Writing a memoir is an intensely personal undertaking. Many writers are intimidated by the thought of putting their innermost thoughts and memories down for others to read. Others fear their memories and interpretations of the past aren’t unusual enough or filled with enough drama to appeal to readers. But the real appeal of a memoir doesn’t lie just with the story. How you recount your memoirs and how you record your emotional response to those events is critical. Some great memoirs recount staggering tales of survival. Others reminisce about the small moments of typical family life. Both can affect us profoundly if told well. For a sampling of memoirs that each tell a compelling story, start with these titles.
About Alice by Calvin Trillin
This is a slender volume perfect for dipping your toe in the memoir genre. Humorist, reporter and essayist Calvin Trillin recalls his memories of a wife he loved deeply and lost to lung cancer in 2001. Writing memoirs is often a catharsis for those who have lost something precious, and Trillin is no exception. His affection for and devotion to a woman who filled so many roles – mother, wife, writer, speaker – is obvious. His admiration of her endless capacity to be startled by joy shows in every word. It is a portrait o warm portrait of a vital and loving marriage.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Part of the beat generation, singer/songwriter/poet Patti Smith worked alongside and loved artist Robert Mapplethorpe. This memoir recounts their trials and triumphs moving through New York City’s lost, bohemian art scene during the 60s and 70s. Smith’s memories encompass a bustling art scene, the inner city’s squalor, and her many relationships with famous counterculture icons such as Andy Warhol. Throughout, her voice is wry, self-aware, and amusing. This is an elegy for a moment in history as well as a personal journey.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
No one should miss the memoir that made Maya Angelou famous. Written in 1969, it’s a groundbreaking portrait of what it was to grow up poor and black in a racist South. The language is by turns lyrical and stark. It captures the small joys of family life and the harsh realities of an uncertain and dangerous existence. Angelou beautifully conveys in the written word how she moved from anger and fear to self-love.
On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
Best known for the book “Awakenings,” chronicling his success reviving sleeping sickness patients who had been unconscious for decades, Oliver Sacks was a scientist, doctor, and writer. His memoir weaves together medical tales with personal stories for a compelling portrait of a man whose public success hid his quest for acceptance. From self-experimentation using drugs to struggles with sexual identity, Sacks wrote with unflinching honesty. Spare prose and raw emotion make this a memoir you’ll remember long after you’ve finished reading.
Stuffed: Memoirs of a Restaurant Family by Patricia Volk
This charming book is proof memoirs don’t need to be harrowing or about famous people to engage readers. Volk recounts her family’s exuberant, raucous lifestyle running a family restaurant that had been in the family for a century. Volk entices with tempting descriptions of food as far more than sustenance. Her obvious love for her unpredictable family and their devotion to nurturing each other with food and affection comes through in amusing tales of small moments. This is the story of an unextraordinary family that manages to live an extraordinary life. You’ll finish longing for the company of Volk’s family and feeling like you’ve been hugged.
Reading memoirs with a variety of voices and stories will give you glimpses into the experiences of others as well as perspective for your own life. Read them as inspiration for your own writing. However, keep in mind what memories you want to capture and the story you want to tell. As you’ll learn from our suggested readings, there are as many ways to tell the story as there are stories to tell.
Dudley Court Press Offers Guidance When Writing Memoirs
Dudley Court Press works with writers like you every day. As a full-service, hybrid publishing house, we help thoughtful people write their books and become successful published authors.
For more information, including about DCP’s latest programs, please get in touch at +1-520-329-2729 or publisher@DudleyCourtPress.com. We will soon be launching our latest program, Memoir Writing for Non-Writers. Be watching for details about this exciting program in the upcoming weeks!