Writing a memoir presents a world of challenges. We’re asked to filter through our memories and plumb painful parts of our past. We’re asked to give urgency to what has already occurred. We must approach our lives with a level of objectivity and yet we must also speak about ourselves with great candor. We’re given the arduous task of deciding where to start, and where to end; what to select, and what to discard. We have a responsibility to our readers to illuminate, instruct, and enlighten.
It can be maddening.
To stay sane, I read. A lot. Here are five books I return to again and again to find inspiration and to broaden my knowledge of the writing process:
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird has become a classic for good reason. In Lamott’s characteristically warm and witty voice, she offers readers terrific advice on how to tackle the blank page, from practicing the craft of writing as one would practice the piano to the importance of finding support in the form of writers’ groups or a few trusted readers.
Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, by Beth Kephart
Beth Kephart—a National Book Award finalist and all around literary goddess—is wise and generous in this gem of a book. She instructs writers to “set caterwauling narcissism to the side” and shows how we should think about the concept of memoir through careful analysis and ample examples from other memoirists.
Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs
Don’t let the title fool you: Sure, Creating Fiction is aimed at novelists and short story writers. But this book of essays with pieces by a range of esteemed authors, including Charles Baxter, Jane Smiley, and Richard Russo, offers fantastic, imperative information on how to create a riveting piece of work, from utilizing setting to portray a person to describing selectively. It’s a must read for writers of any genre.
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
Jeannette Walls’ wonderful and wildly successful book should be required reading for memoirists. Read it and you’ll understand the importance of balancing heartbreak with levity, of crafting glowing sentences, of depicting our loved ones with honesty and empathy. It’s one of the bestselling memoirs of all time because it deserves to be.
The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, by Betsy Lerner
Betsy Lerner—a seasoned editor and great agent—guides writers through several critical steps in the evolution of a book in The Forest for the Trees. She shows authors how to be more productive by first asking us to understand what type of writers we are, and she provides terrific instructions on the road to publication and beyond. The best part? She coaches us through all of this in a knowledgeable, big-hearted voice that makes one feel like she’s chatting with a trusted mentor.
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