#5onFri: Five Writers’ Memoirs You Should Check Out

by Lori Walker
published in Reading

I read a lot of nonfiction because I have an innate curiosity about the world and I enjoy learning things I didn’t know before. Whenever I want to learn how something works, I find a book. I especially love reading writers’ memoirs as a way of learning more about writing. While everyone is different and no two paths look the same, I like reading how the writers I admire became writers in the first place and developed their craft along the way.

I find myself reading writers’ memoirs, pen in hand, underlining something on most pages. Ones that are especially useful, I go back through with a notebook and take down notes of the things I’ve underlined for quick reference later on.

For this #5onFri I’ve listed my five favorite writers’ memoirs and explained what I love about each. A quick note about the order. They are listed in alphabetical order of author’s last name, not in the order I read them or the order of preference. I find that in lists, alphabetical order is the most democratic.

1. Bukowski in a Sundress by Kim Addonizio

This memoir was so entertaining that it was like meeting a gal pal for endless martinis and swapping insane story after insane story. Addonizio’s memoir is really about the perseverance it takes to carve out a career as a writer, in particular as a poet.

There are a ton of great anecdotes about her adventures on the road at writing conferences and readings, as well as lessons about juggling real life and writing. She approaches it all with humor and grit—which are two crucial characteristics you need to be a writer.

This collection is definitely not for the faint of heart. Language and sexploits abound in this wild romp. But, for me, it was a super accessible memoir in that nothing was sugar-coated.

2. I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg

This is the most recently published of these writers’ memoirs. One of the blurbs on the back sums it up quite nicely: “A love letter to work and to friendship.” A lot of the book is grounded in road trips Attenberg took to promote one book or another and how grueling they were, but also the sights she saw and the things she learned about herself on the way.

She talks about books she wrote that didn’t do well and how she didn’t understand why, and I really appreciated that kind of honesty. This whole writing and publishing thing is a fickle mistress, which is why we really should just focus on the bit we can control, the writing.

This one made me realize that as hard as it all is, if you love the work (and surely you must, otherwise why do it?), it really is worth it. 

Plus, who doesn’t love a good road trip book?

3. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

I loved this memoir in essays. It is so poetic and beautiful. This book is a manifesto on the interconnectedness of life, art, and politics. Good writing encapsulates all three.

Chee does a wonderful job of balancing writing about his life and how that informed his development as a writer. Just when you think you’re reading an essay about writing, you realize that it’s also about life. And when you think you’re reading about Chee’s political activism, you also catch glimpses of writing advice.

I think I heard that he has another collection of essays coming out and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us. He’s also the guest editor of this year’s Best American Essays, out in the fall.

4. On Writing by Stephen King

This was the first writers’ memoir I read cover to cover and I read it when I wasn’t really into Stephen King’s novels. This volume is broken into three parts: C.V., Toolbox, and On Writing, plus a couple of recommended reading lists.

In C.V., King presents his curriculum vitae, his bona fides, his path to writing. He delves into his childhood spent shuffling around and living with various relatives and how he eventually discovered he kind of liked this thing called writing. 

He is really honest about his struggles with and recovery from addiction and how it has shown up in his writing. Plus, he reveals how writing brought him back to life after his near-fatal accident in 1999.

This one provides another glimpse at the level of dedication it takes to become a master of the craft of writing. It is entertaining and inspiring.

5. Just Kids by Patti Smith

When I first saw this memoir, I had no idea who Patti Smith was, but I saw this memoir EVERYWHERE, so I eventually broke down and bought it. Naturally.

This is a love story by Patti Smith about her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. They lived together when they were struggling artists in New York City in the late 1960s and early 70s. Smith does an amazing job of exploring the depth of that relationship. 

But she also writes a beautiful account of the devotional aspect of being an artist. And that’s my biggest takeaway from this memoir—the importance of truly living your art.

You’ll have to excuse me for not writing much of a conclusion to this post. I am struggling to decide which of these writers’ memoirs I’m going to revisit first!

Tell us in the comments: What are your favorite writers’ memoirs?

Lori Walker is the Operations Maven at DIY MFA. Though she’s fallen off the wagon as a writer, she’s hoping to return to writing essays (perhaps even a novel!) through her involvement with DIY MFA. She is also Launch Manager, Web Editor, and Podcast Producer for DIY MFA and a Book Coach. She resides in Smalltown, Oklahoma, with her husband and their cat, Joan Didion. You can follow her on Instagram at @LoriTheWriter.

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