The best of the best memoir in essays

Beth Kephart Author Of Wife Daughter Self: A Memoir in Essays
By Beth Kephart

Who am I?

The first memoir I ever read—Road Song by Natalie Kusz—pierced me in ways I did not know were possible. Kusz had written, in this elegantly crafted book, of an Alaskan childhood, a life-changing accident, early motherhood, and family love. She had written, I mean to say, of transcending truths. I have spent much of my life ever since deconstructing the ways in which true stories get told, and writing them myself. I’ve taught memoir to five-year-olds, Ivy League students, master’s level writers, and retirees. I co-founded Juncture Workshops, write a monthly newsletter on the form, and today create blank books into which other writers might begin to tell their stories.

I wrote...

Wife Daughter Self: A Memoir in Essays

By Beth Kephart,

Book cover of Wife Daughter Self: A Memoir in Essays

What is my book about?

Wife | Daughter | Self: A Memoir in Essays, by National Book Award finalist Beth Kephart, reflects on the iterative, composite self as she travels to lakes and rivers, New Mexico and Mexico, the icy waters of Alaska, and a hot-air balloon launch in search of understanding. Who is she, in relationship to others? Who is she when she is alone, with a pen in her hands? And how will she write the truest version of her life after spending many years teaching others to unlock their own tales? A book of interlocking essays by an acclaimed writer, teacher, and critic that engages the reader in soul searches of their own.

The books I picked & why

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Who's Your Daddy

By Arisa White,

Book cover of Who's Your Daddy

Why this book?

Arisa White grew up with the looming absence of her biological father—a man whose genes and behaviors haunt her. Finally White, an award-winning poet and teacher who was “born into a bracket of boys,” decides to visit this man in his far-away country to learn more about where she came from and who she may or may not be. The book moves chronologically. It swirls with poetry. It doesn’t always make for easy reading, but every line is well designed and, often, shattering. As a memoir-in-essays, it reaffirms the power of the crystalized scene and the intentional white space.

An Earlier Life

By Brenda Miller,

Book cover of An Earlier Life

Why this book?

“In an earlier life,” Miller writes, “I was a baker, in a bakery on a cobblestoned street.” It takes Miller just one single paragraph to tell this whole tale—how she proofed yeast, how she scraped her spoon, how she made loaves for children: “It was my only kindness.” In every successive chapter—most all of them short, many of them formally inventive—Miller deconstructs her life and soul—the roots of her unease, the startling incidents of loss, her learning to sleep, and her learning to live with the person she becomes. Miller is a stellar choreographer, knowing just where to place which expertly fashioned scene and knowing, always, what to leave out.

Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life

By Abigail Thomas,

Book cover of Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life

Why this book?

Abigail Thomas likes to say that she didn’t know what she was doing when she set out to write Safekeeping. Memories returned and she wrote them down. Sometimes she wrote of herself in first person. Sometimes in second. Sometimes in third. Sometimes she wrote of apple cake, and of people she loved, and of unsustainable loss. No one remembers their entire life in systematic order. Few lives conform to outlines. That is why Thomas needed to invent the shape of her memoir in essays—to arrange all of its idiosyncratic pieces into an utterly compelling idiosyncratic whole.

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss

By Margaret Renkl,

Book cover of Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss

Why this book?

When Renkl’s book arrived on my doorstep a few years ago, I was lost in the rush of the day. But just one glance at the first page and I stopped all else, found a chair, and settled in with this book of woven fragments. The solace and danger of the natural world braid, in Renkl’s hands, with personal losses, worry, and wonder. Images, metaphors, and motifs repeat and repeat again—enlarging the story with each appearance. Illustrations by Renkl’s brother complete the story, making this book endlessly re-readable and finally reassuring.

The Circus Train

By Judith Kitchen,

Book cover of The Circus Train

Why this book?

“Ever since the chemo leaked, your toes have had no feeling. So start there. This is the beginning. Eternal. Cold. A dizzying loss of balance.” These words, high on the first page of Kitchen’s mesmerizing book of pieces, announce what is to come—the mystery of living, the mystery of dying, and the transitory in-between. Kitchen is battling the cancer that will kill her. Her mind takes her back and forth, between her present day and her youth. Stories tug at her and she can’t quite find the center, and there is no room, or time, for extended passages. This is poetry as memoir-in-essays, and it will take your breath away. 

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