5 Books That Will Help You Write That Memoir
I used to judge people who want to write a memoir as their first book. To me, it seemed like the ultimate act of self absorption to write a whole book about oneself as a first contribution to the literary world. I thought memoirs were reserved for those who had lived long, full lives full of influence on major historical milestones and groundbreaking accomplishments. And if you weren't some legendary icon writing a memoir to serve as your eternal voice after your death, then you were the current celebrity du jour whose handlers sold you on writing a memoir in yet another attempt to create something else for your fans to buy. It's a money scheme, and many times it's a not well written one at that.
But then I learned more about the genre of the memoir, and I found memoirs by black women who might not be considered legendary or a pop celebrity, but who have contributed extraordinary and important stories to the fabric of Black American life that wouldn't have reverberated through the culture quite the way that they have without being told in the uniquely personal genre of memoir.
So, I've changed my stance on memoirs. Since a memoir, which is easily confused with an autobiography, is the retelling of one story from a life, it can be a great entry point for novice writers since they can choose an event that has lots of meaning for them while being of high interest and relatability to their audience.
Many fiction authors map out their lives to uncover an event that they can turn into a novel, so the process of writing a memoir could also benefit writers with a novel in progress or a novel that's still mentally brewing. It all goes back to the element of relatability, which if written well, can bridge over into the universal appeal that eludes many writers, yet so many publishers look for. For these reasons, I'm building some memoir writing exercises into the process of writing the novel that I'm currently working on.
Here's a list of books that I hope inspire you to experiment with format, topic and voice as you write your own memoir:
I found this book in the stacks at my former job, and I ordered it through my Amazon app on my phone during my lunch hour. It's Ntozake Shange's memoir, and yes it's that serious, at least to me. I read For Colored Girls for the first time against the backdrop of leaving home to go to college at Hampton, so that piece set the stage for what would become one of the most important and molding experiences of my life. What I loved most about For Colored Girls was the way Shange deconstructed the English language to create her own, new language that was more suited to tell the story, to convey things that conventional English would not have. This memoir is a behind-the-scenes view of her thinking about the art she has created through language, movement, and sound.
I haven't completely read this one yet, but as I saw it scroll by on my Instagram feed from #WellReadBlackGirls, I was reminded that this has been on my to read list for a while. Zadie Smith is the literary prodigy that wrote White Teeth and On Beauty, and she opened up this book with a story about how Zora Neale Hurston changed her life. I'm sold.
This is another one on my to-read list. Jefferson writes about life as a child in a 1950s/60s "bourgie" Chicago-based black family and the irony of being considered affluent and successful in one community while still being considered inferior in another.
Before reading Brown Girl Dreaming, the possibility of a memoir done in poetry never came to mind. This is the format that I think my memoir (whenever I decide to write it) will be in. This National Book Award winner is a good required reading choice for poets or poetic prose writers who want to write a memoir but think they have to leave the comfort of verse writing.
This workbook style book takes a memoir writer from finding a place to write that stokes creativity to deciding on a life event to base a memoir around to preparing to shop your finished work around for publication. I think it's a staple book in a writer's collection since the process that is described can also work for other genres of writing as well.
Are you writing a memoir? How are things going? What books have you read that have helped you with the process?