The best books to read if you're thinking of writing a memoir

Helena de Bres Author Of Artful Truths: The Philosophy of Memoir
By Helena de Bres

Who am I?

I’m a philosophy professor who started writing memoir in her mid-thirties. I love the similarities and the differences between memoir and philosophy (to sum it up: both are ways of making sense of your experience, but memoirists are allowed to tell stories, make jokes and break your heart.) On the trail of my obsession with the two, I’ve written a book on the philosophy of memoir and a memoir about philosophy. My sister calls them “your weird book twins.” Whatever! The whole experience has felt like falling in love, and I now want to encourage everyone to give personal writing a shot. 

I wrote...

Artful Truths: The Philosophy of Memoir

By Helena de Bres,

Book cover of Artful Truths: The Philosophy of Memoir

What is my book about?

Artful Truths offers a concise and accessible guide to the philosophical questions that arise when writing a literary work about your own life. Helena de Bres addresses what memoirs are, how they relate to fiction, memoirists’ responsibilities to their readers and subjects, and the question of why to write a memoir at all. Along the way, she delves into many large human questions, including the nature of the self, the limits of knowledge, the idea of truth, the obligations of friendship, the relationship between morality and art, and the question of what makes a life meaningful. Written in a clear and conversational style, Artful Truths offers insight and guidance for those who write, teach, and study memoirs, and those who love to read them. 

The books I picked & why

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The Art of Memoir

By Mary Karr,

Book cover of The Art of Memoir

Why this book?

This book is a blast to read and also packed with insight (the Holy Grail, no?) It’s a collection of short chapters on a wide range of questions that either a baby or seasoned memoirist might ask. How do I find my voice? How do I organize my material? Am I betraying my family? (When Karr asked her own mom if she minded being outed as a knife-wielding alcoholic who set her children’s toys on fire, Mrs. Karr apparently replied: “Oh hell, the whole town knew about that.”) Karr draws on her extensive experience as a best-selling memoirist and teacher of memoir, serving up hard-won wisdom and concrete practical advice. Reading The Art of Memoir is like trapping a celebrity genius in a hotel bar and getting the unvarnished version. You’ll love it.

To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction

By Phillip Lopate,

Book cover of To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction

Why this book?

Phillip Lopate is widely recognized as the national champion of the personal essay. He published an anthology in 1994 that’s credited with reviving respect for the form and has written several acclaimed essay collections himself. He’s a serious scholar and an irreverent artist, and that winning mix comes through in this set of brief, engaging, insightful pieces on the nature and craft of creative nonfiction. New memoirists are often encouraged to make their writing rich in descriptive detail and scenes, and steer away from too much philosophizing: as William Gass once put it, treating ideas “like a cockroach in the picnic basket.” One thing I love about this book is the way it pushes back on that consensus, arguing that reflection on the past, not just evocation of it, is what makes a personal essay great.

Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative

By Melissa Febos,

Book cover of Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative

Why this book?

Melissa Febos is having a moment. Who wouldn’t love a queer feminist firebrand who was once a professional dominatrix and now writes memoir and essays that surge with sensual detail, set your mind in action, and then rip your heart out? She recently won the National Book Critics Circle award for her excellent collection of essays on growing up female, Girlhood. This short book, which followed fast on that one’s tail, brings together four pieces on the craft of personal narrative. If you’re worried you’re a narcissist or opportunist for writing a memoir, or just wallowing in your own trauma, this book will help you think about where (or who) those criticisms are coming from, and fire you up to get back to the open page.

The Writing Life

By Annie Dillard,

Book cover of The Writing Life

Why this book?

Memoir is sometimes dissed as an inferior, quasi-literary genre: just a souped-up diary, therapy session, or family history that lacks the imagination and artistry of works of fiction. In truth, the great memoirs of the past and present are every bit as literary as the great novels. This means that, if you’re going to write a good memoir, you need to see yourself as a creative writer and nurture that side of yourself on the regular. How do you charge the parts of you that are wild, passionate, and free, devoted to elegance, artistry, and beauty for the pure sake of those things, when you’re tired and the world is falling apart and you also need to load the dishwasher? Read this book.

Easy Beauty: A Memoir

By Chloé Cooper Jones,

Book cover of Easy Beauty: A Memoir

Why this book?

The best way to learn how to write a memoir is to read a lot of memoirs. It expands your sense of the possibilities (“what? I’m allowed to do that?”), provides you with techniques to steal for your own work, helps you identify your distinctive strengths and weaknesses, and inspires you to keep going when self-doubt and weariness swoop in. I could recommend memoirs all day, but here’s a brand new one I’m reading right now that I love. It’s written by a philosophy professor with a skeletal disorder (like me!) and combines reflections on art, beauty, and disability with the author’s personal experience of those things. It’s thought-provoking, funny, and moving, and offers what feels like a direct window into the soul of another human. Isn’t that why we read and love memoirs? So why not write one?

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