My favourite books on writing memoir

Writing a book is a rather big project, isn’t it? It’s not like writing an article or a blog post – you’re creating an entire world, in many ways. It’s big picture. It’s structure. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Back when I started writing my first book (a travel memoir), I needed to shift from the functional writing I’d been doing for years to a bigger-picture look at story and narrative, which is when I (unintentionally) started curating a selection of books that have been my companions much like old friends in this memoir writing journey.

Books on writing craft are soothing to have nearby when you’re working on a writing project. When I plunged back into the world of writing a book for A Letter From Paris, I came back to some old favourites, and found some even better new ones.

So I thought I’d share my favourite, weather-beaten friends who will not be leaving my bookshelf anytime soon. Each of these books have either helped me with story structure, the craft of writing, or provided insights into writing or the creative process.

Read on for my favourite reads on the craft of writing, and those particular to memoir. Click on the title for more info.

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr


Memoir inherently brings the dilemma of writing about other people, and Karr’s book is a grand study in how one of the best has dealt with this conundrum.

Poet and author of three bestselling memoirs (Lit, Cherry and The Liar’s Club) Karr teaches at Syracuse University.
The best parts of this book, for me, were feeling so deeply understood. When you’re writing a family memoir, particularly, the conundrums of writing about your relatives and people you know can be crippling. Not so when you’ve read this book – Karr has examined her past and her demons and rigorously examines our human need to ‘sanitise’ the past and make it fit for public consumption, but warns against it. I return to her quotes again and again.

Best Bits:

The enormous cross-section of creative non-fiction and memoir she references in the study of writing in the genre. Her personal experiences writing memoir. The pop quiz for why NOT to write a memoir!

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert


This book was given to me at Christmas just before the email that rocked my world (& led to my writing A Letter From Paris) landed in my inbox. I still wonder if I would have responded to wildly and openly to the ‘gift’ of that message in the same way if I hadn’t just finished reading this book.
What I love about Big Magic is the consideration of the creative process and ideas – and our job as channel, really, is to catch and follow them through, or they will go to someone else. I also appreciated her thoughts on working for art – not making your art work for you or you’ll get angry at it. And, of course, the projections inherent in putting any kind of art work out into the world (she tells a very funny story about how many letters she got from readers after Eat, Pray, Love about how brave she was to open up about her alcoholism!!! If anyone has read that memoir – there is no such storyline.) The point being that we need to both surrender and chase the creative path.

Best Bits:

A new way of thinking about creativity and ideas. I adore this quote, particularly now in the time of Covid:

“Perhaps creativity’s biggest mercy is this: By completely absorbing our attention for a short & magical spell, it can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are. Best of all, at the end of your creative adventure, you have a souvenir – something you made, something to remind you of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration.”

 

A Writer’s Paris by Eric Maisel

This is a lovely little book. My sister found it at a second-hand store not long before my trip to Paris in 2017. But you don’t have to be planning a trip to enjoy it – the gentle musings on living in small spaces (of which the Parisians excel), procrastination, quotes from great Parisian thinkers and writers, and thoughts on cultivating writer’s routines can be applied wherever you live, and particularly, now. It’s also illustrated. Nice!

Best Bits:

The way he makes you realise you can turn anything into your Parisian writing retreat. Also his perspective on the writing process as a psychotherapist (he references some different treatment terms which are interesting).

 

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

What I love about Pressfield’s slim little volume is how he talks about creative resistance. This book is an excellent study on how embarking on any creative project is a bit like going into battle – resistance is your enemy and will turn up in various guises such as fear, procrastination and self-sabotage. I adore this book and return to certain quotes again and again.

Best Bits:

All of it. I’d never encountered the idea of creative ‘resistance’ until I read this book (I have two more of his books, too). But particularly the anecdotes about well-known artists and their fears and experiences. The story about Hitler starting World War Two rather than braving life as an artist because it is so scary has stayed with me.

the war of art by steven pressfield with a candle and some pens 

STORY by Robert McKee

It’s a funny thing – when I talk with would-be authors, they never seem to think they need help with structure. But they do.
When my first memoir was rejected (brutally!) by a top publisher, I learned that what was missing was structure. But like anyone beginning anything difficult – you don’t know what you don’t know!

Most people don’t realise they need structure in their story and what i’ve taught myself from books like this one by McKee has formed a huge part of what I teach in my 90 day memoir course.
But it all started with this book – McKee gives structural lessons for screenwriters but you can adapt his lessons for a memoir – and I have. You soon realise that all story exists on similar structural principles – and, far from making them more cliched by following a pattern (much like a piece of music follows a pattern) –  understanding the structure of storytelling will make your writing infinitely more memorable.

Best Bits:

McKee was my introduction to learning about The 3 Act Structure, Conflict, pacing in storytelling and keeping the action going, even when the activity of your characters is internal (which it most-often is, in memoir). I also love what he writes about how storytelling is the most necessary function in society.

 

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott has written many works of both fiction and non-fiction, so this book is more about the process of writing itself.
If you have any writers in your life who have recently been rejected, or holed themselves up to write a first draft, buying them a copy of this book would be the most gentle kind of encouragement you could imagine. Much like Karr’s memoir book, you feel ‘seen’ as a writer in any genre by reading this book.

Best Bits:

Her musings on the need for routine in a writer’s life, on the (awful) first draft, the actual story behind the title, and the story about already having spent her book advance when her book was rejected. If she can bounce back from that, you can bounce back from any rejection!

 

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogel

I absolutely adore this book. After fruitlessly trying to learn about the mythic heroes journey through Joseph Campbell (I found his writing too dated and difficult to read), this is (and i know I’m making a grand claim here) the best book to help with writing memoir I’ve ever read.
Where McKee’s STORY was my introduction to the 3 Act Structure, Vogel’s book outlines the key archetypes in any mythic story which I think are most relevant to memoir. When I was drafting A Letter From Paris I went through this book with post-its and tabbed the key players in my personal story and which archetypes they fell into. It helped me structure my story. Many of the writing prompts and reflections I’ve developed for my journaling for memoir course and 90 Day memoir come from things I’ve developed and extracted from his lessons on myths and archetypes and how they relate to storytelling.

Best Bits:

All of it. Examples from commonly-known movies and books help you understand concepts around key archetypes so you can recognise them very easily. I couldn’t relate to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey as well as I can this book. I return to the chapters again and again.

Vogel's book helped me enormously when I was writing my second memoir (as did my cat)

Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom by Rachel Pollack

OK so this book is not a writing craft book but it has helped me with my writing. Let me explain. My morning routine consists of drawing a tarot card from the Crystal Tarot and sometimes I use this card as a prompt to write in my journal.
The classic Tarot deck features archetypes which you can combine with what you’ve learnt about three 3 Act Story Structure or Mythic characters to dive even deeper into traits of the Fool, the Magician, the Empress, the Page of Cups, 9 of swords, etc etc. Sometimes it feels a bit too patriarchal or something, but I’ve always loved the symbolism of the tarot and the different suites (cups = emotions, swords = intellect, wands = action, etc etc). I firmly believe in using oracles as self-empowerment or self-improvement practises (which is why I use it in my journaling!) rather than as prescriptive or predictive oracles.

Pollack’s introduction to the classic tarot deck is a great deep-dive into key lessons and ideas symbolised by each card. It’s one of the best books you can read if you’ve never studied Tarot before, as it covers all the cards in detail of their symbolism.

Best Bits:

Diving deeper into archetypes. Every single true story is made up of archetypes so the more you know about archetypes and myth, the better your personal writing practise will be! Tarot, much like journalling, is an excellent practise for self-reflection and awareness.

YOU’LL ALSO LOVE:
MEMOIR STUDY: MY PARIS DREAM BY KATE BETTS
BUILDING SUSPENSE IN MEMOIR
HOW TO DRAFT A MEMOIR IN 3 MONTHS

2020-05-11T09:56:50+10:00

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