberations.”
The Memoir Project:
A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life
by Marion Roach Smith
The Memoir Project, is a short, 114-page book packed with practical advice. If you’re trying to decide which book to read first on the art and craft of memoir, pick this one. There is no book like it.
The author’s style will strike you as bold, witty and down-to-earth. Marion Roach Smith says her book is about writing with intent. She hates prefabricated writing prompts and generic writing exercises and insists that if you really want to write a memoir, you should finally stop practicing and start writing the damn book.
The most useful thing you can learn from this resource is what writing the truth really means, how you can narrow your topic so it has vitality and what you can leave out so your story becomes interesting and readable.
An excerpt from The Memoir Project:
“Think of memoir as laying out only a few cards from an entire deck, one at a time, each card moving forward the one story you choose to tell. Ever seen the tarot read? Writing memoir is a little like that—all you can supply yourself with is what fits in the hand. All the readers see is what you lay down. This is particularly difficult when the topic is you. Ego being what it is, when given permission to write about ourselves, we tend to spill all those things we’ve done, thoughts we’ve had, and people we’ve known, since they all seem wildly important. And they are. To us, though not necessarily to them, those other people, the readers.”
The Art of Memoir
by Mary Karr
Some may say that The Art of Memoir was written more for readers of memoir than writers of memoir, but that’s not the case. Even though it’s not an easy read, Mary Karr’s book is like an individual training on how to step into the genre of memoir writing as a first-time writer.
The author offers an honest and equally fascinating behind-the-scenes look at what a memoir writer experiences as she sets out to tell her story. The book is filled with rich references to and examples from Karr’s own body of work.
An excerpt from The Art of Memoir:
“The split self or inner conflict must manifest on the first pages and form the book’s thrust or through line—some journey toward the self’s overhaul by book’s end. However random or episodic a book seems, a blazing psychic struggle holds it together, either thematically or in the way a plot would keep a novel rolling forward. Often the inner enemy dovetails with the writer’s own emotional investment in the work at hand. Why is she driven to tell the tale? Usually it’s to go back and recover some lost aspect of the past so it can be integrated into current identity.”
Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art
by Judith Barrington
Published in 1997, Writing the Memoir is perhaps the most favorite memoir-writing book of both experienced and novice memoir writers. Award-winning poet, memoirist and creative writing teacher Judith Barrington, masterfully guides you through the writing process from idea to publication. She also focuses on technical problems such as topic selection, voice, tone, form, plot, scene, and character development.
The book provides detailed answers to any questions you may have related to truth-telling, motive, ethics, and responsibility when writing a memoir.
This valuable resource won’t only help you dig down into your deepest layers of understanding but will also equip you with useful tools for the crafting and shaping of the truths you find there.
An excerpt from Writing the Memoir:
“If you find yourself having trouble getting into a story you want to tell, it is always a good idea to get up very close and start using your senses. You may have a good idea of the whole story in your mind, but your vision of the whole may, in fact, be a hindrance to finding the way in. Describing some of the details, using your ears and eyes, calling up a smell that belongs to the story, or reaching an imaginary hand back through time to touch a piece of furniture, or the texture of a dress, or someone’s skin—these acts of memory will serve you well.”
Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past
by William Zinsser
In Writing About Your Life, William Zinnser, the phenomenal author of On Writing Well, weaves his down-to-earth memoir-writing lessons into a rich personal narrative of his own. In a way, page by page, he demonstrates what he teaches, using his own story as an instructional tool and creating an enjoyable, dual-aspect learning experience for the reader.
The book is geared towards new memoir writers and not people who want to learn to write an autobiography. With that said, it’s not a point-by-point instructional book about memoir writing, but a foundational resource especially when you’re just starting to write a memoir.
An excerpt from Writing About Your Life:
“Beware of ‘about’.” Beware of deciding in advance how your memoir or your family history will be organized and what it will say. Don’t visualize the finished product at the end of your journey; it will look different when you get there. Be ready to be surprised by the crazy, wonderful events that will come dancing out of your past when you stir the pot of memory. Embrace those long-lost visitors. If they shove aside some events that you originally thought you wanted to write about, it’s because they have more vitality. Go with what interests and amuses you. Trust the process, and the product will take care of itself.”
Your Life As Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature
by Tristine Rainer
The author first reassures us that each of our personal stories is worthy of the written word, whether the aim is to write for ourselves or to publish. Then, she shares exceptional methods for finding the key elements of story structure within the hodge-podge of one’s life stories and experiences.
You learn how to vividly remember what you thought you had forgotten, develop and breathe life into your characters, use conflict to strengthen your storylines, and find your right voice. What’s more, the book even gets you to put your life in perspective as you work on organizing the structure of your story.
An excerpt from Your Life as Story:
“Beginners often assume that because they cannot recall conversations word for word, they cannot write dialog. They marvel at the memory of the writer who seems to quote conversations verbatim from fifteen years before. Actually, no one recalls conversations in detail. If you do recall a significant line or exchange, by all means quote it, but more often you will remember that a conversation took place and not the words or their sequence. All the better. You will have to imagine the conversation as the novelist would, without all the uhs and ahs, digressions and repetitions people use when they talk.”
Writing Life Stories: How To Make Memories Into Memoirs, Ideas Into Essays and Life Into Literature
by Bill Roorbach
Writing Life Stories is not only an expert guide on life-writing and memoir but also an excellent resource for anyone who wants to become a better storyteller or to learn how to craft their personal stories. Bill Roorbach shares methods to help evoke the memory process as well as various writing exercises you can use to hone your craft as a writer.
Feel free to skip some of the exercises and start with those that you feel you need the most right now.
As the book teaches, the story is in the telling. If you don’t only want to finish you memoir but also desire to write one that delights and moves your readers, then you’ll benefit a lot from Roorbach’s book.
An excerpt from Writing Life Stories:
“Here is the only rule I’m willing to make about writing: Honor your apprenticeship. Call yourself a learner. When your goblets are good, they will sell (first at yard sales, then in better and better boutiques, then to the fine museums). Before that time, smash them and use what you’ve learned to make the next. One day, people will clamor for what you do. But first you must—we all must—learn to write. When some well-meaning banker asks what you’ve published, look shocked. Say, ‘But I’m an apprentice!’ Be proud of this, be glad of it. Buy yourself a beer. Write yourself an acceptance letter. Cultivate patience. Quote Shunryu Suzuki: ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the experts’s mind there are few.'”
Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir
by Beth Kephart
The book clarifies what memoir is and what it isn’t, warns new memoirists about the common pitfalls they will come across, and guides them on how to avoid them. Kephart believes the essence of the memoir and the stories that want to be told in it come first; the market comes second.
What I like the most about this book is that it teaches how to blend beauty, poetry, landscape, and empathy when you set out to write a memoir from a place of fierce truth.
An excerpt from Handling the Truth:
“If you want to write memoir, you need to set caterwauling narcissism to the side. You need to soften your stance. You need to work your way through the explosives—anger, aggrandizement, injustice, misfortune, despair, fumes—toward mercy. Real memoirists, literary memoirists, don’t justify behaviors, decisions, moods. They don’t ladder themselves up—high, high, high—so as to look down upon the rest of us. Real memoirists open themselves to self-discovery and, in the process, they make themselves vulnerable—not just to the world but also to themselves. They year, and they are yearned with. They declare a want to know. They seek out loud. They quest. They lessen the distance. They lean toward.”