June 3, 2019
Are you thinking of writing a memoir? Let me pass along the best piece of writing advice I have ever been given: To write great literature, read great literature. A confession: although I’ve been writing in one form or another all my life (starting in crayon and progressing along to finer instruments), I’ve never formally studied it. As I began writing as a career, this chink in my armor began to gnaw at me. And so I began studying. On my own. (Hey, that’s how Lincoln got his education, you know.)
I started by going online to my alma mater’s website (www.psu.edu) and finding out what their undergraduate requirements were for a bachelor of arts degree in English (mine had been in business) and an MFA degree in creative writing. I was able to procure a list of all the necessary classes which I could then cross-check with the online campus bookstore to determine the required reading for each class. Then I bought and read all the books for all the classes, close to a hundred books in total. It took me seven years.
No, I didn’t get tested on the material, but I like to think I probably learned more since I was reading the books for my own interest and not, as most undergraduates (and even grad students), for the purpose of merely passing a test. I don’t have an official degree, of course (and I would never compare my home study efforts with the efforts of anybody who has actually earned a university MFA) but I do like to think I picked up a thing or two.
But, hey, this isn’t about me. I mention all of this only to affirm the advice I’d been given. Writing well is about reading. A lot. I’ve become a student of the game and it’s made me a much better wordsmith. If you’re thinking of writing a memoir (and writing it well) you might want to become a student of the game, too. You don’t have to read a hundred books, but I can say unreservedly that reading a few great memoirs will definitely help you become a better memoir writer. There is much to be learned from the masters of the genre and by reading their books some of their talent and technique just might rub off on you.
Here’s a head start. These are the memoirs that have helped me the most, the ones that just plain made me want to become a better writer:
The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr. As far as I’m concerned, this is the gold standard. Read this one if you don’t have time to read any of the others listed here. (But find a way to make time for them anyway!) First released in 1995, this book about Karr’s childhood in a dysfunctional family single-handedly ushered in a wave of confessional memoirs, none of which could match it in humor or poignancy.
This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. It was Wolff who (thankfully) advised Karr to write a story about her childhood. He certainly knew something about the process, having written about his own childhood in this book, first released in 1989.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Not every memoir has to be about childhood. This memoir, published in 1964, details Hemingway’s time in Paris in the 1920s as he was just starting his career. Hemingway does something remarkable with this book: he makes you want to somehow walk into the pages and live those times with him. You wish you could go back in time (Owen Wilson’s character does just this in the film Midnight in Paris and rubs shoulders with “Hem” and his friends F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and others). Hemingway (my all-time favorite writer) wrote simply but powerfully.
Darkness Visible by William Styron. First released in 1990, this memoir of Styron’s struggle with suicidal depression (the subtitle is A Memoir of Madness) is extraordinarily focused, as evidenced by its brevity. At only eighty-six pages, it’s a fine example of how memoirs don’t have to be long, rambling reminiscences.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion is another example of a book centered on a singular event or set of circumstances. Released in 2005, the memoir recounts the year in Didion’s life following her husband’s sudden death. Like all honest memoirs (the best kind), it’s an intimate portrait, intensely personal, thereby helping to make it the powerful and moving book that it is.
Other classic memoirs I recommend: Good-bye to All That by Robert Graves, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, Black Boy by Richard Wright, The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabakov, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and probably about a hundred other ones.
Make your own list. Search online. But don’t spend too much time agonizing over which memoirs to read. Just pick one. When you finish it, pick another one. You might just become a better writer in the process. Worst case? You’ll spend some quality time with some great books. Happy reading!