Have You Read These Memoirs?

Jerry Payne

January 3, 2023

About a year ago I wrote a blog listing several great memoirs that I think every budding memoirist should read. The list included The Liars Club, This Boy’s Life, A Moveable Feast, Darkness Visible, The Year of Magical Thinking, Good-bye to All That, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Girl Interrupted, Black Boy, The Crack-Up, Speak Memory, and Wild. Since then, I’ve heard from a lot of you extolling the virtues of other classic memoirs and so I feel the time has come to amend the list.

The main idea with these lists is the value of reading great literature if your goal is to write great (or even just good) literature. I firmly believe that reading the greats is the most powerful thing you can do to improve your own writing.

Here, then, are some additional classics that I would highly recommend:

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (1996). This is just an absolute gem of a book. McCourt’s account of his childhood won him a Pulitzer and it’s no wonder. It’s sad and funny and delightful and totally absorbing. Notice his use of present tense throughout the book. I don’t normally recommend that, but it sure worked well for McCourt.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005). I finally got around to reading this one last year and I’m really sorry I waited so long. This is simply one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. I think it’s better than Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club and that’s saying something.

Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn (1978). In case you don’t know, Gellhorn was the third wife of Ernest Hemingway and it was he who is referred to in the title as “Another.” She couldn’t quite bear to mention his name. She refers to him only as U.C. – for Unwilling Companion – in a chapter on China. The book is a travelogue. Gellhorn was a journalist and war correspondent. But the book details only peace-time travels and only those that went awry, the miserable ones where she wished she hadn’t gone. It’s delightfully self-deprecating and just a complete hoot to read.

Night by Elie Wiesel (1958). I don’t know why I didn’t mention this one last year. I read it a long time ago, but it stays with me still. A slim book, simply told, about the author’s time in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. Painful and moving.

On Writing by Stephen King (2000). This is a twofer. It’s part memoir, part how-to book. King dishes out some priceless writing advice in this book while giving you some insight into his own life and own processes. Great read.

People keep coming out with new memoirs, of course. It would be a mistake to focus only on the classics. Here, then, are a few that I read over the course of the last year that are all recent releases. All are terrific and I’d recommend any one of them: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, Educated by Tara Westover, In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Whip Smart by Melissa Febos, and Radical by Maajid Nawaz.

Got a favorite I haven’t mentioned? Let me know what it is. I’m always looking for great memoirs.

Happy reading!

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