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Best Books That Will Help You Write a Great Memoir

William Ellis

September 11, 2022

The memoir is one of the most important, popular, and personal forms of writing. 

It is estimated by Nielsen Bookscan that the number of memoirs sold from 2004 to 2008 rose by 400%.

Creating works of fiction is certainly challenging, but there is a tightrope walk that the memoir writer has to walk because at the center of all memoirs is the truth, or at least the personal truth of the subject.

Why memoirs are different from other genres

A memoir is a deeply personal matter because the author is trying to relay their truth in a way that contextualizes their whole life and their decisions. A memoir does not necessarily have to encompass a person's entire life story. Memoirs can often encapsulate a specific time and era in that person's life.

A certain measure of responsibility is put on a memoir to be factual. But the truth must also be in play. Fact is, the part of a story that is verifiable on an objective level, while the truth may be subjective. A memoir's job is to tell the writer's truth of a factual event.

How do I write my memoir?

If you want to write a memoir, you may find it difficult to start. After all, how does one begin to, essentially, talk about oneself? It is tricky to do because it depends on the type of memoir one wishes to create.

Do you plan to create a memoir that spans your entire life? Is there a particular time in your life that tremendously impacted who you are? 

The period you choose to write about affects the entire project and creates a different context based on your decisions.

Fortunately, there is an abundance of resources out there that can help you get your memoir from memory to page. Here are the best books for writing your memoir.

Best books on memoir writing

1. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
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Natalie Goldberg has a great forty-year history of writing memoirs and her book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within is an absolute must-read. If you are a first-time writer, regardless of whether or not you are writing a memoir, you will find her approach to be encouraging.

Goldberg is a proponent of just writing until you are finished. Don't make revisions and don't correct grammar or spelling. Just write until it's done. The time for revision and correction will come later. With short and simple chapters, Writing Down the Bones teaches the writer to know when to abandon the “rules” of writing and instead lean into pure, primeval creation.

The lessons in this book are great because they will allow the writer to honestly put their memoir on paper that does not require composure, rehearsal, or sanitization. The writer can pull from their memory and simply write about how they experienced and felt an event. This kind of honesty is what ultimately hooks the reader.

2. The Memoir and the Memoirist by Thomas Larson

The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading & Writing Personal Narrative by Thomas Larson
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If you want a book that gets to the nitty-gritty, psychological side of writing a memoir, then The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative is what you need. This book is rooted in getting the writer to be honest with themselves. It is about pairing revelations from the past with the necessary skill to put them into words.

The Memoir and the Memoirist look at other memoirs and the approaches to realizing them. A perfect blend of self-analysis and exploration of writing mechanics makes this book essential reading for writing an honest and engaging memoir.

3. The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
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Mary Karr has written an interesting book that is just as much of a memoir in and of itself as it is an instructional on how to write a memoir. A “passionate and messy teacher” by her own admission, Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir is a chaotic but informative guide to her approach to writing memoirs, which she has cultivated over a thirty-year career that some have argued sparked the modern popularity of memoirs.

This book breaks down the mechanics of writing a good memoir and the psychological exercise it can pose to revisit memories. It also talks about the catharsis that can come about from doing the work. It highlights what makes the great memoirs stand out and what makes the bad ones fall flat.

4. Fearless Confessions by Sue William Silverman

Fearless Confessions by Sue William Silverman
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Taking your life experiences and putting them on paper can be a daunting task that is hard to contend with. However, some people feel that doing so gives them a fresh perspective and degree of control over their life that they did not have before. 

That being said, you can't just pop out a memoir. It won't feel complete until those who read it can feel what you describe on the page. 

Enter Silverman.

From explaining how best to input sensory writing into your novel to help you understand your various voices in time, she fully explains how to make your readers understand and feel your history the way you did.

Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir helps you take a hard look at your life before putting it on the page. While Fearless Confessions goes over the mechanics of good writing and how to make one's work compelling to readers, it covers more ground. It will teach you how to develop the courage to tell your truth, even if it may ruffle some feathers. It is indispensable work.

5. Naked, Drunk, and Writing by Adair Lara

Naked, Drunk, and Writing by Adair Lara
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Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay is a long title but then again so is your life. When faced with the sheer enormity of the task of writing about your life, it's easy to get stumped and not know where to start. 

That's where Lara comes in.

With the kind of experience that only comes from a lifetime of learning, she pulls you through the psychology of writing about yourself and doles out practical advice along the way. Easily one of the most readable books on the list and undoubtedly one of the best to implement as you write. You'll find yourself pulling it off the shelf again and again.

6. The Nonfictionist’s Guide by Robert Root

The Nonfictionist’s Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction by Robert Root
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While this publication can be repetitive in some aspects, it still stands as an unbelievably useful guide for writing nonfiction for initiates into the genre. With perceptive tips and a frequently emphasized view of what nonfiction truly is, Root helps to paddle you through all the ways you can get bogged down when swimming in this particular genre and ways to see it through to the end.

Root places a strong emphasis on the nature of nonfiction and the concept of “truth” vs. “fact.” This is something you must always keep in mind as you write, because it creates the context of your narrative.

One of the most helpful aspects of Root's book is that there are actual notes at the end of each chapter that you can utilize to strengthen your work. Exercises in the mechanics behind your composition will help you build more concrete support in your narrative and the counsel on vivid work will allow you to more realistically write your memoir in a way that you are genuinely happy with.

7. Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington

Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington
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Judith Barrington is a renowned memoir author and writing teacher and her book Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art covers some ground that other instructional works may leave out. She certainly covers the topics of creating interesting work, but she also stresses just how important the genre of the memoir is.

One section, in particular, offers advice that any memoir author must have, and that is navigating the legalities of writing a memoir. You have to know the potential legal pitfalls that can come with writing. Writing your truth may be cathartic and liberating, but you must put safeguards into play when talking about others, especially when talking about them in a less than flattering light.

Writing the Memoir is an impassioned work that will help you bring your personal story to the page thoughtfully and insightfully.

8. Inventing the Truth by William Zinsser

Inventing the Truth by William Zinsser
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Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir is William Zinsser's contribution to the memoir world. Zinsser talks at length in this book about what is arguably the most important part of any memoir: editing one's past.

The nature of truth is frequently touched upon in many books on writing memoirs. Still, Zinsser focuses especially on teaching the writer to understand what events from their past should be written about and which should be ignored. Zinsser stresses that good books, especially memoirs, do not simply fly onto the page. They are carefully constructed.

Even when tackling your past, you must focus on making the narrative engaging while maintaining the truth. After all, if your memoir is not compelling, then why would anybody read it?

9. Where to Go From Here by James B. Birren and Linda Feldman

Where to Go From Here by James B. Birren and Linda Feldman
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They say that people become more reflective about their life as they reach middle age. In the case of writing memoirs, that reflection is key to the work. Where to Go From Here is a book that teaches the reader (who is intended to be middle-aged) how to embrace their own life's value and wisdom by re-contextualizing their past as a story.

This idea can help a memoir author to look through their memories and their life as a cohesive whole, as a journey that has led them to this midpoint. By turning the past into a story it can even help one figure out how to move forward for the second half of their life. In a way, it almost counts as writing as therapy.

10. The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick
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The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative is a work that deals with a topic not as often seen in books on writing memoir: the changing nature of identity. The idea of individual identity, particularly in the Western world, has changed over the last hundred years. There is also the idea that the memoir writer is responsible for being truthful to the reader, even when grappling with the knowledge that few, if any, writers can be completely reliable narrators.

The Situation and the Story highlights other written works as a reference for the writer. One of the biggest themes focused on is the difference between story and narrative and how the story must come first. In doing this, the reader has more that they can latch onto.

Conclusion on the best books on writing memoir

Creating a fascinating memoir is difficult. If you try too hard to stay completely and objective so you tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then you can potentially lose the story. If you swing too far in the other direction, you risk damaging your credibility and reputation in the name of telling a good story.

Ultimately, the featured books strive to show you how to craft a compelling narrative from your experiences by emphasizing your truth. By doing that, and presenting your truth as being your interpretation of events as they happened to you, your audience can get to know you almost as a character in your narrative.

A successful memoir's utmost goal is to give an accurate account of the events and the subjective truth of the person who went through it. It is the subjective lens of the memoir that gives an additional context of events. With these books as your guide, it is up to you to reflect, look deep into your memories, and finally put the words to the page. The story is already in you. It is now up to you to let it out.



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