The best memoirs with an unconventional structure

Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman Author Of Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir
By Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman

Who am I?

I am a reader, writer, and professor specializing in memoir writing. I think every single person has a fascinating life. But, when writing it down, it can be difficult to find a narrative structure that allows the story to feel as unique as the human being writing it. I am drawn to memoirs that have fresh, creative ways of organizing their material—memoirs that go beyond or subvert the conventional, straightforward, chronological approach. After all, our memories are often scattered, fragmented, interrupted, non-linear, or just bizarre; memoirs that capture not only the person’s lived experience but also the messiness of memory itself feel more powerful and true to me. 

I wrote...

Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir

By Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman,

Book cover of Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir

What is my book about?

When aspiring violinist Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman lands a job with a professional ensemble in New York City, she imagines she has achieved her lifelong dream. But the ensemble proves to be a sham. When the group “performs,” the microphones are never on. Instead, the music blares from a CD. The mastermind behind this scheme is a peculiar and mysterious figure known as The Composer, who is gaslighting his audiences with music that sounds suspiciously like the Titanic movie soundtrack. On tour with his chaotic ensemble, Hindman spirals into crises of identity and disillusionment as she “plays” for audiences genuinely moved by the performance, unable to differentiate real from fake.

Sounds Like Titanic is a surreal, often hilarious coming-of-age story. Written with precise, candid prose and sharp insight into ambition and gender.

The books I picked & why

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The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

By Maxine Hong Kingston,

Book cover of The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

Why this book?

Kingston’s classic opens with one of the best first lines of all time: You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.” When I teach this book in my memoir writing classes, my students and I spend a long time discussing the implication of this first sentence—what it means for Kingston’s work, but also what it means for us, as memoirists, to tell stories we’ve been forbidden, in some way, to tell. The beating heart of this memoir is the idea that making art—literary or otherwise—is the process of saving your own life.     

Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood

By bell hooks,

Book cover of Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood

Why this book?

Because my first introduction to bell hooks was through her scholarly writing, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this memoir. A few pages in, I was already dazzled, challenged, and addicted to her storytelling genius—I read it in one sitting and immediately began reading it again. The perfect memoir for those who are looking for unconventional storytelling, hooks uses techniques like point-of-view shifts to paint a realer-than-real-life portrait of her childhood in rural Kentucky.  

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

By Azar Nafisi,

Book cover of Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

Why this book?

This memoir is so important to me that I included a scene of me reading it in my own memoir! To this day, when I find myself doubting the power of writing and literature, I return to this book; reading it is akin to sitting in the world’s most interesting and urgent literature class. Set in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution, this memoir is organized by the banned works of classic Western Literature Professor Nafisi discusses with a clandestine, all-women’s book group. The women in the group come from drastically different religious and socio-economic backgrounds, but through the reading and discussion of these books they are better able to understand one another, and navigate their own chaotic time and place.

Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life

By Abigail Thomas,

Book cover of Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life

Why this book?

As someone who teaches memoir writing for a living, I’ve read a lot of memoirs. Safekeeping is my all-time favorite. Each semester I assign it to my students, thinking this time I will finally grow tired of it. But I never do. To me, this book is the pinnacle of the memoir genre and I think it should get more attention as a masterpiece. While it has an unconventional, non-linear structure with multiple points of view (sometimes written in first person, sometimes in third, sometimes as an epistolary address to Thomas’s deceased second husband, sometimes as a meta-conversation about the book itself via the author’s conversations with her sister) its brilliance lies in its simplicity. Chapters are extremely short, sometimes no longer than a sentence. And yet they contain everything. 

Things We Didn't Talk about When I Was a Girl: A Memoir

By Jeannie Vanasco,

Book cover of Things We Didn't Talk about When I Was a Girl: A Memoir

Why this book?

The best memoirs, to me, are not only records of past events. They are also the record of a writer grappling with how best to tell the story. Jeannie Vanasco takes this idea to an entirely new level in this brilliant meta-memoir that not only chronicles a sexual assault she experienced in college, but also her present-day investigation into her rapist’s memories of the event, his motives, and his present-day thoughts about what happened. This book challenged me to think in new ways—not only about sexual assault, but also about the ways we remember it and write about it. 

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