Tracy K. Smith
When Tracy K. Smith read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in college, it showed her that although “listening to a protagonist is easier that listening to a person speaking in the flesh,” it was even more about “realizing I was capable of opening my eyes and ears in such a way as to accept the truth of what I was reading and admit the pain.” Ordinary Light is an elegant and eloquent examination of ideas through the mind of one remarkable person.
She Wants It
The creator of the groundbreaking show Transparent has gone through a lot of transformation as well. Jill Soloway was married to a man at one point in their life, but in She Wants It, they tell the story of how they became the person and the artist they were always meant to be.
Though Salman Rushdie delves into his childhood a bit in his fascinating memoir Joseph Anton, the true heart of it focuses on what happened after the Ayatollah Khomeini for writing his novel The Satanic Verses. The book is riveting not just for the story of what Rushdie had to go through (intense security, safe-house confinement), but how it changed Rushdie as a person and a writer.
Images and Shadows
Celebrated for her war journals, Iris Origo chronicles her discovery of writing as her true calling. In a Tuscan estate she purchased with her husband, the British-born Origo found herself in literature, and her depiction of that transformation should inspire anyone who hopes to put words on paper.
The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison
Though of course Ralph Ellison’s letters deal with all aspects of his rich life and the shifting world around him, they also contend with his craft. Spanning six decades, Ellison’s letters trace his one-of-a-kind trajectory from impoverished youth to one of America’s greatest novelists.
A Life of My Own
Unquestionably one of the world’s best biographers (her take on the life of Charles Dickens, for instance, is a classic of the form), Claire Tomalin’s captivating, honest, and heartbreaking memoir gives us an uncannily rendered portrait of a writer blossoming despite some trying and harrowing circumstances.
A Writer's Life
The Writers' Trust of Canada
For the past quarter century, the Writers’ Trust of Canada has commissioned talks from some of the country’s most preeminent authors—including Timothy Findlay, Mavis Gallant, Alistair MacLeod, and Margaret Atwood—on the subject of “the writer’s life.” Collected together in a wonderful anthology, these lectures bring extraordinary insight to what it means to be a steward of the written word.
A Writer's Life
One of the 20th century’s most revered journalists (from his groundbreaking profile of Frank Sinatra in 1966 to his monumental book on the New York Times), Gay Talese, in A Writer’s Life, takes aim at himself, and the result is just as brilliant and perceptive as anything the master nonfiction-writer ever produced.
Like all of her writing, Eudora Welty’s vital handbook for fiction writing—the of course economically titled On Writing—is concise, to the point, and deeply authoritative, all while being an absolute joy to read. For those looking for insights into the construction of fiction, On Writing is a necessary work.
Jorge Luis Borges
One of the most original and beguiling fiction writers to ever live, Jorge Luis Borges, in this collection of pieces, takes you behind the scenes of his innovative and inimitable stories. Filled with surprising candor and masterful wit, On Writing is sure to charm as much as it enlightens.
I’ve read a lot of memoirs by writers—in fact, it’s probably one of my favorite categories of literature. First of all, there’s the sense of seeing what life is like for someone you’ve only known about through their writing and/or their celebrity. Secondly—and this comes almost as a consequence of the first—it can be an absolute delight getting the inside scoop on other writers and figures of note. Memoirs can function like literary tabloids, revealing the underbelly of the written word.
But they can also be, simply, great works of art. They can deal with death, family, poverty, drugs, depression, etc., etc. A memoir is as fascinating as its author (and that author’s friends and family), but sometimes a wonderfully poignant book can come from a surprising source. Who could have foreseen, for example, the insightful melancholy of David Rakoff’s Half Empty, about his struggle with the cancer that ultimately took his life? We already knew Rakoff was a brilliantly hilarious writer (see Fraud and Don’t Get Too Comfortable for examples), but we didn’t know just how lovely and moving he could be, too.
The books on this list all deal with various aspects of the writer’s life. Many of them focus on childhood and the formative influences that got them into the game in the first place, others narrow into a particular time in their life, and many deal directly the craft of writing itself. All of them, though, take us deeper into the realm of literary art.
Featured Image: Francesco Ciccolella