What Can You Learn From Reading a Memoir?

Six years ago, I had probably read fewer than 10 memoirs. To a non-reader, that might sound like a lot. But compared with the quantity of books I’ve read, it was an appalling number.

Then I got the idea I wanted to write a story about an aspect of my life and realized that I wanted to write a memoir. So I started reading memoirs to get the hang of how to write one.

After that, I started taking online courses in how to write a memoir.  And I continued to read them.

I’m trying to pull my book into a structure at this point, so I don’t have time to write reviews–and maybe you don’t have time to read reviews anyway ;).

But let me share the memoirs I’ve read with you one at a time.  No special order. Just as I pull them off the shelf.  Because they are all in my house. I bought each one of these so I could mark them up (if I desired) and keep them.

I’ll answer one question for each memoir: what did I learn by reading this book?


Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

34 responses to “What Can You Learn From Reading a Memoir?

  1. There’s nothing better than curling up with a great memoir. I’ll look forward to your series, Luanne.

  2. I kept hoping I’d see the first one! haha I can be patient, sometimes! 🙂 Great idea!

  3. Great idea for a series. I’ve been reading a lot of them since I started working on mine as well.

    Hopefully what I have learned from the genre in general is when there is too much information. I see that a lot!

    • Luanne

      Elyse, do you see that in published memoirs? And are they self-published or by large publishers? That’s interesting to me because I keep thinking that is an amateur problem, but then NO it’s not really because that is usually not enough information. I’m confused!

  4. I admire people who write memoirs, but I’m not particularly fond of reading them. I have read at least 6 on your shelf, most of them writers of other genres and perhaps that is the appeal. I’ll look forward to learning vicariously from you!

    • Luanne

      You know what? I also love memoirs by writers of other genres! I particularly like ones by poets because the memoirs are usually lush and lyrical.

  5. Wilma Kahn

    I like your idea for a series on books. Exploring or answering one question about a work (or a life) might also give a clue about how a memoir or other work could be organized or at least limited. .

    • Luanne

      WJ, sometimes the main thing I learn from a memoir has to do with structure, and sometimes it is more “random.” Sometimes it’s about the subject matter. So we’ll see where this takes me!

  6. A lot to be learned from memoirs…this sounds interesting!

  7. There’s lots of discussions and publications about memoirs. Most often it’s the selective memory that is questioned. Then there are questions about: What is the truth? Your truth? Someone else’s? How much do we really want to know about a person’s life? It’s fascinating. You might want to read: Memoir: A History by Ben Yagoda.

    • Luanne

      I’ll add that one to my list! Thanks, Sally. I think everyone’s memory is selective memory. And it needs to be the writer’s truth. But the writer’s truth, of course, shouldn’t be delusional ;). But when we read a memoir we realize that is the perspective of the writer.

  8. Ian

    This is a cool idea, Luanne.
    I’m currently reading a book by William Zinsser called “Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir”. It is essentially a collection of talks from successful memoir writers such as Annie Dillard, Frank McCourt and Ian Frazier. Each author explains a little about their processes and writing experience, including that age old question: what to put in and what to leave out!

    • Luanne

      Thanks, Ian. I have his book “Writing About Your Life.” That one sounds good, too! (I will be getting back to you soon BTW)

  9. I enjoyed this post!

    • Luanne

      Jill, I just found your comment in my spam folder. So busy at work this month that I didn’t check the folder until now . . . . I’m sending you and Barry hugs!

  10. Great idea! I will be tuning in. The structure aspect of memoir is the one that has given me the most trouble, but my book consultant really helped me figure it out. Actually, my structure problem had to do with my unreadiness to deal with certain parts of my life. I’d tried to gloss over early childhood through a few flashbacks because I didn’t want the childhood to be the focal point of the book…but my consultant convinced me that I needed to explore that piece to lay a solid framework for what came after. I learned so much about myself by digging into these less explored parts when I went back to write those scenes. Just my experience…I absolutely love memoir; I’d love it even if I weren’t writing one. I think real life is more interesting than fiction!

    • Luanne

      Lindsey, the story knows what it needs! It won’t let us deny or forget or “gloss over” certain parts! Great point. I am working with “Blueprint Your Bestseller” right now, and it’s going very well . . . when I have time to work on it, which is the problem lately! I so agree with your last sentence.

      • Luanne, you are right about the story not letting us forget. Memoir writing is not for the faint of heart! Here’s hoping you have ample writing time open up soon; I’m looking forward to reading your story someday soon!

        • Luanne

          Thank you! I am wondering how you are doing over there . . . .

          • Doing nothing as far as the memoir is concerned, at present! Actually, my recent 7-part blog series is related to the memoir, as it somewhat lays out the new structure. I decided to give the memoir a break and approach the structure from a more “summary” perspective, if that makes sense, by doing the blog series. This has allowed me to really see the whole picture of my memoir and make sure the new structure makes sense to me–it also allows me to get it on paper (screen) in a low-stakes way, and get some feedback on the content. When I get back to work on the memoir, I will be writing the last scenes–which I’ve already outlined, and which will be additional scenes since my rough draft.

            If you were asking about the pregnancy, I have one week till my due date! Feeling pretty good, if a little anxious! Doing lots of nesting! Thanks for asking!

  11. I have read a few but the one on your bookshelf that I did enjoy was the one by Frank McCourt. I always like Jean Kerr’s style in “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies,” when she lived in a New York apartment while writing plays and directing them. I enjoyed her sense of humor, but am not sure if that is considered semi-autobiographical or biographical, rather than a memoir. I also enjoyed Mark Twain and James Thurber’s style of story telling with facts woven into the stories. I felt that Thurber based a lot of his stories on his own family. I enjoyed this bookshelf of yours and hope you find your way to writing a powerful and poignant memoir. Everyone ought to try to write a section of their life, they felt most compelling! Good luck, Luanne! Smiles, Robin

    • Luanne

      Robin, I LOVE “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.” I remember first reading it when I was a teen, after I had seen the TV show as a kid. And I wanted to be her, but I wanted her husband’s job haha. I’m so glad you reminded me of that book! Thank you for your good wishes for my memoir, Robin!! xo

  12. I agree with every factor that you have pointed out. Thank you for sharing your beautiful thoughts on this.

  13. I love memoir as well. Have read many over the years and was hoping to write one myself for my kids, not for publication. I’m having a wander here so maybe I’ll find more on this subject.

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