Reading for Memoirists — updated!

I’m a HUGE believer in learning from other writers. When I wrote Leaving India, which is only partly a memoir, I read a LOT in order to understand how other writers managed and structured their gut-spilling so that it didn’t look as horribly messy as it all felt. In Blueprint Your Book, I love witnessing the memoir writers go through the biggest breakthroughs — it’s so amazing when they finally know how to shape their own stories.

Below is a list of memoirs that I recommend for writers approaching their own memoirs — sorted into various headings based on what you might be able to learn from them. (Many could go under multiple headings, though!)

(Sparked by request from my fantastic memoir students of VONA 2012 and updated erratically every since…)

Memoir about or including other people

Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro; essays by 25 writers, including several listed below, on navigating the fraught emotional and literary territory of family history, including ethical dilemmas and practical strategies 

Black Is the Body: Stories From My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard, winner of the Christopher Isherwood prize; multigenerational memoir in the form of linked essays

Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid
My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid

Does Your House Have Lions by Sonia Sanchez — a book of linked poems centering around her brother’s death of complications of AIDS; weaves different family/ancestral voices

The Bishop’s Daughter by Honor Moore — a woman writes about being the bisexual daughter of a closeted gay bishop; silences in the family

Who She Was: My Search for My Mother’s Life by Sam Freedman — totally research-based with personal reflection only at the beginning and end; great model for the kinds of research you can do for memoir

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel — graphic novel format, memoir about her father; now a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical!

Memoir with landscape/location as a character

Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai’i by Garrett Hongo

Epitaph for a Peach by David Mas Masumoto

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

Talking to High Monks in the Snow: An Asian American Odyssey by Lydia Minatoya

Memoir with relevant content for some folks

Books of the other VONA teachers, obviously — especially Elmaz Abinader and Faith Adiele for political/international content

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion — on death and grief

The Long Journey by Natalie Goldberg — on grief, multiple losses of marriage/father/zen teacher

Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog — this is more in the older genre of autobiography rather than what we think of as a modern literary memoir — on surviving battle/genocide

Night by Elie Wiesel — sparse and fragmented narrative of a teenage boy caring for his father in Nazi concentration camps 1944-45

One! Hundred! Demons! by Lynda Barry — graphic  memoir; monsters from childhood trauma

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil — not a memoir, actually, but read for the mesmerizing passages of drug use/hallucination/disassociation

Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life  by Samhita Mukhopadhyay — feminist deconstruction of dating, with some memoiristic content

Nonfiction with experimental/interesting structure

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch — gorgeous book that the author calls an “anti-memoir”; as the title indicates, it has a nontraditional shape and moves across many time periods fluidly; notable for its depiction of the lifelong aftermath of trauma, without revealing or uncovering the original trauma itself

A Cup Full of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez — a memoir in the form of linked essays spanning the author’s entire lifetime; topics include family members, religion, ethnicity, queerness, and her stint at the New York Times

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald —  on the line between fiction and nonfiction, structured as 4 biographies but they add up to something amazing; impact of a historical trauma many decades afterward

A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War by Susan Griffin — stunning poetic political memoir/feminist meditation that weaves in meticulous research and moves across many locations and timeframes

“Exterminate All the Brutes”: One Man’s Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness and the Origins of European Genocide by Sven Lindqvist — gorgeous first-person fragmented memoir/travel narrative/political critique/meditation on history

Calamities of Exile: Three Nonfiction Novellas by Lawrence Weschler — biographies of refugee-artists

Memoirs by poets

Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood by June Jordan

The Winged Seed: A Remembrance by Li-Young Lee

Bhanu Kapil — all of her books (prose/poetry) are beautiful models with interesting structures; she teaches at Naropa; her blog (also, for those interested in experimental and cross-genre writing, Naropa in Colorado is a good place to check out for summer workshops and MFA)

Old-school powerful biomythographies from women of color

Everyone, but especially any woman of color in America writing a memoir, should read these — they are our canon:

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston

Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldua

Other resources

Kristina Wong, one-woman show “Wong Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — comedic show about being Chinese-American and mental illness

Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk — on working through & with trauma, one’s own or other people’s

Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg — books by on freewriting and writing as a practice

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron — a great practical guide for writers and artists


Want more memoir help? Book your free mini-consultation today, and let’s chat about what you need.

Wondering how to structure your own memoir or book?  Check out these five great story structures.

One thought on “Reading for Memoirists — updated!

  1. These are fantastic. Four I copied for future reading. Two are already on that list. (Can’t read memoir right now bc I don’t read the genre I’m current composing in.)

    Otherwise you might consider Mary Karr, Faith Adiele, Lauren Slater, Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux, and Jennifer Steil.

    Thanks for a grand post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *