Written by Emily Harstone

19 Memoirs Every Aspiring Memoir Author Should Consider Reading

As a writer, I’m a firm believer that you should also be a reader. I think the best way to learn the craft of writing is to read.

I also believe that it’s important to be well-read in your chosen genre. It’s easier to pick up the tools of that genre if you are reading books written in that genre.

Many of the rules of fiction are not applicable to nonfiction, for example. So, while it’s good to read fiction in general, only by reading the memoirs of others will you get better at writing your own.

You might have already read numerous memoirs on all sorts of subjects, but if you haven’t, I’m providing this carefully curated list of memoirs to get you started.

Now, this list reflects my personal taste, for the most part, but I have included a number of memoirs that I didn’t particularly love but that I still think are important to read and well worth your time.

When I was putting together this list, I tried to think of it from several different angles. I didn’t just want to provide contemporary memoirs (though it was important to include them), because I think that it’s equally important to read the classic memoirs that made the genre what it is today.

I also included a few more unusual or unpopular memoirs because I thought they captured something important, either in terms of writing to a niche audience or exploring an idea that isn’t often explored.

I did not include all the memoirs I have loved or admired. I didn’t want to overwhelm you. But I did try to cover a lot of them.

The list is in no particular order.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I’m not a huge fan of Stephen King. When I was sixteen and thoughtful adults started gifting me this book because I wanted to be a writer, I was a little offended, which is absurd, because this book, particularly the first half, which focuses more on memoir than craft, is wonderful. It’s surprising and detailed and helpful in every way.

I’ve known a lot of non-writers who’ve read this book and loved it. It’s one of those books that was written with a specific audience in mind and manages to connect with people outside of that audience.

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

The New York Times is not alone in giving credit to this memoir for starting the modern memoir boom. Even though it’s not a personal favorite, I can see why it is so well liked. It’s a memoir about an unusual childhood with unusual parents. This is the childhood memoir so many other books try to be. A must-read for any inspiring memoirist.

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

Another classic memoir that is given credit for the modern boom, Autobiography of a Face is also about childhood. But instead of being about the kind of wild childhood Karr had, it is about having cancer while growing up. It is also a meditation on physical appearances. Grealy lost most of the bottom half of her face to cancer, and that not only altered her physical appearance but also made simple things like eating and drinking difficult.

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Anne Patchett

A favorite memoir of mine, Truth & Beauty is an ode to female friendship and to being a writer. Patchett is best friends with Lucy Grealy. They met in undergrad and became close in graduate school. Truth & Beauty is an interesting book to read after Autobiography because it partially explores the aftereffects of the success of Autobiography on Grealy.  It is also a great examination of what it takes to make it as a writer. I personally greatly prefer it to Autobiography (but that may just be me).

The Color of Water by James McBride

A complex and emotional memoir about childhood and how race, religion, and poverty intersect. This is well-told and surprising. It is easy to read and get absorbed in. It was published in 1996 and is a classic for the best reasons.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

Not a how-to guide for anything, particularly, but a wonderful, engaging, and well-written collection of essays about writing, identity, and life. A collection of essays has a lot in common with a memoir and can also be an alternative/variation on them. Other essay collections I particularly like are They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib and Tomboyland by Melissa Faliveno.

Why Be Happy, When You Could be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Another memoir about childhood and, more specifically, terrible mothers. This well-crafted memoir about childhood, being adopted, and sexuality is complex and well-written. It was published in 2012 and I feel like it’s profoundly influenced a lot of the newer memoirs about childhood.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Without question, a favorite memoir of mine. Another memoir of childhood and crazy mothers, but is somehow distinctly different from the very start, which, in this case, has Walls in a cab on the way to a fancy event in Manhattan when she spots her mother dumpster-diving in an alley.

Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl’s memoir, which is very much about her relationship with food and people, starts out with her mother’s terrible and terrifying cooking and progresses all the way towards her becoming a professional reviewer of food.

This is a masterfully written memoir, funny and heartbreaking, and the audience is focused but open to more readers.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

This memoir focuses on running and writing. The personal life of Murakami is mentioned, but only in passing. It is never the focus and it doesn’t really seem to be where Murakami’s interest lies. While not my favorite personally, I think it is a great memoir that doesn’t disclose much about the person itself. Additionally, it has a niche audience (runners), but it also appeals to a wider one. Even my mother loved it.

The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
A wonderfully written, vital memoir of growing up (mostly) in the United States with parents who were defined by their home country, Mexico. It is a deeply personal story, one that intersects well with larger cultural issues.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids focuses on the friendship/relationship of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. It documents their journey as lovers/friends and artists during a vital period of artistic growth in New York City. It features cameos of almost everyone famous at the time and the Chelsea Hotel plays an important role.

Men We Reaped by Jasmyn Ward

A memoir that focuses on the loss of men in Ward’s life. The book explores race and poverty in detailed and thoughtful ways, and it has influenced, I feel, a lot of more recent memoirs.

Living with a SEAL by Jesse Itzler

This is the most lighthearted contribution to this list. I’m not going to say it’s well-written (it isn’t), but I couldn’t put it down, and I couldn’t stop laughing. I think that aspect of the book, in and of itself, can be very helpful to learn from. This memoir is mostly about a man who thinks of himself as fit (Itzler) and has his life transformed by a Navy SEAL (Dave Goggins).

The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose

This book is also more mainstream, but not as lighthearted. It involves Roose, a student at Brown, attending Liberty College, one of the most conservative Christian colleges in the United States. It is focused on the adventures and experiences he has during his one year at Liberty. It’s a book I didn’t expect to love but did. Part of why it is on this list is because it focuses on a very specific period of time—that year—rather than trying to cover a whole childhood.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This memoir is heartbreakingly beautiful. It is about a doctor who wants to be a writer and is terminally ill. He has a wife he loves, and in spite of the odds, they decide to have a child together. There’s many meta elements to this story, but it is so well told.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

A genre-defining memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is about Dave Eggers becoming the steward of his brother after his parents pass away within weeks of each other, but it also very much explores the time period the story is set in (the 90s). The writing style is over the top and unignorable.

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey
A wonderful recent memoir about the bond between mothers and daughters, family, loss, and trauma. Beautifully written, Trethewey’s poetic roots shine through.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
A strong and inventive memoir about an abusive relationship between the author and her former girlfriend. I love how many literary tropes influence and are influenced by this work of nonfiction.


Emily Harstone is the author of many popular books, including The Authors Publish Guide to Manuscript SubmissionsSubmit, Publish, Repeat, and The 2021 Guide to Manuscript Publishers.

She regularly teaches three acclaimed courses on writing and publishing at The Writer’s Workshop at Authors Publish. You can follow her on Facebook here.

 

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