by Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
When I talk about the power of memoirs, people often ask, “which ones do you recommend.” The answer is “It depends.” There are so many memoirs, of all manner of experience, in various styles, by ordinary people and celebrities, about recent memories or distant ones, of tragedy and comedy. Do you want entertainment, empathy, insight, or all three? Since I am a lover of memoirs, I keep searching and finding new styles, new subjects, and deeper lessons. Here is a list of the memoirs I’ve read which provide the insights and experience for the MemoryWritersNetwork . They represent the community of memoir writers as well as the community of humanity. I have added a brief note with each. This list is in no particular order.
“Dreams of our Fathers,” by Barack Obama
A boy with a white mother and black father grows up poor, and tries to understand his heritage. This is the story of his self-discovery.
Related Post: Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father, first thoughts
“Don’t Call me Mother,” Linda Joy Myers
It’s a detailed saga of growing up in an emotionally abusive environment, “orphaned” not by death but by abandonment into the care of her emotionally erratic grandmother.
Related Blog: Mothers and Daughters Don’t Always Mix
“Ten Points,” by Bill Strickland
Child abuse in the past, contrasted with the healing effects of bicycle racing and loving family life in the present. Compelling writing. A great cycling memoir.
Related Blogs: Memoir of Redemption: Author Shares His Writing Experience,
Memoir of abuse and redemption, book review
“Angela’s Ashes,” by Frank McCourt
Childhood in poverty, alcoholism, and Irish culture. Ends with “coming home to America.” This book was one of the early shots in the current Memoir Revolution, signaling that the story of an ordinary person could become a best seller.
Related Blog: Finished Memoir: Angela’s Ashes
“Glass Castle,” by Jeanette Walls
Zany, out-of-control girl’s childhood on the move in the American west. Despite the laughs, it’s really about overcoming a tragically dysfunctional family. Blows the doors off the isolation of childhood. See my essay, “Why Coming of Age memoirs ought to be a genre.”
“Running with Scissors,” by Augusten Burroughs. Zany, out-of-control boy’s childhood. Disturbing images, and situations that a child ought never be exposed to, including sexuality contributed to its notoriety. Good example of ripping open dark childhood secrets.
“Sleeping Arrangements” by Laura Shaine Cunningham
Girl’s childhood in New York Jewish immigrant family, raised by loving, quirky uncles after the death of her mother.
“A Girl Named Zippy” by Haven Kimmel
Loving observations of an ordinary childhood in the mid-west. A good example of an ordinary coming of age made readable by a powerful authorial voice.
“Name All the Animals,” Alison Smith
A small town mid-western childhood, marred mainly by the tragic death of a brother. It also shows her sexual self-discovery.
“Three Little Words,” Ashley Rhodes Courter
Experiences of her difficult childhood in foster care. As an adult she became a spokesperson for improvement of the foster care system. An excellent example of a memoir used to further social advocacy.
Related Essay: Who protects the children? Memoir by Ashley Rhodes-Courter
“Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir” by Carol D. O’Dell
Taking care of her mother with Alzheimer’s this sandwich-generation mom and daughter has to manage to take care of herself emotionally while she tends to a mom with a disintegrating sense of self. The book provides a good example of journaling as a tool for surviving difficulty and writing a memoir.
Related Essay: Memoir about Caregiving for Mother offers lessons for life
“An Unquiet Mind” by Kay Redfield Jamison
Life with mental illness, Bipolar disorder back when it was called manic-depression. The author was a researcher and clinician in mental health. This was a groundbreaking book that showed mental illness from the inside.
“Look Me in the Eye,” by John Robison
Life with Asperger’s. He lives an unusually nerdy and withdrawn childhood, focused more on technology and people. Later in life he realizes that his characteristics match the profile of Asperger’s, a revelation which has given his life new purpose. It’s an unusual book in that it covers the lifespan from childhood to the present. Using parenthood as a sort of closure is a nice touch at the end.
Related essay: John Robison’s Asperger’s gave me permission to write about myself
“Mistress’s Daughter,” A.M. Homes
Trying to find her true identity by connecting with her biological parents. It explores family, genealogy, and adoption.
“Slow Motion” by Dani Shapiro
Literary woman coming of age while lost in a bottle. Major component is terrible family dysfunction.
Related Essay: What does Dani Shapiro, or any of us, really want?
“Life in a Bottle” by Susan Cheever
Literary woman coming of age while lost in a bottle. Privileged life, “upper class American.”
“Beautiful Boy, a Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction” by David Sheff
Addiction of a son and journalistic exploration of meth addiction. This is a companion to “Tweak” by David’s son, Nic Sheff.
“Tweak, Growing up on Amphetamines” by Nic Sheff
Addiction by a meth addict, and gritty kid-on-the-street, tragedy of over-privileged kid, twelve steps. This is a companion to “Beautiful Boy” by Nic’s father, David Sheff.
Related Essay: Matched pair of memoirs show both sides of addiction
See also Robert Waxler’s memoir, “Losing Jonathan
“Expecting Adam,” by Martha Beck
Spiritual awakening, mothering a child with Down Syndrome, escape from over-intellectualized self-image.
“Down Came the Rain” by Brooke Shields
Postpartum Depression of a celebrity.
Brooke Shields teaches mommies and memoir writers
5 Reasons why I read Brooke Shields’ “Down Came the Rain” even though I avoid celebrity memoirs
“Funny in Farsi,” by Firoozeh Dumas
An Iranian-American immigrant tells about her family’s adjustment to America with compassion and humor.
Related Essay: Iranian in America makes love and laughter
“Colored People” Henry Louis Gates
Cultural mixings, growing up black just on the cusp of the civil rights era, portrayal of small town, Jim Crow, life in West Virginia
“Invisible Wall” by Harry Bernstein
Cultural mixings, growing up in England on the edge of anti-semitism –he was a child before World War I. He was 92 when he wrote the book.
“The Dream” by Harry Bernstein
A follow up to his first memoir, Invisible Wall, this tells about his first years in the U.S. after immigrating from Britain in the 20’s. It’s a good example of an immigration story (a British Jew to Chicago) and a fabulous example that it’s never too late. He was 93 when he wrote it.
Related Essay: Harry Bernstein’s Second Memoir, Still Writing at 98!
“Here if you need me,” by Kate Braestrup
Grief and spirituality, Maine woods, religion versus spirituality, secular religion. Excellent treatment of Good and Evil.
Related Essay: Kate Braestrup’s memoir transforms grief into love
“Year of Magical Thinking,” by Joan Didion
Grief from a more psychological vantage point, from a famous essay writer. Example of a sophisticated essay style.
“Queen of the Road” by Doreen Orion
A married couple, both psychiatrists, take a year off to travel the U.S. in an RV and cope with midlife crisis.
Essays about Doreen Orion’s “Queen of the Road”:
Style, humor, and other tips from Doreen Orion’s Travel Memoir
Identity moves too in Doreen Orion’s travel memoir
Pets, motion, and other tips from a travel memoir
Doreen Orion’s brilliant memoir about last year’s midlife crisis
“Zen and Now” by Mark Richardson
Traveling the U.S. on a motorcycle to cope with midlife crisis, and research the same road traveled by Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”
Related Essay: Break the Rules! A Travel Memoir with a Twist of Zen
“Vinyl Highway” by Dee Dee Phelps
Sixties nostalgia of a rock singer, of “Dick and Dee Dee” fame, and the story of a girl coming of age.
Related Essay: Fame and Story Structure in Dee Dee’s 60’s memoir
To read the two part interview with the author: Click Here for Part 1 and … Here for Part 2
“In the Shadow of Fame: A Memoir by the Daughter of Erik H. Erikson” by Sue Erikson Bloland
Life with a famous parent, and some (not enough) analysis of the phenomenon of fame.
“Native State” by Tony Cohan
Life with a parent obsessed by celebrities — excellent flashbacks of the sixties counter-culture, and musical culture of Jazz, a great story about a coming of age that struggled to stay on the rails.
“Shades of Darkness” by George E. Brummell
Growing up black in the Jim Crow south and then losing his sight as a result of a Vietnam war injury. Good example of a well-written self-published book, good portrayal of living a full life under the added burden of disability.
Related Essay: Blind veteran finds his voice by writing
“Seven Wheelchairs,” by Gary Presley
A lifetime in a wheel chair after polio, includes much story telling, some essay style, and important exploration of his thoughts.
Related Essay: Gary Presley’s Memoir Defangs the Horror of Aging and Disability
“Hands Upon My Heart,” Perry Foster
He survived a heart attack. The story of his botched heart surgery. A bit edgy. Excellent first-time self-published book.
Related Essay: Memoir writing lessons from the heart
“Trading Secrets,” Foster Winans
Surviving a legal setback. He was a journalist for the Wall Street Journal who landed in jail due to an insider trading indiscretion. He is now a ghost-writer.
“Temporary Sort of Peace,” by James McGarrah
Surviving Vietnam War PTSD, really gritty. Botched coming of age. He’s an English professor and poet now.
Related Essay: Storytellers shed light on the horrors of war
“Lucky,” Alice Sebold
Surviving the trauma of a violent rape. The tragic personal cost of rape, and the long journey back. Sebold is an acclaimed novelist. The title “Lucky” is based on a comment by a cop who said she was lucky her rapist let her live.
Related Essay: Alice Sebold’s Lucky, a searing memoir of trauma
“My Detachment,” by Tracy Kidder
The boring, dreary, humiliating experience of being an officer in a meaningless war. Kidder is famous as one of the founders of the Creative Nonfiction movement with his first immersion reporting “Soul of a New Machine.” He has written a number of immersion books. This one is not about other people. It’s about his own life.
“In Pharoah’s Army,” Tobias Wolff
Another founder of the literary memoir movement, in this book Tobias Wolff writes about the meaninglessness of soldiering in Vietnam.
“Three Cups of Tea” by Gregg Mortenson
Life of service and insight in Pakistan and Afghanistan. A fabulous book of international service, and “finding meaning through service.” Sub-theme: To conquer enemies, make them friends.
Related Essay: “Find meaning through service” or “Making peace with the peasants of Pakistan”
“The Pact” by Sampson Davis, et al
Triumph against the odds, three black doctors who rose from the mean streets of New Jersey to become doctors. Wonderful story of young men using education and mutual respect to escape poverty and the ghetto.
“On Writing” by Stephen King
This famous and wildly successful writer shares his writing life and tips about writing.
“Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott
Musings and personal essays on her experience as a writer, offered as support and insight to others.
“Sound of No Hands Clapping” by Toby Young
Writer about promoting. This is funny, and more psychologically insightful than it looks. Great look at the zany pressure of “making it” as a writer.
“Don’t Have Your Dog Stuffed” by Alan Alda
Alda’s fame don’t prevent this lovely autobiography to be intimate and sincere. He displays his life (including childhood) in show biz, lifelong curiosity about people, science and drama
“Enough About Me” by Jancee Dunn
A young woman coming of age gets a job interviewing celebrities and becomes something of a celebrity herself, while still managing to see herself as a small town girl.
Related Essay: Celebrity interviewer turns the camera on herself
“The Path: One Man’s Quest on the Only Path There is” by J. Donald Walters
When Walters comes of age, he follows Yogananda. It’s an insider look into a religious movement.
“Thank you and OK! An American Zen Failure in Japan,” by David Chadwick
Seeking spirituality in Japan. A travel book of Japan, and a story of spiritual coming of age.
“Traveling Mercies” by Anne Lamott
Spiritual musings, more essay than memoir.
“Fear is No Longer my Reality,” by Jamie Blyth
This is a combination memoir and self-help book. This minimizes the memoir aspect, interspersing it with commentary from friends and experts. Jamie Blyth was famous because of his appearance on a television show, and the book leverages that fame.
Related Essay: Afraid to write your memoir? Read this book!
“I know you really love me,” by Doreen Orion
Orion is a psychiatrist who was stalked for years by an obsessive patient. She writes about the experience, psychology, and laws of stalking from a first person point of view.
“Fugitive Days” by Bill Ayers
Out-of-control sixties political protesting. This book was made famous during the Obama campaign. Good (sometimes shocking and extreme) scenes of the anti-war fervor.
Related Essay: Read banned memoirs: Criminal or Social Activist
“Sky of Stone” by Homer Hickham
Coal mining town in West Virginia faces a possible corporate takeover. The author is famous for his first memoir Rocket Boys which became a movie and smash hit. It’s an example of what a powerful, polished storyteller can do with a set of memories which he had pushed aside for 30+ years.
“The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir” by Bill Bryson
A story of childhood in the fifties, emphasizing historical information about the times and humor about a boy growing up in a small town.
“The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood” by Helene Cooper
Helene Cooper grew up in the African country of Liberia. The country was founded by freed American slaves in the early 19th century, and the founders established themselves as a privileged class. Helene Cooper grew up and watched her world torn apart by violent, tribal anarchy.
“The Man on Mao’s Right” by Ji Chaozhu
A key figure in Mao Tse Tung’s government looks back over more than 60 years of public and private life. Co-written by an American journalist, Foster Winans, the book is a well told page turner that pulls you into history from the inside.
Related Essay: Seeing history through the eyes of one man
“Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back” by Frank Schaeffer
This is a fascinating insight into the political-evangelical culture of the late Twentieth Century as seen through the eyes of one of its architects. Frank Schaeffer grew up in a commune run by his famous theologian parents, and used those experiences to launch his own wild ride through history.
Related Essay: One man’s battle with sexuality changed the world
“Born Standing Up” by Steve Martin
A powerful insight into becoming a world famous comedian, starting from an ordinary childhood. It gives step by step instructions for stage performance, growing famous, and then looking back.
Related Essay: Celebrity lessons for writers
“Alex and Me” by Irene Pepperberg
Life with a famous and very smart parrot. Pets, science, intelligence. A bird buddy story.
Related Essay: Life with a famous parrot, Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg
“Marley and Me” by John Grogan
An awesome buddy story of a man, his family, and his dog. Made into a movie, the story has the emotion, drama, warmth. It’s a powerful example of how a good writer can transform life into the magic of story.
Related Essay: A dog made famous by an expert storyteller
“Enter Talking” by Joan Rivers
This is the story of her journey from being an ordinary, ambitious college girl to becoming a successful, soon to be world-famous comedian. It’s emotional, authentic and inspiring.
Related Essay: Memoir by Celebrity Joan Rivers Offers Lessons for Aspiring Writers
“Color of Water” by James McBride
A black journalist grew up with a white Jewish mother. The book is an ode to her, and a racially complex journey of self-discovery.
Related Essay: Color of Water, a memoir of race, family and fabulous writing
“Picking Cotton, Memoir of Injustice and Redemption” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, with Erin Torneo
“Two lives were ruined that night.” A double tragic story, about a woman whose life was ripped apart by rape and a man wrongly sent to prison for violating her. The heart of the book comes when the mistake is discovered, they become friends and social advocates. Excellent example of a book used for social advocacy.
Related Essay: Mistaken Identification: A memoir of injustice and redemption
“Black, White, and Jewish” by Rebecca Walker
This is a Coming of Age, Search for Identity story, by the daughter of a famous black author Alice Walker and a successful white father. The split in her world was compounded by both race and class. She spent her young life shuttling between their two very different worlds.
“The Freedom Writers Diary : How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them,” by the Freedom Writers, Zlata Filipovic and Erin Gruwell
A collection of diary entries by an ensemble cast of teenagers trying to discover their own peace in the “undeclared war” of race and gangs in Los Angeles.
Related Essay: Freedom Writers Diary Turns Journaling Into Activism
“Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You” by Sue William Silverman
This disturbing memoir is about sexual abuse starting from infancy and extending throughout adolescence. Thought provoking, well-written, confessional, reflecting on the intimate pain of a damaged childhood.
Related Essay: Fearlessly Confessing the Dark Side of Memory in this Memoir of Sexual Abuse
“Losing Jonathan” by Robert Waxler and Linda Waxler
This is about the loss of a son to addiction, and the parents who wrestle with grief and the meaning of life.
Related Essay: A memoir of mourning helps makes sense of loss
“Crazy Love” by Leslie Morgan Steiner
A young, successful woman, graduate of Harvard and editor at Seventeen Magazine, fell in love with a man who had been abused as a child. Soon he started hitting and choking her. It’s the story of how her love kept her prisoner, and reveals an inside look at how a smart, motivated and loving woman can feel trapped in an abusive marriage.
“American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch: An Odyssey in the New China” by Matthew Polly
The author dropped out of Princeton to go and study Kung Fu in China. It’s a fight book, a cultural exploration, and a young man in search of his own identity.
“The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body” by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
Mirriam-Goldberg survived breast cancer while she was organizing an environmental conference. Includes spirituality, family, and community.
Related Interview: Memoir author speaks of spirituality, religion, and cancer
“Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo” by Zlata Filopovic
This is a published diary of an 11 year-old girl, without comment or additional narrative, tells the daily challenges of growing up in a tragic descent of a healthy girl, in a healthy family community into the besieged, senseless, desolate, catastrophe of war. It’s an example of “Diary” as “Memoir.”
Related Essay: A diary for social change. A young girl’s terrible experience of war.
“Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage” by Linda Wisniewski
Wisniewski grew up feeling like she didn’t fit in – on one level because of the scoliosis that made her feel less straight, and on another level because of her mother’s willingness to let girls take second place.
Related Essays: Riddle of the Sphinx – Stand Straight for Dignity
The powerful story of an ordinary woman
“My Father’s House” by Miranda Seymour
Seymour grew up in an old English country home. Her father was quirky at best, and narcissistic and obsessive at worst. The story is told with deep appreciation for the love and troubles of her family, and the continued deterioration of the British Class system through the second half of the Twentieth Century. Two unusual devices in the book are her mother’s occasional introjections, and extensive research based on her father’s diaries.
“Rocky Stories” by Michael Vitez, photographs by Tom Gralish
This is a collection of profiles of people who race up the “Rocky Stairs” in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Vitez parked there off and on for a year, took the picture of jubilant Rocky followers, and asked them to explain what triumph they were hoping for or celebrating. Through these moments you can sometimes glimpse the trials of a whole lifetime.
Related Essay: Memoir Writing Prompt — Your Rocky Story
More memoir writing resources
10 More Memoirs I Recommend
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Whew, Jerry. Thanks for this list (I think). There are quite a few I haven’t heard of and some I’ve heard of but haven’t read yet.
Well, this list makes it obvious why you know your stuff! Thanks for your insights and inspiration.
This is an amazing list, Jerry. You’ve done a great job of helping readers unravel the human condition through the real stories and personal experiences of these authors.
Thank you Garret and Karen, for appreciating and contributing to our shared “memoir microcommunity” out here in the internet cloud. Thanks, Don, for all your work helping writers hop onto Web 2.0. This global-village thing is cool.
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