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Guest Post: My Favorite Memoirs

I am starting a new feature – Guest Posts. Today’s inaugural Guest Post talks about varying approaches to writing (and reading) memoirs – a genre that appears to be increasingly popular both to write and to read. I have found myself reading/guest reviewing a number of memoirs lately on behalf of (a pediatrician’s journey into and out of medicine, which posted recently and is available here, and a CIA agent couple’s journey through and out of the Agency, post forthcoming (noticing a trend yet?)). A well-written memoir – like well-written history – turns non-fiction on its head, combining storytelling with catharsis, and provides a singular opportunity to learn and be entertained. I hope you enjoy this guest post, and that you will take a minute to visit Steve’s site as well. Thanks again for the post Steve!

My Favorite Memoirs

When I took a personal writing course from Tom Larson a few years ago, I learned that memoir focuses on a single phase of the author’s life (as opposed to, say, autobiography, which starts with the author’s birth and hits all the highlights from there on). Memoir, as it’s conceived these days (or as Tom presented it anyway, and he should know), involves reflection about how just one piece of life has changed the writer.

Reflection and change are the key words.

Memoirists examine their selected piece of life and in the process come to conclusions about the significance of past relationships, or trials they’ve faced, or the effect on them of involvement with certain ideas.

The earliest memoirs I recall reading were not like this. They gave the inside scoop on important, well-known events from the point of view of the principal actors. Examples are The Double Helix, by James Watson, and One Life, by Christiaan Bernard. (Hm, this kind of fare suggests that I must’ve had a fascination with medical science long before the events in my own story.)

Some memoirs today have the same rationale (Let’s Roll!, by Lisa Beamer comes to mind). But the recent excitement about the genre concerns something different. Nowadays we have “literary memoirs,” in which mostly unknown people, who have no connection with ground-breaking discoveries or newsworthy events, explore their specific situations in a way that sheds light on a more universal story. In these books, the subject tends to be an intense emotional—perhaps a very personal—experience. Because of that, even though the writer may have emerged from the experience by the time he begins setting it down on paper, the result is not the sort of thing he can plan out in advance, because the process of working through all the emotions involved can lead to unexpected conclusions.

There is conflict between what I the writer knew then, when I was doing it, vs what I know now. Apparently, it’s not at all unusual for the memoirist looking back to perceive that what he once took for truth was a pack of lies.

That’s the story behind What About the Boy?. My memoir began as little more than private journaling–just recording the facts as they occurred. At that stage, I gave little or no thought to publication. The writing was just an emotional outlet. Later, I thought I might have the makings of a kind of how-to book. This is how we rescued our kid. If your kid has problems, you can do it, too. Well, that idea came and went, but as I dealt with the tail-end of that idea, I realized that what I really had was an emotional journey that ultimately concerned where one turns when one must go somewhere but has no reliable guidance.

Writing often veers off in an unplanned direction, doesn’t it? I sat down here today intending to discuss some of my favorite memoirs, and instead I’ve said what makes memoirs in general interesting. But I would still like to offer a few excellent examples, before becoming totally fixated on promoting my own. Here are three that fit the definition, despite being pretty far apart in subject matter. Please click the links to read the reactions I (and others) have posted on them.

Thirty Years in a Red House: A Memoir of Childhood and Youth in Communist China, by Xiao Di Zhu
This Lovely Life, by Vicki Forman
Lost In Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia, by Mark Salzman

What memoirs have you enjoyed?

Stephen Gallup is a writer living in San Diego. Information on his new memoir, What About the Boy?: A Father’s Pledge to His Disabled Son is available at

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2 comments to Guest Post: My Favorite Memoirs

  • A read a lot of them, including yours. There’s something about them that draws me in and see how relatively little I have to complain about. Recently I read Empty Chairs – a horrifying story that makes me say how wonderful my parents were. Black Boy, Caged Bird, Color of Water, A Child Called It, were all good. I’ll stop there.

  • I agree KJ – I think it’s fascinating to see how other people’s lives have played out, especially when those lives involve overcoming tremendous events/obstacles… It does make me realize how good I have it also. I have been doing a series of guest book reviews for on memoirs lately – haven’t loved all of them, frankly, but there have been some interesting tidbits in each. Thanks for the comment – and the titles you mentioned, as I’m always looking for new recommendations!

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