Writing Reading Retreat: Memoir

Book Mural at Denver Public LibraryFor almost three weeks prior to Aspen Summer Words 2011, I had my nose in a book. When I arrived at the writing retreat, many of my fellow students compared it to college days: reading during meals, toting along a book to read in any spare moment, finishing one memoir and immediately starting another. While it was intense, it was an interesting way to prepare for a writing workshop.

A few of you asked which memoir of the required list was my favorite. Not counting Mary Karr, who I’ve long claimed as a favorite author, I really loved Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. I had avoided the book because everyone said it was so depressing. While the subject is intense and heavy, McCourt wrote it with beautifully sparse language, letting much of the story unfold at its own pace and speak for itself. It’s a lovely example of the writer getting out of the way of the story and characters.

This was the first time I was in a writing workshop where writers had been required to read the same books. It was helpful to have common reference points and texts that could be used as specific examples when asking technique or subject-related questions. While our reading list leaned towards alcoholism and recovery, it was interesting to dissect the different styles, such as the use of quotation marks vs. no quotation marks and creating scenes vs. summarizing. 

If you were to create a “must read” list for anyone interested in memoir, which books would you include? My top five:

  • The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
  • This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
  • The Lost Night by Rachel Howard
  • Girlbomb by Janice Erlbaum
  • I’m Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell

Your turn. Please share your top five memoir picks for anyone interested in or currently writing in this genre.

7 thoughts on “Writing Reading Retreat: Memoir

  1. Leah, you’ll have to let me know what you think of The Liars Club. I just finished Bossypants and really enjoyed it. Given the heaviness of the memoirs I was reading earlier this summer, it was very refreshing.

    As for memoir vs. autobiography, stay tuned. That’s a great topic for its own post and discussion. Thank you for the inspiration! (I promise to get that posted soon.)

  2. Jenny – How could I forget An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken? Because of your recommendation, I fell in love with her writing and have devoured everything of hers I can find. You have a few memoirs listed I haven’t read yet, either, so I’m going add them to my “to read” stack.

    As for the workshop, I’m sorry I didn’t get to see you. However, Bill’s still rates as #1. There were two people there from Bill’s workshop the year before ours and they were singing his praises as well.

  3. I have The Liar’s Club on hold at the library.

    Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, Jung Chang
    The Glass Castle: A Memoir, Jeannette Walls
    A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of A Boy Soldier, Ishmael Beah
    Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris (does this count?)
    Bossypants, Tina Fey

    Did you talk about the differences between memoirs and autobiographies? Sometimes the line seems pretty blurred.

  4. Ooh, that workshop sounds great! I’m so sorry I wasn’t there this year.

    I’m going to pick up the books on your list that I haven’t read yet (the last three). Here are my favorites:
    An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
    The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
    A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas
    On Grief by C.S. Lewis
    The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke

  5. Liz,
    I’m very interested in the books you’d list as your top five. You’re right: I Am Not Myself is intense – and hilarious. We studied it in one of my memoir classes because it has such a great opening and overall structure.

  6. I have to consider my list. I just looked up I Am Not Myself and read the prologue on Amazon. Put it on hold at the library. Seems like an intense read.

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