There are times I’m suddenly aware that I’m not as well-rounded a reader as I’d wish. The curation of this list was one of those moments. I read the way I do most things––intuitively and deeply. I’m a poet, so my memoir preferences lean toward beautiful writing as much as to dramatic storytelling. I’m a student and teacher of depth psychology, so a memoirist’s ability to reflect upon the inner journey is just as important to me as funny anecdotes about crazy relatives. I’m a feminist, which leads me more often, though not exclusively, to women’s stories.
As a writer, I also adore craft books, which is why I’ve included one by Mary Karr. I promise, it’s as much fun as her first memoir. And, if you aren’t yet a writer, by the time you finish The Art of Memoir, you’ll be ready to pick up a pen.
Composed: A Memoir by Rosanne Cash
Not your typical celebrity tell-all. Sure, there’s enough industry-insider intrigue to keep fans of Rosanne Cash and Johnny Cash turning pages. But Rosanne is a sage, often lyrical, writer. Hers is a story of the ties that bind her to her family, her music, and her soul.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Didion became famous for pioneering a form of writing that seamlessly marries journalism and personal essay. She is a keen observer of the tense relationship between the outer world and inner experience, nowhere more so than in this acclaimed account of the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death.
Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly
Delightful, and delightfully short, this genre-defying collection of personal reflections marries the best things about poetry (intensity of compression) and memoir (radical, sometimes raw truth-telling). Plus, Fennelly’s observations about marriage, children, and the writing life can be uproariously funny. Fennelly currently serves as Poet Laureate of Mississippi.
There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald
I fell in love with Casey Gerald when I heard him speak at last year’s library fundraiser, Verse & Vino. His wasn’t the only book I bought that night (no surprise there), but it’s the one that keeps me thinking. He writes in breathtaking detail and with lots of good humor about his dramatic and impoverished upbringing, the searing pain of surviving adolescence as both black and gay, and becoming a man within a duplicitous society that both promotes and limits him in his journey into adulthood.
I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory by Patricia Hampl
This memoir is a beautifully written exercise in the art of discovery. Though it’s not a craft book, Hampl consciously demonstrates the means through which she reflects on her inner and outer life experience, explores the misty landscapes of memory, and explains what most memoirists are only vaguely aware of—the reason for writing one at all.
Crazy Brave: A Memoir by Joy Harjo
Harjo was named U.S. Poet Laureate this past June. Yes, this memoir is written in prose—gorgeous, lyrical, mythic prose. After you’ve read it, you’ll likely want to read her poems, too. And, afterwards, you’ll want to find recordings of her music. And, after that, you’ll want to meet her, which you can do next April when Harjo visits Charlotte to headline CPCC’s Sensoria festival and (lucky us!) teach at Charlotte Lit.
Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C. G. Jung
As I admitted in the introduction, I’m a Jungian, so there’s no way I could leave this classic off my list. Yes, it’s one of the more difficult books (and perhaps the strangest) on the list. But readers will be rewarded for their efforts with fresh understanding about the roots of modern psychology and an experience of its founder’s rich imagination. MDR, as it’s known, is a classic—deservedly so.
The Liar’s Club and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
Yes, these are two separate books. I’m fighting against the limits of the list. Besides, my hunch is that avid readers have already come across Karr’s famous first memoir, The Liar’s Club. If not, read it before any of these others. Then sometime in the middle of your reading year, take up Karr’s equally compelling craft book, The Art of Memoir. Even if it doesn’t make you want to take up your pen, it will make you a better reader.
The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine by Sue Monk Kidd
Kidd is known for her best-selling novel, The Secret Life of Bees. This is an altogether different kind of book—part memoir, part study of feminist spirituality. Kidd weaves the two threads seamlessly, not only finding her voice in the process but helping readers do the same. As she writes, “The hardest thing about writing is telling the truth. Maybe it’s the hardest thing about being a woman, too.”
Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith
This memoir is also written by a U.S. Poet Laureate. Smith served in the role from 2017-2019. By now, you might be wondering about the relationship between poetry and memoir. All I can say is that the best memoir writers have a style of consciousness, a tendency for and pattern of reflection, that is poetic in essence. And no one does this more lyrically or powerfully than Smith.
Since many book groups meet every month of the year, I’m throwing in a few more titles to choose from. These books are no kind of runners up; I just ran out of room!
- Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
- Bluets by Maggie Nelson (another slender micro-memoir volume)
- Wild by Cheryl Strayed