7 Great Books on Writing Memoir

With my client’s medical memoir gone to press, I’ve been reflecting on the four-year journey that took us from our first meeting in 2013, to the completion of a full-length personal history/life story in 2014, and to the transformation of that life story into a medical memoir set for publication in December of 2016. Below are 7 books on the craft of memoir writing that got me started and still serve as valuable resources.
Writing the Memoir: A practical guide to the craft, the personal challenges, and ethical dilemmas of writing your true stories by Judith Barrington: The first guide I ever picked up on memoir writing and one of the most practical, addressing issues of craft, ethics, structure, with writing suggestions following each chapter. Take a look at the chapter headings for quick look-see at the helpful topics covered.


Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg: “Through timed, associative, and meditative exercises, Old Friend from Far Away guides you to the attentive state of thought in which you discover and open forgotten doors of memory.” Writers are invited to respond to varied and creative prompts, from writing about relentless dreams, to radishes and salmon, to everything you know about ice cream. With excerpts from established memoir writers.


Stephen King on Writing: a Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King: The master story-teller chronicles, in the first half of this book, how he became a writer, illustrating how memoir can work even without masses of details (think of the descriptions Mary Karr can summon from the deep past). The second half is a delightfully succinct guide to the craft, enhanced by a markup of the author’s own early manuscript.


Legacy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History  by Linda Spence: A practical guide to capturing long-ago events with questions to help in unlocking the memories that make up a life. Aimed at writers wishing to create a legacy for family rather than a commercial memoir, but helpful in beginning the process of remembering.
Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir  by William Zinsser: Authors Russell Baker, Jill Kerr Conway, Annie Dillard, Frank McCourt, Toni Morrison, and Zinsser “explore the craft of memoir, defined here as a portion of a life, narrower in scope than autobiography.” Great insights into the process of structuring vastly different memoirs from family history to coming-of-age stories and more.


Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past by William Zinsser: My favorite guide of all, in which the author takes the reader “on a memoir of his own” recalling “dramatic, amusing, and often surprising moments in his long and varied life as a writer, editor, teacher, and traveler.” A master teacher as well as celebrated writer, Zinsser uses his own experience to explain technical decisions such as selection, condensation, focus, attitude, voice, and tone.


Modern American Memoirs, an anthology edited by Annie Dillard and Cort Conley: Samples from 35 of the finest memoirs written in this century, including contributions by such diverse writers as Margaret Mead, Malcolm X, Maxine Hong Kingston, Loren Eisely, and Zora Neale Hurston.


Of course one of the best ways to learn how to write memoir is reading deeply in that genre. I’ll share some of my favorite memoirs in another post. For now, I leave you with a question: What are your favorite books on the craft of memoir writing?

2 thoughts on “7 Great Books on Writing Memoir

  1. Hi Jeanne, Thanks for the list. Although I have no (immediate anyway) intention of writing memoir, I have read quite a few memoirs or autobiographies. I enjoy reading about people’s lives. I also read Stephen King ‘s On Writing, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. After listening to Mary Karr, I listened to Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak Memory and am now listening to Magda Szubanki’s memoir Reckoning. I am thoroughly enjoying them. I guess I am learning a lot about memoir even if I don’t want to write it.

    1. It’s a very short list Norah and I’ve been meaning to add Mary Karr’s book to it for months. (I won’t until having read it though.) Also Nabokov’s. I think I have loved reading about other people’s lives since my parents brought home our first set of encylopedias (Colliers) in the early 1960s. It came with a set of stories of great lives for junior readers. I still vividly remember the ones on Anna Pavlova and Thomas Edison. That led me to biographies and autobiographies, and then the explosion of the memoir genre came along. And, as with so many interests, one does not have to practice memoir writing to find it fascinating. The joy is in learning, right teacher?

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