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 is the sense of seeing what life is like for someone you’ve only known about through 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. Think, for instance, of Ernest Hemingway talking shit about Ford Maddox Ford in A Moveable Feast, his memoir of Paris. Or consider the juiciest bits of Stephen King’s On Writing, as in, e.g., that his novel Misery is a metaphor for cocaine addiction (which makes perfect sense when you apply it to the narrative!). 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 deal with the early part of the writer’s life: the reading, the learning, the writing, the erasing, the rewriting, the re-reading, the relearning, ad infinitum, that comes with becoming a writer. Some take the task head on, elucidating their youthful influences and the environments that aided or obstructed their trajectories, while others come in the form of a straight autobiography, though the narrative of literary progress inevitably earns a starring role. All of them, though, take us deeper into the realm of literary art—of the real, brass tacks stuff of routine, discipline, publishing, editing—than anything short of becoming famous writers ourselves.
- One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty
In 1983, Eudora Welty gave a series of lectures at Harvard in which she described her upbringing in Jackson, Mississippi in terms of her development as a writer. The book version of her lectures, One Writer’s Beginnings, is a paragon of the memoir/artist’s progress and form. “I learned from the age of two or three,” she writes in the first chapter, “that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or be read to.” Such an atmosphere of encouraged literary endeavor almost predictably lead to Welty taking an interest in writing. But beyond tracing the steps she climbed in order to reach the highest floor of her artistic potential, Welty’s autobiography is also notable for its evocation of the South in the early 20th century: she explores the devastating racism, sexism, and general provincialism of that time and place. Her family, too, are conjured with Welty’s uncanny economy: her father’s love affair with Victorian clocks and gadgets, her school-teacher mother’s infectious independence, and the house she grew up in with two younger brothers—are all ostensibly there to further the narrative of Welty’s coming of age, but they function, too, like scenes in one of her stories. That is, they are richly observed, succinctly related, and contain more than meets the mind as you read.
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- Learning a Trade: A Craftsman’s Notebooks, 1955—1997 by Reynolds Price
If Eudora Welty’s book is an exemplar of autobiographical concision, then Reynolds Price’s Learning a Trade is its opposite: a thoroughly detailed account of how one writer came into his own. Price’s book comes from his own notebooks, which means we get a rare inside peek into the mind of a writer. There is, for instance, a lengthy section on Price’s interpretation of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which he explains why he believes that novel to be “nearly perfect” (he also mentions, in an endnote, seeing Eudora Welty speak at Duke University, his alma mater, in 1955 on “Place in Fiction”). He says that James Joyce’s “The Dead” is “so great a story that it almost shames me.” But what makes Learning a Trade so wonderfully unique is the depth of self-scrutiny when it comes to Price’s own fiction. Consider this passage, from 1978, while Price worked on The Source of Light, the second in his A Great Circle trilogy, which follows the saga of the Mayfield family (between The Surface of Earth and The Promise of Rest):
A question arose yesterday, and I’ve been working it over last night and this morning—the scene which I’m presently writing…is chronologically prior to a good deal else that’s already written…Should I interleave the scenes then in chronological order?
Any writer of creative work has had these exact kinds of thoughts, but to read them in reference to a major writer’s specific novels—to see, in other words, the intense complexity of organizing a novel—is an inspiring and relieving notion. Even the greats experience confusion and reticence when faced with their own work. Seeing Reynolds Price suffer such an obstacle, and then overcome it, in a journal, so that we seem to see how he overcomes it—this is the very encouragement a young or aspiring author needs.
- Myself When Young: The Shaping of a Writer by Daphne du Maurier
By an early age, Daphne du Maurier—future author of Rebecca and the short stories “The Birds” and “Don’t Look Now,” daughter of a renowned theater actor, and granddaughter of a great writer—demonstrated a rascally imagination. Listening to the nursery rhymes adults read to her as a child in London in the 1910s, she asks the kind of questions only a future artist would ask:
“Dan Ran to the Man.” But why did Dan run to the man? Was somebody after him? Was he being chased by a wolf?
She possesses a preternatural love for language (“I like H,” she writes, “It was a gate, over which I could climb”), and a family as creative as they were notable (she was cousins to the Llewelyn Davies boys, the inspiration for J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan). Myself When Young is not only an insightful look into the life a young writer, but an evocative portrait (du Maurier used her journals to write the book) of bygone eras of London and Paris.
- Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro
One of the many wonderful things about Dani Shapiro’s memoir-cum-self-help book for writers is that Shapiro not only elucidates the influences that lead to her becoming a writer (like many of the memoirs on this list), but she also explains what it takes for her to continue to be a writer, a much more taxing process. The title comes from a fantastic reversal Shapiro makes of the annoying question she’s received repeatedly throughout her life, which she poignantly states in one of my favorite passages ever:
Still writing? I usually nod and smile, then quickly change the subject. But here is what I would like to put down my fork and say: Yes, yes, I am. I will write until the day I die, or until I am robbed of my capacity to reason. Even if my fingers were to clench and wither, even if I were to grow deaf or blind, even if I were unable to move a muscle in my body save for the blink of one eye, I would still write. Writing saved my life… Once in a great while, I look up at the sky and think that, if my father were alive, maybe he would be proud of me. That if my mother were alive, I might have come up with the words to make her understand. That I am changing what I can. I am reaching out to the dead and to the living and the not yet born. So yes. Yes. Still writing.
- Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film by Patton Oswalt
Though Patton Oswalt is a comedian and actor, his memoir of the years he spent in his early stand-up years watching old movies at a historic theater in Los Angeles is as moving and insightful as any on this list. In the documentary The Comedians of Comedy, Oswalt says that all artists go through their “obsession years,” when all they can think about is their craft. Well, these are Oswalt’s obsession years—endlessly contemplating humor and stage work, honing his set on a nightly basis, and attempting to see every movie from three (three!) film dictionaries and marking off with a little check the ones he saw—but these were also the years of deep personal growth. His mania over old movies, while a perfectly fun hobby, became a means of avoiding the rollick of life. As he writes near the end of the book, about all those hours he spent in pitch-black theaters: “The thing about the dark is, it can never get enough of you.”
- The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood
James Wood is probably the world’s most renowned literary critic, so it isn’t surprising that his memoir of his relationship with literature is itself a beautifully rendered ode to the written word. Like Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, Wood’s The Nearest Thing to Life originated as a series of lectures he gave at Brandeis. The title of his book refers to a quote from George Elliot: “Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” This adequately captures Wood’s poignant feelings about literature, especially when contrasted with his religious upbringing:
The idea that anything can be thought and said inside the novel –– a garden where the great Why? hangs unpicked, gloating in the free air –– had, for me, an ironically symmetrical connection with the actual fears of official Christianity outside the novel: that without God, as Dostoyevsky put it, “everything is permitted.” Take away God, and chaos and confusion reign; people will commit all kinds of crimes, think all kinds of thoughts. You need God to keep a lid on things. This is the usual conservative Christian line. By contrast, the novel seems, commonsensically, to say: ‘Everything has always been permitted, even when God was around. God has nothing to do with it.’
Though Wood is a critic, his memoir shows just how passionate and artful a writer he is, and how criticism is no less an art than the literature it considers.
- Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith
When Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith was a young girl in Solano County, California, she was shaped by her mother and her Baptist religion, but there was also the hard-won lesson of her race. “Don’t you wish you were white?” the other kids asked her, which makes her wonder what the other black kids in school are experiencing, and if it’s similar to hers, why don’t they talk about it? By the time she entered college and read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, her self- and cultural-awareness are finely tuned skills, and she sees that although reading Ellison’s groundbreaking novel showed her that “listening to a protagonist is easier that listening to a person speaking in the flesh” (mostly because hearing the kind of things Ellison wrote about would make her viscerally upset), 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.” If that’s not a perfect example of the many ways reading and writing can benefit a person, a culture, a world, then I don’t know what is. Ordinary Light is an elegant and eloquent examination of myriad complex ideas as seen through the eyes of one remarkable person.
Featured Image: Francesco Ciccolella