What is a memoir?
How to be a memoir Rockstar — the ultimate memoir writer’s toolkit
“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.
— Dr. Seuss
“Remember that you own what happened to you. If your childhood was less than ideal, you may have been raised thinking that if you told the truth about what really went on in your family, a long bony white finger would emerge from a cloud and point to you, while a chilling voice thundered, “We *told* you not to tell.” But that was then. Just put down on paper everything you can remember now about your parents and siblings and relatives and neighbors, and we will deal with libel later on.”
— Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life)
Perhaps you thought it would be easy…writing your life’s story, or just one small part…
After all, you know all the characters so well. Hey, you even get to be the protagonist!
You don’t even need to dream up a plot; you have already lived the vivid details. You just need to write it all down, right?
But when you start writing your memoir, you find it is, well, hard. REALLY hard.
You wrestle with:
What is a memoir, exactly?
Which point of view to use?
Do I start in the past or present?
Why does my narrator sound: snarky | whiny | apathetic?
How do I keep from hurting the ones I love?
How do I remember what was really said?
So many unanswered questions!
Sorry, I don’t have all the answers but I have rounded up this ultimate list* of those who do.
For the most part, this list consists of what is a memoir and “how to” write a memoir, not actual memoirs.
Please comment below if you see one that I have missed! And, please comment on your favorite memoir writing book on the list!
*Thanks to Maureen Murdock and Jennifer Selig for their list contributions.
“Harry Bernstein was a total failure when he wrote his bestselling memoir, The Invisible Wall. His prior forty (forty!) novels had been rejected by publishers. When his memoir came out, he was ninety-three years old. A quote from him: “If I had not lived until I was 90, I would not have been able to write this book, God knows what other potentials lurk in other people, if we could only keep them alive well into their 90s.”
— James Altucher (Choose Yourself)
The ultimate what is a memoir “how to” list:
- Courage and Craft: Writing Your Life into Story, by Barbara Abercrombie
- Journal to the Self, by Kay Adams
- Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir, by Elizabeth Andrew
- Writing the Memoir, by Judith Barrington
- The Art of Time in Memoir, by Sven Birkerts
- The Passionate, Accurate Story, by Carol Bly
- Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma, by Melanie Brooks
- Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, by Joy Castro
- Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write Their Bodies, by Sayantani DasGupta & Marsha Hurst
- Writing as a Way of Healing, by Louise DeSalvo
- Imaginal Remembering (in press), by Daphne Dodson
- Old Friend from Far Away, by Natalie Goldberg
- The Situation and the Story, by Vivian Gornick
- I Could Tell You Stories, by Patrica Hampl
- Turning Life into Fiction, by R. Hemley
- Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, by bell hooks
- The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr
- Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, by Beth Kephart
- When Memory Speaks, by Jill Ker Conway
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
- Telling True Stories, by M. Kramer & W. Call
- Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
- The Memoir and the Memoirist, by Thomas Larson
- Turning Memories into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories, by Denis Ledoux
- The Art of the Personal Essay, by Phillip Lopate
- Why We Write About Ourselves, by M. Maren
- The Anatomy of Memory, by James McConkey
- Writing for Your Life, by D. Metzger
- Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and Memory, by Maureen Murdock
- The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story, by Linda Myers
- Journey of Memoir: The Three Stages of Memoir Writing, by Linda Myers
- Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, by Perl & Schwartz
- Your Life as Story, by Tristine Rainer
- Writing Life Stories, by Bill Roorbach
- Making a Literary Life, by Carolyn See
- The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing& Life, by Marion Smith
- Thinking about Memoir, by Abigail Thomas
- One Year to a Writing Life, by Susan Tiberghien
- Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, by William Zinsser
If reading a few from this list doesn’t help you learn what is a memoir, or how to start, well, I’m guessing you need to turn to fiction!
Speaking of fiction, don’t miss out on our Signed Outlander Easton Press giveaway!