If you’re looking for books about how to write memoir on a site like Amazon, there are so many titles and so many of them have five stars. Which of them do you choose?
I am working on a memoir, and since discovering that memoir writing is: a) harder than fiction and b) not as easy as transcribing diaries into a word processor, I have turned to memoir-writing books for help. I’ve read about a dozen by now, and bought a few that I now regret spending money on. Hopefully this guide can help you with your own memoir writing project.
1. Your Life As Story by Tristine Rainer.
This classic how-to book is cited by a lot of the other books on memoir I’ve read, and for very good reason. Rainer goes into great detail about the elements that make a story work.
I feel that her handling of theme is a bit vague, though. If you want the brutal truth about the significance of theme (and you don’t mind gross metaphors) Chuck Wendig’s advice is well worth reading.
Excerpt from Rainer:
“Even if your initial goal was to be published by Simon and Schuster and to become rich and famous, and you bit the bullet and finished a complete book, and rewrote and polished and submitted and you didn’t get a big publisher, you may turn out to feel as my students do. They say, as though they were being interviewed by People magazine, that along with having their children, writing their memoir was the most satisfying thing they ever did. Except they really mean it.”
2. Naked, Drunk, and Writing by Adair Lara.
Don’t judge this book by its stupid title. It’s one of the better books on memoir I’ve read, for one outstanding reason: because Lara also teaches you a good formula for writing personal essays, and explains how a memoir is basically an extended personal essay. It’s like getting two writing books in one. It’s also very entertaining and funny.
Here’s an excerpt.
“Avoid Mentioning Shrinks.
Of course the insights in a memoir can echo the realizations of psychotherapy, so it’s useful to remember Chekhov’s advice: ‘Shun all descriptions of the characters’ spiritual state. You must have that state emerge from their actions.’ Imagine Flaubert writing about the childhood trauma that made Madame Bovary unfaithful to her husband, or Anna Karenina, not hit by the train after all, sniffling into tissues as she pours her heart out at tedious length to her shrink. Or Romeo and Juliet discussing their relationship with a couples counselor, trying to find out why they keep falling for unobtainable objects.”
(Although I get what she’s saying and generally think it’s good advice, I have a psychiatrist as a character in my memoir, though I don’t pour my heart out to him at “tedious length”.)
3. The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative by Thomas Larson.
Although this is not a how-to book like the others, it covers vital topics for a would-be memoirist to know, including a thorough and enlightening discussion about theme. Larson analyzes classic published memoirs and shows us exactly what the writers did and why it was effective. You could plow through a stack of memoirs yourself and analyze them, or you could read this book and save yourself a lot of time. Larson has written a memoir of his own and teaches memoir-writing classes, and knows what he is doing. The tone of the book is more academic and less personal than the other two books, but don’t let that put you off. It’s an advanced class in memoir writing.
“Some argue that to write memoir or to seek individuation (a la Jung’s practice) is a purely selfish enterprise. Hardly. Personal fulfillment and the longevity of life are evolutionary imperatives. If you look at any index of human development (such “quality of life” measures, like the one used by the United Nations, must balance tangible and intangible criteria) — child welfare, health care, democratic institutions, political freedom, human rights, psychological wellness, environmental well-being, life expectancy, meaningful work, the arts — you find that social and personal betterment are mutually dependent. It may be that the desire for individual fulfillment is what predominantly drives a society to evolve.”
Of the three books I’ve recommended here, Larson’s book is my favorite, although if I could recommend only one book it would be Lara’s, simply because knowing how to structure a personal essay is vital to writing a good memoir.
Bonus: Since writing this post I have also read The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith, and though it is the smallest memoir book I have ever seen it is packed with vital information. It elaborates on the theme Chuck Wendig talks about: that a memoir is basically an argument. It gets you writing serious pieces right away, not faffing around doing exercises. I highly recommend it.
Here’s two books that I bought and didn’t care for.
1. How to Write a Memoir in 30 Days by Roberta Temes
This book is full of exercises that were useless to me because I wasn’t writing about my childhood. It might be more useful to someone who is, but I also found it pretty superficial. More suited to absolute beginners who are only writing for themselves or for family, not for publication.
2. Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir by Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann
This book isn’t terrible, it just gives vague advice like “Make your travel memoir as experential and vivid as possible.” But HOW, they don’t explain.
The writing prompts did nothing for me, and I didn’t care for the grammar lessons (I already know spelling and grammar, thanks) or the fact that it’s only half a book about how to write memoir and the other half is about how to get published (by writing a great memoir, which they don’t really show you how to do). It might be useful to those who have already written a memoir and are looking for tips on how to publish it.
Um, I taught personal essay writing for years at a college. I used a couple of chapters of Rainer’s book, particularly the chapter on writing scenes. I think it’s a very good chapter and would still recommend that anyone interested in writing memoir use the information she provides there. Good luck. Memoir is much harder than people tend to think, as you’ve already discovered 🙂
Thanks, I’m hanging in there. 🙂