When writing a new book I often start by making a reading list. It’s by reading books in the genre you’re writing in that you is the only way to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the form, and how to solve certain challenges.
- Down and Out In London and Paris, George Orwell. Technically this is a work of fiction, but it was clearly based on Orwell’s real experiences. His style was very influential for future journalists who chose to write in a first person style. Orwell’s ability to describe situations and environments is first rate, and he excels at concision. One of my favorite books, NewJack: Guarding Sing Sing By Conover, is in the same lineage (though more journalistic than strictly memoir form). These books heavily influenced The Year Without Pants and the new book too.
- The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion. For my purposes I needed to study the telling of tragic personal stories and this book has become the canonical reference. Didion’s husband and best friend died suddenly and the book documents the year that follows. Didion is cerebral, the camera angle of her narrative is strictly in her head, or over her shoulders, providing a more intellectual narrative than many memoirs do. It is a solid book, but I was underwhelmed by it for reasons I can’t explain. It felt repetitive to me, which to be fair is perhaps an accurate reflection of what she experienced (that’s the challenge with memoir – the most honest telling of real life stories often don’t fit into convenient narrative arcs or patterns).
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard. If you’re not captivated in the first few pages, give up, not just on this book but on reading in general. I’ve read this book several times and each time I’m surprised by how truly breathtaking her prose is, and I’m not a prose junky. I will never be the kind of writer she is is. She’s like Updike at his best, able to wind paragraphs of description and perspective around a single moment or image and leave you wanting more and more. The book demonstrates how a memoir can take one simple trip, act, decision, or idea, and develop it into an entire world.
- Get In The Van, Henry Rollins. The raw, honest stories of life in a rising, but fledgling punk band in the 1980s is something to behold. There is no pretense here, in the writing or in the life he led. The simplicity of his approach, both in the structure of the book (it’s a journal) and the entries (a record of places they performed, and encounters on the road) reveals how little artifice a memoir needs to function. Many of Rollin’s books are disappointing, especially his poetry, but this book shines and stands up as a testament to how simple a good book can be.
- Nothing to Declare, Mary Morris. I read this book 15 years ago ago, long before I decided to be a writer. I’d never read a book that was simply a person telling a story about what was happening to them, and for that to be interesting. I’ve read several of her books and enjoyed them all. This in part gave me the confidence to become a writer. The idea that a good book wasn’t about extreme situations or great drama. It was about being honest, being thoughtful, and applying the craft of storytelling. Bukowski and Henry Miller were also huge influences for me in the idea that simply being brave enough to be honest is exceedingly rare and can make for powerful writing all on its own.
- This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolfe. I read many of the classics memoirs and this was one of the few I enjoyed reading. It tells the story of Wolfe’s difficult childhood. The themes echoed the stories I wanted to tell in The Ghost of My Father, and Wolfe tells his story with a lack of pretense and judgement. I knew I wanted to be closer to Didion in perspective, with commentary on what happened in my life, both what I thought about it then and what I think about it now. But Wolfe avoids this. He writes as if it were a screenplay, making few overt judgements about anything, leaving it to the reader to decide for themselves what was good, bad, right or wrong.
- Born Standing Up, Steve Martin. Famous people writing about their lives is often dreadfully predictable, but Martin is a fantastic writer. This book focuses on his early years performing for empty theaters, and how he found his way, through work and experimentation, to excellence. Its charm is how foolish he reveals himself to be, a naive kid working oh so hard to figure out show business. “Precision creates movement” is one of my favorite quotes.
- Chronicles, Bob Dylan. This is an odd choice in a way, as he gets away with things here purely because of his fame. He jumps through time, abandons stories, repeats stories and generally seems to be teasing and playing with us readers. But there is a charm here. An unwillingness to follow convention and to play with the lines of storytelling and narrative. If you know his career it’s no surprise his book takes this approach, but it’s a worthy counterpoint to more literal memoirs that follow strict boundaries of form.
- Broken Music, Sting. Like me Sting had a difficult relationship with his father, and the album The Soul Cages, is essentially dedicated to him (most notably, the wonderful sad Why Should I Cry For You). I put it on my list for that reason and wasn’t disappointed. Sting is smart and well read (he was an English teacher while playing in bands at night), and the book is empty of most the arrogance he’s earned a reputation for. It focuses on the early years of his professional career, before the Police, and the many mistakes and chance occurrences that led to his rise to fame.
- The Night Country, Loren Eisley. Like Nothing to Declare, I read this long before I became a writer. Eisley has always been a big influence, particularly his ability to blend personal stories with professional observations, a theme that runs through all of my books. The Night Country in particular expresses a love of the mystery of life and how important mystery, and the curiosity to explore it in all it’s forms, is at the heart of an interesting life. If you have any interest in science and literature Eisley is a rewarding read.
- Diary of A Young Girl, Anne Frank. I’ve read this book several times. There’s something so simple and clear about her writing, and the fact that you know the end all along changes the way you read it. Credit should go to her father as well for editing together her journal into such a simple, short, powerful book.
- A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers. I think of this book often for both it’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s a fantastic and tough story, told well and honestly. Where the book struggles is Egger’s insistence on being extra clever. There are footnotes, and footnotes, and self-references, and it’s just too much at times – a brilliant writer who is too self-conscious to just tell the story without commenting on how he’s telling the story. I haven’t read this book in years and I’d like to read it again to see how my opinion has changed.
- Night of The Gun, David Carr. This book turns the form of memoir on it’s ear, as NYT reporter Carr uses his journalism skills to tell the story of his drug addiction and the impact it had on him and his family. I don’t know of any other memoir that was so dedicated to finding ‘the truth’ and telling it (Full review).
Famous memoirs I didn’t enjoy:
- Stop Time, by Frank Conroy, which I abandoned after 20 pages for sheer lack of interest – it didn’t cohere for me at all. Memoirs are a most tricky form to write in. It could be everything that didn’t work for me here, worked for many of the people who loved the book.
- Maus: A survivors tale, Art Spiegelman – perhaps my expectations were too high, but I struggled to stay interested. Mind you I’m of Jewish heritage, have a strong interest in WWII and like graphic novels. There was something about the plotting and the characterizations I struggled to get into. Perhaps I need to give it another try.
- Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris. I’ve tried many times and I’m just not a Sedaris fan. I like the idea of him. I do respect the way he writes and constructs stories. But I don’t like this writing much. There’s something mildly cloying that turns me off in most of the stories I’ve tried to read, including Me Talk Pretty.
- I also summarized my lessons learned on writing a memoir here.