Writing Lessons: What to Read To Learn to Write Memoir

high resolution book coverWHAT TO ASK YOURSELF when learning to write memoir is not where to go get some writing prompts, where and how you’ll get an agent, or what you’ll wear on the Today Show. It’s not who to get to blurb your book, or what to say in your pitch letter. It’s a much simpler question, and if you ask and answer it well, you will succeed. What do successful writers read? That’s the question. What to read to learn to write memoir. That’s the issue. What did this person whose work I am holding to my heart, or carrying in my purse, or quoting to my friends read before she starting typing? What does she read while she’s writing? What should I read to write well? These are the questions to ask yourself right now, because they carry in them the real, not-so-secret truth about learning to write.

I can’t really take credit for this series of questions. They came to me while, well, reading, when I found myself marveling over what the writer whose book I was holding seemed to know. The writer is the great Roger Rosenblatt, and the book is his newest, The Boy Detective, A New York Childhood.

I wonder what this man has read in his life, I found myself asking in utter appreciation of how very smart he is, how his signature economy of language can be so utterly provocative, and how he learned to train his eye for just – and only – what I need to know.

“What are you reading?” It’s a question I was asked recently by two St. Lawrence University first-year students, both of whom have contacted me about how they could become writers.

“What are you reading?” It’s a question I ask my Master Class students and private clients, the students in my regular Wednesday night class, as well as those I meet for only one day when I teach my wacky, interactive class, Memoirama.

“What are you reading?”

Invariably, the answer comes back that people are reading lots of memoir, specifically bestsellers, and almost always books just like the one these writers want to write.

“Why?” That’s my first and only response to that.

Why, when you need to learn to write dialogue, how to tell the truth, when to pull back, how to skim over years of scenes and jump cut to what’s on theme; when your ability to successfully profile your parents utterly depends on your skill at brevity, and when your ability to choose the right word every time instead of many words all the time is in exquisite relation to how much fun your reader will have reading your book.

I keep a suggested reading list that I hand out at the beginning of each of my memoir classes. I add to it, though I rarely take off anything, since every one of these books has taught me something about writing. Have a look. And ask me anything about any of them. And read.

As you can see, I am taking on Writing Lesson assignment today. It was my turn, and anyway, I wanted to join this great list of writers. Such good company. And by the way, all of their books will teach you something about how to write. With one or two exceptions, I have not added them to the list, though consider all of them on it. There are more than twenty-five posts here now in this Writing Lessons series. I suggest you start at the beginning and read all the way through.

See a topic we have yet to cover? Send me a comment to that effect and I’ll get a writer on that topic asap. Want to win one of my books? Read on. And since it’s the holiday season, I’ll gladly sign it to anyone you want to give it you, even if it’s you.

But first, have a look a that list.

Suggested Reading List

Marion Roach Smith

Updated November, 2013

“Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship,” Gail Caldwell

“The World’s Strongest Librarian,” by Josh Hanagarne

“Holding Silvan,” by Monica Wesolowska

“Her,” by Christa Paravanni

“The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters,” by Gay Talese

“Home Cooking,” by Laurie Colwin

“Portraits and Observations. The Essays of Truman Capote,” by Truman Capote

“West With the Night,” Beryl Markham

“The Hare with Amber Eyes,” by Edmund de Waal

“She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders,” by Jennifer Finney Boylan

The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn

“And I Shall Have Some Peace There,” by Margaret Roach

“The Backyard Parables,” by Margaret Roach

“Dream Season,” by Bob Cowser

“Green Fields,” by Bob Cowser

“Fun Home,” by Alison Bechdel

“The War of Art,” by Stephen Pressfield

“What I Thought I Knew,” by Alice Eve Cohen

“The Center of the Universe,” by Nancy Bachrach

“Perfection,” by Julie Metz

“Going Gray,” by Anne Kreamer

“About Alice” by Calvin Trillin

“Travels with Alice,” by Calvin Trillin

“Alice, Let’s Eat,” by Calvin Trillin

“Let Me Finish,” by Roger Angell

“The Rural Life,” by Verlyn Klinkenborg

“Manhattan, When I was Young,” by Mary Cantwell

“Patrimony,” by Philip Roth

“The Dog that Bit People,” by James Thurber, in the book “My Life and Hard Times”

“Between Meals,” by A.J. Liebling

“So Long, See You Tomorrow,” by William Maxwell

“Ancestors,” by William Maxwell

The Memoir Project, an excerpt


Required Reading

THIS IS A SIMPLE tale. I was born in the Little Neck Public Library in Queens, New York. Next to the card catalogue. Well, that’s the way I remember it, and I’m sticking to that story, no matter what. Go into therapy and you are likely to be asked, “What is your first memory?” And for many people, this is a rare opportunity to unlock the floodgates, remove the tourniquet, and let the platelets flow. But when I want to investigate myself, I type, and when I ask myself to re‐create those first moments, what gets typed up is me standing on my tiptoes, peering into a card catalogue.

It was a long wooden drawer that may have pulled out for a mile and a half. Like a great straight snake, right at hip bone level to my mother, exactly at eye level to me, it slid out and I waited.

“I want you to see something,” I think she said.

A gorgeous woman; I would have done anything she told me. This was the person who held the keys to the kingdom of power, the parent who had taught me to read, sitting with me as one day the letters turned into words, and the words into sentences, and the sentences into the authority that every child craves—to learn, to retell, and to entertain. My mother’s red fingernails, lacquered to match her lips, were flipping like sexy windshield wipers through the cards, one after the other. Where were we going this time? I wondered. Maybe I was five. We had long before run through the Golden Books and had recently been to meet Black Beauty, and we were about to read The Pushcart War, a book about the Lower East Side. We had dabbled in poetry and had read of the requisite heroes and demons of the Bible.

Suddenly, she stopped, lifting up a single card. On it was my father’s name: James P. Roach.

“Look at that!” she said. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

It was. In that snug, long drawer, there for the world to stumble upon, to cross‐reference, to read: my dad. A sportswriter, he was in the card catalogue. Other girls wanted to be veterinarians, to marry rich, to be Rockettes. From that moment on, what I wanted most was a place of my own in the Dewey decimal system.

Shortly after that day, we moved into a house with a den in which was placed a desk and a typewriter, and that’s where I watched my father write on deadline. It was there that he was discovered one afternoon, sitting hunched over that typewriter, running his hands through his thin hair. For the previous three days, painters had been in the house changing the color of every single room to champagne— the white of the 1970s. On the fourth day of this monotonous work, a lone painter followed the sound of the clacking keys. The encounter went something like this:

“Mr. Roach,” said the painter.

Mr. Roach looked up and said nothing.

“It seems a shame,” the painter continued.

Mr. Roach said, “Who are you?”

“The painter?” the man asked, now unsure himself.

“Yes.” My father looked back to his blank page.

“That dining room. You want that champagne, too?”


“Like the rest of the rooms?”

“The rest of the rooms?”

“Are champagne.”

“In this house? Since when?”


“And the dining room?”

“Not yet.” The writer cast a look at the clock, the typewriter, then the painter. The story was due.

“What nationality are you?” he asked.



“Croatian,” said the painter.

“Such lovely national colors,” said the writer. “Use those.”

Back to the typewriter, the assignment, and the silence—which was broken six hours later by the earsplitting scream of a woman viewing her red, white, and brown dining room for the first time. It may have been the only time Jim Roach expressed himself in any‐ thing other than words in his own home. But it is worth noting that the dining room walls remained a deep red, the ceiling a pure white, and the beams their natural brown for as long as we had the house.

It seemed to me that to get into the stacks of the library, writers had to keep their heads down, no matter the consequences.

And writing does have consequences. Especially if you tell the truth, which is what memoir requires. When my friend Elizabeth recently found out that she has multiple sclerosis (MS), she thought about that for a while and then wrote an op‐ed piece for the Los Angeles Times. Some years before, via in vitro fertilization, she had gotten pregnant, given birth, and then donated some of her unused embryos to science. After her MS diagnosis, she wrote how she wished those cells had gone toward fetal tissue research for her illness and others. Upon publication, accolades came in from her peers, but she also had to ditch her home phone number because of the phalanx of wingnuts calling to say they would have adopted those embryos.

On some level you’ve always known that consequences lurk when telling your tale—a chill from the family, crank calls on your telephone, or perhaps a unique terror that comes from retracing some‐ thing to its beginning to understand the power it has over your life. Which is why this morning, when you could have been writing, you rechecked your closet for what you’ll wear on the Today show during your book tour.

Today may or may not be in your future, but what is entirely possible is that you’ll lose somebody’s affections if you tell the truth. However, I am quite sure that if you tell the truth, you will feel some‐ thing real. “Feeling something real” is where I prefer to live, trying to palpate the small moments of life, the moments of intuition, the places where we fail and where we change. Right now my life is packed with middle‐aged friends engaged in all manner of danger‐ ous behaviors again—the ones they forgot we did in our twenties. They insist that they are merely trying to feel something. I suggest honestly writing about your life. You’ll feel something. I promise.

But first, you have to agree to be taught. This is harder than it sounds. Which is why I start the book off not with a classic introduction but with an opener called “Required Reading.” Because like everyone who wants to write a memoir—via writing vignettes expressly for their children to read, blogging, writing essays, or taking on an entire book—you want to skip the intro and get right to the part where I assign you the writing exercises, prompts, or bulleted list of killer tips that will fritter away the time until you buy your next book on writing.

You won’t find any of those insulting tasks here. From this moment on, you are writing with purpose and are no longer merely practicing. You are writing with intent. So read the book and follow the advice.

And write.

Author’s bio

Marion Roach Smith is the author of The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing–And Life (Grand Central, June, 2011). Under the name Marion Roach, she authored The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair (Bloomsbury, 2005); co-authored Dead Reckoning (Simon and Schuster, 2001), and authored Another Name for Madness (Houghton Mifflin, 1985). Formerly on staff at The New York Times, she has contributed essays to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and has written for such publications such as The New York Times Magazine, The New York TimesScience section, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, The Los Angeles Times, and others. For more than 15 years she has taught classes on memoir writing.

HOW TO WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK I hope you enjoy Writing Lessons. Featuring well-published writers of our favorite genre, each weekly installment takes on one short topic addressing how to write memoir. It’s my way of saying thanks for coming by. Love the author featured above? Did you learn something in the how-to? Then you’ve got to read the book. And you can. I am giving away one copy, and all you have to do to win is leave a comment below about something you learned from the writing lesson or the excerpt. I’ll draw winners at random (using the tool at random dot org) after entries close at midnight Monday, December 9, right in time for the next installment of Writing Lessons. Good luck!


  1. says

    Great list of books to read. Thanks for the excellent suggestions. I’ve got so many books to read, which is actually exciting!
    In addition to the wonderful books you listed, one that I found truly remarkable in its simplicity, clarity, and incredible impact, is Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking.”
    Thanks for all the great advice and encouragement, Marion, as always.
    Be well,

  2. says

    Thanks for this list Marion. Finally, I have some Christmas gift suggestions. Am heading off to the library to collect The War of Art, a book placed on hold weeks ago, now available. Have just finished devouring Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro. What made this such a page-turner continues to amaze and intrigue. Next is Roger Rosenblatt’s Making Toast.
    (I have already read The Memoir Project on Kindle but should the dot org favour me, having a hard copy in my hands would be a welcome treat.)

    • Mary Ellen says

      Exciting list, and plan to keep at it. Thanks, Marion! Love your book, and would appreciate a copy for my desk. Best regards.

  3. Katherine Stevenson says

    Thank you Marion for the great list! I loved the excerpt too and laughed out loud with the scream scene :-)

    I really enjoy and learn so much from the Writing Lesson Series.

  4. Leslie Basham says

    Loved it! It makes me want to pick up that small, but packed full, book of yours and read it yet again. A book that recently surprised and moved me, is Sue Grafton’s-Kinsey and Me. The preface, intro and second section really touched me and of course, I love anything “Kinsey”. Here’s a quote of hers I love. ” I wish life could be edited as deftly as prose”. Amen! Your posts are the best-keep em coming!

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