Memoir examples run the gamut of styles. From classics of literature that tell you about history to popular tell-alls to tear through while sunning yourself on the beach, these books provide something to inform you and delight you. All memoirs are autobiographical tomes that tell someone’s life story from her or his own unique perspective. The voice of the author shines through as you read about difficult upbringings, amazing deeds, and wars fought.
Everyone has a story to tell – maybe writing your own life story is something that interests you, too. Learning more about writing and the genre through online classes is a great place to start. And you will only broaden your perspective by reading some of the classics of memoir genre. If you are having trouble kickstarting your own writing then reading some of these great memoirs could be the inspiration you need! You might even – once properly educated and inspired – be able to write your memoir in a weekend.
What Makes Great Writing?
How can you make your writing great writing?
The goal of all writing is to communicate. Through the written medium, I can communicate the contents of my brain into your brain and we need not be in the same place, or even alive at the same time. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” or a simple note pinned to the refrigerator that says “Get milk,” communication is the goal. And to communicate, you need to be clear with your meaning. To engage a reader, you need a story to tell that is unique and interesting.
Simplicity, clarity, and elegance are all elements to great writing. The more you read, the more you will see examples of fabulous memoirs that hook the reader. And the more you write and rewrite, the closer your own style will get to greatness. The following memoir examples are all great in some way. These memoirs either tell a story that is worth hearing, or express that story with great style, or combine storytelling and expression in one complete package. Whatever their strengths, they are all great examples of memoirs.
Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant served two terms as President of the United States. Prior to that, he was the commanding Union general who won the Civil War and kept the states united. But after a lifetime of amazing achievement, he found himself penniless due to a Ponzi scheme and dying of throat cancer. None other than Mark Twain stepped in and offered him a large fee to write his personal memoirs. Battling against the throat cancer that would claim his life, Grant managed to write one of the quintessential memoirs of all time.
Grant wrote about his early life and his war years. (Sadly, his life ended before he could delve into his post-war life. He died just five days after completing the book in July 1885.) His style is clear and precise. He is at times wry and funny, and at other times gracious and compassionate. The complexities of the war are laid out clearly so any reader can understand what happened, what was at stake, and what was in the mind of the man behind the big decisions. As with any great memoir, a time in history is made clearer, and the person who lived these events becomes more apparent, too. Indeed, Grant’s memoirs created an entirely new genre: the presidential memoir. Since then former leaders from Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton have put their experiences down on the page once they have left office.
The Dangerous Animals Club
You need not have won wars or been the American president in order to write an engaging memoir. Storytelling events like “The Moth” have popularized everyday people telling their own poignant or meaningful stories. Actor Stephen Tobolowsky is one of those who has taken personal storytelling and turned it into a successful memoir.
Tobolowsky has had roles in movies from “Groundhog Day” to “Memento.” He also starred in a movie about his own life called “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party.” From there he started a successful podcast, telling his life’s stories in his own humorous and engaging style. From film and audio came the written version, published as “The Dangerous Animals Club.” Tobolowsky tells tales and reflects on life lessons learned from his days as a child capturing scorpions and snakes to working on classic films like “Mississippi Burning.” Tobolowsky makes common life stories significant and illuminating with the power of his storytelling and by expressing himself with his own unique voice.
Orange is the New Black
From extraordinary lives to ordinary lives, U.S. Grant and Stephen Tobolowsky show us the full range of memoir possibilities. Sometimes ordinary people are thrown into extraordinary circumstances, and that is the perfect fodder for a focused memoir about that time. For instance, Piper Kerman turned her experiences during a stint in women’s prison into the memoir “Orange is the New Black.” The popular book was then turned into a hit series for Netflix. Kerman’s memoir shows that you need not assess your life since birth – and you need not have done something you are proud of – in order to write a memorable life story book.
Running with Scissors
Augusten Burroughs’ book “Running With Scissors” focuses on a specific time in his youth. A New York Times bestseller, this book was turned into a film of the same name. Although some would question Burroughs’ veracity about this period of his upbringing – when his mentally ill mother sent him to live with her eccentric psychiatrist – the book was still a compelling read. A memoir need not be pure history. Reflecting the author’s view of the situation and engaging the reader can be enough for a memoir to do.
The Glass Castle and Angela’s Ashes
Some people have stories of challenging childhoods and obstacles overcome that can inspire us all. Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” – about growing up in poverty in Ireland – or “The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls about her poor childhood in West Virginia – show us the ability of the human spirit to succeed and escape from bad circumstances. Their matter-of-fact recounting of the deprivations of poverty make their tragic circumstances real for readers. And their ability to tell the tale years later can inspire others to escape such situations themselves and seek success. McCourt and Walls might be the exceptional ones who manage to escape penury, but their warmth, honesty, and writing skill can instruct all writers looking to craft a memoir.
A Long Way Gone and Night
Some people manage to withstand unimaginable horrors, and their memoirs show us the limits of the human spirit and the will to survive. “A Long Way Gone” by Ishmael Beah recounts his years as a kidnapped child forced to fight as a soldier. “Night,” by Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, recounts his years as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. Although these books are difficult to read as they recount the ultimate cruelties that humans can inflict on one another, the survival of the authors and their reflection and sharing of their stories makes the world richer for us all.
The Year of Magical Thinking
Great writers and journalists sometimes turn their skill inwards. Joan Didion, a noted journalist and author, wrote about the loss of her husband and daughter in “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Death and loss are something we all grapple with in life. Reading the words of a great writer like Didion on these topics can help us all cope. Didion herself said the work – and its subsequent promotion and publicity – acted as therapy for her, as well.
Eat, Pray, Love
Elizabeth Gilbert coped with a difficult time in her life – her divorce – by planning an adventure that would be memoir-worthy. She embarked on a year of travel from Italy to India to Indonesia. The resulting book, “Eat, Pray, Love” chronicled her adventures and the lessons she learned. The inward journey she undertook spoke to people as much as her literal outward journey around the world. The ultimate goal of the book was to uplift and entertain, not share a tragedy, and the popularity of the book shows how much this message resonated with readers.
Kitchen Confidential and Stories I Only Tell My Friends
Some books we just can’t resist putting down because of all the juicy details they dish out. “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain was not just a memoir of his rise to being a top chef – it was also a privileged and rare glimpse inside the world of top restaurants. Sex and drugs are just as much an element of the book as tips on when not to order seafood.
Actor Rob Lowe told his life’s story and shared the tales only a Hollywood insider would know in his memoir “Stories I Only Tell My Friends.” The book is open and honest – there is no mean spirited gossip here – and Lowe gives us a look into the life of a top actor.
Write Your Own Life’s Story
Memoirs abound, written by all sorts of authors. From the mundane to the exceptional, from happy lives to the greatest tragedies, autobiographies, memoirs and life stories can entertain and engage any reader. You might learn something new about history, or look at life a new way. You might increase your compassion, or giggle over delightful details of secret worlds. And you might even be inspired to write your own memoir!