7 Books to Read if You Are Writing a Memoir

If you are writing a memoir, you should have not only read a number of other memoirs yourself, but you should inhale as many books about the art of memoir writing as you can.
Here’s a list of the best books (and an online course) I’ve discovered about writing memoir and how to get your stories out.

Writing your Story: What happens when we tell our truth, a CREATIVE LIVE online course with Joyce Maynard

I’m kicking off with a course, rather than a book because it’s taught by one of my favourite memoirists. Joyce Maynard has written many books about her life, but At Home in the World is the one I love the most. It’s about her affair at age 18 with the reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger, who was 53. It’s a story about about keeping secrets, and the impact they can have on a young life. I was excited to find Joyce has an online course about writing your story. It’s a practical how-to guide split into 26 short video lessons about writing memoir and biography.

Some of the topics covered include: understanding the difference between telling what happened and exploring your journey; figuring out what to include in your story and what to cut out; deciding on a point of view, a point of entry and a structure; getting over your fears of revealing embarrassing truths about yourself; how to stop worrying about being judged; dealing with loneliness and finding your tribe; developing the arc of a sentence, a paragraph and a story; listening to the sound and rhythm of your sentences. Plus you get to keep the lessons for perpetuity, so you can keep referring back to them. I highly recommend it.

The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr

Mary’s book The Liars’ Club has been credited with sparking the current memoir explosion after spending more than a year at the top of the New York Times best-sellers list. The Art of Memoir is about her writing process, and it’s filled with excerpts from her favourite memoirs and anecdotes from fellow writers’ experience. It’s her honesty and willingness to explore her life as a recovered alcoholic and therapy patient, as well as professor, poet and writer, that makes her writing and advice on the writing life so engaging.

Writing as a Way of Healing: How telling our stories transforms our lives, by Louise DeSalvo

I read this book years ago and lived by it. It is torn and underlined and scribbled on… well loved. It’s about how writing – telling our stories – can heal us. The author cites the latest scientific studies about using writing as a restorative tool. She talks about how writers, from Virginia Woolf to Henry Miller to Isabel Allende, have been transformed by the writing process. And writes about the best way to use writing as way of healing: you have to write about the facts of an event AND the emotion. Just one or the other won’t work – it has to be both. The book is also packed with valuable advice and practical techniques for writers.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg

“Just dive in,” says Natalie. “Begin where you are.” Great advice. Or as my writing teacher used to say at RMIT many years ago, “Bums on seat, words on page.” This is a book about just getting it down: making a start and writing what’s there. The author is also a Zen Buddhist, so her philosophy makes sense. “Lose control, don’t think, don’t get logical, go for the jugular,” she writes. The author also sees writing as a practice that helps us understand the value of our lives.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is a funny writer. She’s funny, and irreverent, and she makes you want to pick up the pen and write what she calls ‘a shitty first draft’. If you can get past her references to god that is. I still recommend it highly though.

Your Life as Story: Discovering the new autobiography and writing memoir as literature, by Tristine Rainer

This book is about finding the unique myth in your own life – and how we can all find the important messages in our lives. Rainer explains how to treasure the struggles in our past and discover the meaning within those experiences. She was also the student of Anais Nin, so you gotta love that (see her novel Apprenticed to Venus: My Secret Life with Anaïs Nin.)

The Memoir Book, by Patti Miller

Patti Miller runs writing courses through the Australian Writer’s Centre, and workshops in Paris. (One day!!) It’s about how writing about our lives can help us make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Patti says don’t ask yourself whether anyone wants to read what you write, instead ask yourself ‘How much do I want to write it?’ Plus, she provides handy exercises throughout aimed at helping you explore your ideas and get that story out.

Heather Millar
Accredited editor | Freelance journalist | Life story writer | lifestoriesink.com.au | heather@lifestoriesink.com.au

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