Taking up today’s Blogathon 2011 theme “My five favorite books on…,” I am listing my favorite books on writing memoir. However, I am only listing three because in all my years of studying memoir, I have read many how-to books but I only go back to these three. I’m also not a big believer in books on writing – you can get your head scrambled that way and get lost in a lot of theory and terminology. The best way to learn how to write is to read, read and read some more in your genre.
Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington is my favorite how-to memoir book. All my students have to get it because I want them to have something on their shelf they can refer back to when they find themselves struggling with a particular aspect of writing memoir, be it timeline or voice, writing about trauma or using humor. It is a very readable “textbook” that covers all the basics and also analyzes some memoirs and how the writers tackled certain issues. I put “textbook” in quotation marks because this is not a theory-heavy book but one that you will refer to many times. It also offers great writing prompts and exercises, and a reading list to get started with.
In Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser, memoir writers like Frank McCourt, Toni Morrison or Annie Dillard write about how they wrote their memoirs: what they struggled with, what their goals were for the book, how they finally found their voice, how their families reacted, etc. Their insights are illuminating, and to read some of their memoirs in conjunction with their views here of writing them is particularly insightful. This book is a wonderful second book to read about writing memoir once you’ve gotten your feet wet.
Abigail Thomas’s Thinking About Memoir is really a memoir about writing memoir, presented in little snippets of musing on writing, everyday life, and how she came to write her memoirs Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life. In this tiny book, she offers her priceless insights (“Be honest, dig deep, or don’t bother.”) as she shares how she got into writing memoir after having considered herself a fiction writer all her life. Along the way she offers many prompts to “write two pages about…” that will have you consider angles on your life you never knew existed. My copy is dog-eared, with many sentences underlined, and I pick it up often for reassurance and inspiration.
I’d be interested to hear your take on these books if you’ve read them, or your favorite books on writing memoir if you have any to add.