How to Write a Memoir: Examples and a Step-by-Step Guide

Zining Mok  |  January 29, 2024  |  25 Comments

how to write a memoir

If you’ve thought about putting your life to the page, you may have wondered how to write a memoir. We start the road to writing a memoir when we realize that a story in our lives demands to be told. As Maya Angelou once wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

How to write a memoir? At first glance, it looks easy enough—easier, in any case, than writing fiction. After all, there is no need to make up a story or characters, and the protagonist is none other than you.

Still, memoir writing carries its own unique challenges, as well as unique possibilities that only come from telling your own true story. Let’s dive into how to write a memoir by looking closely at the craft of memoir writing, starting with a key question: exactly what is a memoir?

How to Write a Memoir: Contents

What is a Memoir?

  • Memoir vs Autobiography

Memoir Examples

Short memoir examples.

  • How to Write a Memoir: A Step-by-Step Guide

A memoir is a branch of creative nonfiction , a genre defined by the writer Lee Gutkind as “true stories, well told.” The etymology of the word “memoir,” which comes to us from the French, tells us of the human urge to put experience to paper, to remember. Indeed, a memoir is “ something written to be kept in mind .”

A memoir is defined by Lee Gutkind as “true stories, well told.”

For a piece of writing to be called a memoir, it has to be:

  • Nonfictional
  • Based on the raw material of your life and your memories
  • Written from your personal perspective

At this point, memoirs are beginning to sound an awful lot like autobiographies. However, a quick comparison of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love , and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin , for example, tells us that memoirs and autobiographies could not be more distinct.

Next, let’s look at the characteristics of a memoir and what sets memoirs and autobiographies apart. Discussing memoir vs. autobiography will not only reveal crucial insights into the process of writing a memoir, but also help us to refine our answer to the question, “What is a memoir?”

Memoir vs. Autobiography

While both use personal life as writing material, there are five key differences between memoir and autobiography:

1. Structure

Since autobiographies tell the comprehensive story of one’s life, they are more or less chronological. writing a memoir, however, involves carefully curating a list of personal experiences to serve a larger idea or story, such as grief, coming-of-age, and self-discovery. As such, memoirs do not have to unfold in chronological order.

While autobiographies attempt to provide a comprehensive account, memoirs focus only on specific periods in the writer’s life. The difference between autobiographies and memoirs can be likened to that between a CV and a one-page resume, which includes only select experiences.

The difference between autobiographies and memoirs can be likened to that between a CV and a one-page resume, which includes only select experiences.

Autobiographies prioritize events; memoirs prioritize the writer’s personal experience of those events. Experience includes not just the event you might have undergone, but also your feelings, thoughts, and reflections. Memoir’s insistence on experience allows the writer to go beyond the expectations of formal writing. This means that memoirists can also use fiction-writing techniques , such as scene-setting and dialogue , to capture their stories with flair.

4. Philosophy

Another key difference between the two genres stems from the autobiography’s emphasis on facts and the memoir’s reliance on memory. Due to memory’s unreliability, memoirs ask the reader to focus less on facts and more on emotional truth. In addition, memoir writers often work the fallibility of memory into the narrative itself by directly questioning the accuracy of their own memories.

Memoirs ask the reader to focus less on facts and more on emotional truth.

5. Audience

While readers pick up autobiographies to learn about prominent individuals, they read memoirs to experience a story built around specific themes . Memoirs, as such, tend to be more relatable, personal, and intimate. Really, what this means is that memoirs can be written by anybody!

Ready to be inspired yet? Let’s now turn to some memoir examples that have received widespread recognition and captured our imaginations!

If you’re looking to lose yourself in a book, the following memoir examples are great places to begin:

  • The Year of Magical Thinking , which chronicles Joan Didion’s year of mourning her husband’s death, is certainly one of the most powerful books on grief. Written in two short months, Didion’s prose is urgent yet lucid, compelling from the first page to the last. A few years later, the writer would publish Blue Nights , another devastating account of grief, only this time she would be mourning her daughter.
  • Patti Smith’s Just Kids is a classic coming-of-age memoir that follows the author’s move to New York and her romance and friendship with the artist Robert Maplethorpe. In its pages, Smith captures the energy of downtown New York in the late sixties and seventies effortlessly.
  • When Breath Becomes Air begins when Paul Kalanithi, a young neurosurgeon, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Exquisite and poignant, this memoir grapples with some of the most difficult human experiences, including fatherhood, mortality, and the search for meaning.
  • A memoir of relationship abuse, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House is candid and innovative in form. Machado writes about thorny and turbulent subjects with clarity, even wit. While intensely personal, In the Dream House is also one of most insightful pieces of cultural criticism.
  • Twenty-five years after leaving for Canada, Michael Ondaatje returns to his native Sri Lanka to sort out his family’s past. The result is Running in the Family , the writer’s dazzling attempt to reconstruct fragments of experiences and family legends into a portrait of his parents’ and grandparents’ lives. (Importantly, Running in the Family was sold to readers as a fictional memoir; its explicit acknowledgement of fictionalization prevented it from encountering the kind of backlash that James Frey would receive for fabricating key facts in A Million Little Pieces , which he had sold as a memoir . )
  • Of the many memoirs published in recent years, Tara Westover’s Educated is perhaps one of the most internationally-recognized. A story about the struggle for self-determination, Educated recounts the writer’s childhood in a survivalist family and her subsequent attempts to make a life for herself. All in all, powerful, thought-provoking, and near impossible to put down.

While book-length memoirs are engaging reads, the prospect of writing a whole book can be intimidating. Fortunately, there are plenty of short, essay-length memoir examples that are just as compelling.

While memoirists often write book-length works, you might also consider writing a memoir that’s essay-length. Here are some short memoir examples that tell complete, lived stories, in far fewer words:

  • “ The Book of My Life ” offers a portrait of a professor that the writer, Aleksandar Hemon, once had as a child in communist Sarajevo. This memoir was collected into Hemon’s The Book of My Lives , a collection of essays about the writer’s personal history in wartime Yugoslavia and subsequent move to the US.
  • “The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week.” So begins Cheryl Strayed’s “ The Love of My Life ,” an essay that the writer eventually expanded into the best-selling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail .
  • In “ What We Hunger For ,” Roxane Gay weaves personal experience and a discussion of The Hunger Games into a powerful meditation on strength, trauma, and hope. “What We Hunger For” can also be found in Gay’s essay collection, Bad Feminist .
  • A humorous memoir structured around David Sedaris and his family’s memories of pets, “ The Youth in Asia ” is ultimately a story about grief, mortality and loss. This essay is excerpted from the memoir Me Talk Pretty One Day , and a recorded version can be found here .

So far, we’ve 1) answered the question “What is a memoir?” 2) discussed differences between memoirs vs. autobiographies, 3) taken a closer look at book- and essay-length memoir examples. Next, we’ll turn the question of how to write a memoir.

How to Write a Memoir: A-Step-by-Step Guide

1. how to write a memoir: generate memoir ideas.

how to start a memoir? As with anything, starting is the hardest. If you’ve yet to decide what to write about, check out the “ I Remember ” writing prompt. Inspired by Joe Brainard’s memoir I Remember , this prompt is a great way to generate a list of memories. From there, choose one memory that feels the most emotionally charged and begin writing your memoir. It’s that simple! If you’re in need of more prompts, our Facebook group is also a great resource.

2. How to Write a Memoir: Begin drafting

My most effective advice is to resist the urge to start from “the beginning.” Instead, begin with the event that you can’t stop thinking about, or with the detail that, for some reason, just sticks. The key to drafting is gaining momentum . Beginning with an emotionally charged event or detail gives us the drive we need to start writing.

3. How to Write a Memoir: Aim for a “ shitty first draft ”

Now that you have momentum, maintain it. Attempting to perfect your language as you draft makes it difficult to maintain our impulses to write. It can also create self-doubt and writers’ block. Remember that most, if not all, writers, no matter how famous, write shitty first drafts.

Attempting to perfect your language as you draft makes it difficult to maintain our impulses to write.

4. How to Write a Memoir: Set your draft aside

Once you have a first draft, set it aside and fight the urge to read it for at least a week. Stephen King recommends sticking first drafts in your drawer for at least six weeks. This period allows writers to develop the critical distance we need to revise and edit the draft that we’ve worked so hard to write.

5. How to Write a Memoir: Reread your draft

While reading your draft, note what works and what doesn’t, then make a revision plan. While rereading, ask yourself:

  • What’s underdeveloped, and what’s superfluous.
  • Does the structure work?
  • What story are you telling?

6. How to Write a Memoir: Revise your memoir and repeat steps 4 & 5 until satisfied

Every piece of good writing is the product of a series of rigorous revisions. Depending on what kind of writer you are and how you define a draft,” you may need three, seven, or perhaps even ten drafts. There’s no “magic number” of drafts to aim for, so trust your intuition. Many writers say that a story is never, truly done; there only comes a point when they’re finished with it. If you find yourself stuck in the revision process, get a fresh pair of eyes to look at your writing.

7. How to Write a Memoir: Edit, edit, edit!

Once you’re satisfied with the story, begin to edit the finer things (e.g. language, metaphor , and details). Clean up your word choice and omit needless words , and check to make sure you haven’t made any of these common writing mistakes . Be sure to also know the difference between revising and editing —you’ll be doing both. Then, once your memoir is ready, send it out !

Learn How to Write a Memoir at Writers.com

Writing a memoir for the first time can be intimidating. But, keep in mind that anyone can learn how to write a memoir. Trust the value of your own experiences: it’s not about the stories you tell, but how you tell them. Most importantly, don’t give up!

Anyone can learn how to write a memoir.

If you’re looking for additional feedback, as well as additional instruction on how to write a memoir, check out our schedule of nonfiction classes . Now, get started writing your memoir!


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Thank you for this website. It’s very engaging. I have been writing a memoir for over three years, somewhat haphazardly, based on the first half of my life and its encounters with ignorance (religious restrictions, alcohol, and inability to reach out for help). Three cities were involved: Boston as a youngster growing up and going to college, then Washington DC and Chicago North Shore as a married woman with four children. I am satisfied with some chapters and not with others. Editing exposes repetition and hopefully discards boring excess. Reaching for something better is always worth the struggle. I am 90, continue to be a recital pianist, a portrait painter, and a writer. Hubby has been dead for nine years. Together we lept a few of life’s chasms and I still miss him. But so far, my occupations keep my brain working fairly well, especially since I don’t smoke or drink (for the past 50 years).

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Hi Mary Ellen,

It sounds like a fantastic life for a memoir! Thank you for sharing, and best of luck finishing your book. Let us know when it’s published!

Best, The writers.com Team

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Hello Mary Ellen,

I am contacting you because your last name (Lavelle) is my middle name!

Being interested in genealogy I have learned that this was my great grandfathers wife’s name (Mary Lavelle), and that her family emigrated here about 1850 from County Mayo, Ireland. That is also where my fathers family came from.

Is your family background similar?

Hope to hear back from you.

Richard Lavelle Bourke

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Hi Mary Ellen: Have you finished your memoir yet? I just came across your post and am seriously impressed that you are still writing. I discovered it again at age 77 and don’t know what I would do with myself if I couldn’t write. All the best to you!! Sharon [email protected]

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I am up to my eyeballs with a research project and report for a non-profit. And some paid research for an international organization. But as today is my 90th birthday, it is time to retire and write a memoir.

So I would like to join a list to keep track of future courses related to memoir / creative non-fiction writing.

Hi Frederick,

Happy birthday! And happy retirement as well. I’ve added your name and email to our reminder list for memoir courses–when we post one on our calendar, we’ll send you an email.

We’ll be posting more memoir courses in the near future, likely for the months of January and February 2022. We hope to see you in one!

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Very interesting and informative, I am writing memoirs from my long often adventurous and well travelled life, have had one very short story published. Your advice on several topics will be extremely helpful. I write under my schoolboy nickname Barnaby Rudge.

[…] How to Write a Memoir: Examples and a Step-by-Step Guide […]

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I am writing my memoir from my memory when I was 5 years old and now having left my birthplace I left after graduation as a doctor I moved to UK where I have been living. In between I have spent 1 year in Canada during my training year as paediatrician. I also spent nearly 2 years with British Army in the hospital as paediatrician in Germany. I moved back to UK to work as specialist paediatrician in a very busy general hospital outside London for the next 22 years. Then I retired from NHS in 2012. I worked another 5 years in Canada until 2018. I am fully retired now

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I have the whole convoluted story of my loss and horrid aftermath in my head (and heart) but have no clue WHERE, in my story to begin. In the middle of the tragedy? What led up to it? Where my life is now, post-loss, and then write back and forth? Any suggestions?

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My friend Laura who referred me to this site said “Start”! I say to you “Start”!

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Hi Dee, that has been a challenge for me.i dont know where to start?

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What was the most painful? Embarrassing? Delicious? Unexpected? Who helped you? Who hurt you? Pick one story and let that lead you to others.

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I really enjoyed this writing about memoir. I ve just finished my own about my journey out of my city then out of my country to Egypt to study, Never Say Can’t, God Can Do It. Infact memoir writing helps to live the life you are writing about again and to appreciate good people you came across during the journey. Many thanks for sharing what memoir is about.

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I am a survivor of gun violence, having witnessed my adult son being shot 13 times by police in 2014. I have struggled with writing my memoir because I have a grandson who was 18-months old at the time of the tragedy and was also present, as was his biological mother and other family members. We all struggle with PTSD because of this atrocity. My grandson’s biological mother was instrumental in what happened and I am struggling to write the story in such a way as to not cast blame – thus my dilemma in writing the memoir. My grandson was later adopted by a local family in an open adoption and is still a big part of my life. I have considered just writing it and waiting until my grandson is old enough to understand all the family dynamics that were involved. Any advice on how I might handle this challenge in writing would be much appreciated.

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I decided to use a ghost writer, and I’m only part way in the process and it’s worth every penny!

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Hi. I am 44 years old and have had a roller coaster life .. right as a young kid seeing his father struggle to financial hassles, facing legal battles at a young age and then health issues leading to a recent kidney transplant. I have been working on writing a memoir sharing my life story and titled it “A memoir of growth and gratitude” Is it a good idea to write a memoir and share my story with the world?

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Thank you… this was very helpful. I’m writing about the troubling issues of my mental health, and how my life was seriously impacted by that. I am 68 years old.

[…] Writers.com: How to Write a Memoir […]

[…] Writers.com: “How to Write a Memoir” […]

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I am so grateful that I found this site! I am inspired and encouraged to start my memoir because of the site’s content and the brave people that have posted in the comments.

Finding this site is going into my gratitude journey 🙂

We’re grateful you found us too, Nichol! 🙂

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Firstly, I would like to thank you for all the info pertaining to memoirs. I believe am on the right track, am at the editing stage and really have to use an extra pair of eyes. I’m more motivated now to push it out and complete it. Thanks for the tips it was very helpful, I have a little more confidence it seeing the completion.

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Well, I’m super excited to begin my memoir. It’s hard trying to rely on memories alone, but I’m going to give it a shot!

Thanks to everyone who posted comments, all of which have inspired me to get on it.

Best of luck to everyone! Jody V.

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I was thrilled to find this material on How to Write A Memoir. When I briefly told someone about some of my past experiences and how I came to the United States in the company of my younger brother in a program with a curious name, I was encouraged by that person and others to write my life history.

Based on the name of that curious program through which our parents sent us to the United States so we could leave the place of our birth, and be away from potentially difficult situations in our country.

As I began to write my history I took as much time as possible to describe all the different steps that were taken. At this time – I have been working on this project for 5 years and am still moving ahead. The information I received through your material has further encouraged me to move along. I am very pleased to have found this important material. Thank you!

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The Write Practice

Write a Great Memoir: How to Start (and Actually Finish) Your First Draft

by Joe Bunting | 1 comment

Free Book Planning Course!  Sign up for our 3-part book planning course and make your book writing easy . It expires soon, though, so don’t wait.  Sign up here before the deadline!

When I first started writing my memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris , about a real-life adventure I experienced with my wife and ten-month-old son, I thought it was going to be easy.

After all, by that point in my career, I had already written four books, two of which became bestsellers. I’ve got this, I thought. Simple.

How to Write a Memoir: How to Start (and Actually Finish) Your First Draft

It wasn’t. By the time Crowdsourcing Paris was published and became a #1 New Release on Amazon, it was more than five years later. During that time, I made just about every mistake, but I also learned a process that will reliably help anyone to start and finish writing a great memoir.

My memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris , as a #1 New Release on Amazon!

In this guide, I want to talk about how you can start writing your memoir, how you can actually finish it, and how you can make sure it’s good .

If you read this article from start to finish, it will save you hundreds of hours and result in a much better finished memoir.

Hot tip : Throughout this guide, I will be referencing my memoir Crowdsourcing Paris as an example. To get the most out of this guide and the memoir writing process in general, get a copy of the book to use as an example. Order your copy here »

But Wait! What Is a Memoir? (Memoir Definition)

How do you know if you're writing a memoir? Here's a quick memoir definition:

A memoir is a book length account or autobiography about a real life situation or event. It usually includes a pivotal experience in your life journey.

A key point to make is that memoir is a  true story . You don't have to get every piece of dialogue perfect, but you do have to try to tell the personal story or experience as best as you remember.

If you're looking to fictionalize your real life account you're writing a novel, not a memoir (and specifically a roman à clef novel ).

For more on the difference between a novel and a memoir, check out this coaching video:

This Memoir Writer Impressed Me [How to Write a Memoir]

How to Get Started With Your Memoir: 10 Steps Before You Start Writing

This guide is broken into sections: what to do before you start writing and how to write your first draft.

When most people decide to write a memoir, they just start writing. They write about the first life experience they can think of.

That’s sort of what I did too. I just started writing about my trip to Paris, beginning with how I first decided to go as a way to become a “real writer.” It turned out to be the biggest mistake I made.

If you want to finish your memoir, and even more, write a good memoir, just starting with the first memory you can think of will make things much harder for you.

Instead, get started with a memoir plan.

What’s a memoir plan? There are ten elements. Let’s break it down.

Get the memoir plan in a downloadable worksheet. Click to download your memoir plan »

1. Write Your Memoir Premise in One Sentence

The first part of a memoir plan is your premise. A premise is a one-sentence summary of your book idea.

You might be wondering, how can I summarize my entire life in a single sentence?

The answer is, you can’t. Memoir isn’t a full autobiography. It’s not meant to be a historical account of your entire life story. Instead, it should share one specific situation and what you learned from that situation.

Every memoir premise should contain three things:

  • A Character. For your memoir, that character will always be you . For the purposes of your premise, though, it’s a good idea to practice thinking of yourself as the main character of your story. So describe yourself in third person and use one descriptive adjective, e.g. a cautious writer.
  • A Situation. Memoirs are about a specific event, situation, or experience. For example, Marion Roach Smith’s bestselling memoir was about the discovery that her mother had Alzheimer’s, which at the time was a fairly unknown illness. My memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris , begins on the first day of my trip to Paris and ends on the day I left. You can’t write about everything, at least in this book. But you can write about one thing well, and save all the other ideas for the next book.
  • A Lesson. What life lesson did you learn from this situation? How did your life change inexorably after going through this situation? Again, here you can’t write about everything you’ve ever learned. Choose ONE life lesson or emotional truth and focus on it.

Want to see how a premise actually looks? Here’s an example from my memoir Crowdsourcing Paris :

When a Cautious Writer is forced by his audience to do uncomfortable adventures in Paris he learns the best stories come when you get out of your comfort zone.

One thing to note: a premise is not a book description. My book description, which you can see here , is totally different from the premise. It’s more suspenseful and also less detailed in some ways. That’s because the purpose of a premise isn’t to sell books.

What is the premise of your memoir? Share it in the comments below!

2. Set a Deadline to Finish Your First Draft

Or if you’ve already finished a draft, set a deadline to finish your next draft.

This is crucial to do now , before you do anything else. Why? Because there are parts of the memoir plan that you can spend months, even years on. But while planning is helpful, it can easily become a distraction if you don’t get to the writing part of the process.

That’s why you want to put a time limit on your planning by setting a deadline.

How long should the deadline be?

Stephen King says you should write a first draft in no longer than a season. So ninety days.

In my 100 Day Book program, we’ve helped hundreds of memoir writers finish their book in just 100 days. To me, that’s a good amount of time to finish a first draft.

However, I wouldn’t take any longer than 100 days. Writing a book requires a level of focus that’s difficult to achieve over a long period of time. If you set your deadline for longer than 100 days, you might never finish.

Also set weekly milestones.

In addition to your final deadline, I recommend breaking up the writing process into weekly milestones.

If you’re going to write a 65,000-word memoir over 100 days, let’s say, then divide 65,000 by the number of weeks (about 14) to get your weekly word count goal: about 4,600 words per week.

That will give you a sense of how much progress you’re making each week, so you won’t be in a huge rush to finish right at the end of your deadline. After all, no one can pull an all-nighter and finish a book! Create a writing habit that will enable you to actually finish your book.

Keep track of your word count deadlines.

By the way, this is one reason I love Scrivener , my favorite book writing software , because it allows you to set a target deadline and word count. Then Scrivener automatically calculates how much you need to write every day to reach your deadline.

It’s a great way to keep track of your deadline and how much more you have to write. Check out my review of Scrivener to learn more.

3. Create Consequences to Make Quitting Hard

I’ve learned from experience that a deadline alone isn’t enough. You also have to give your deadline teeth .

Writing a book is hard. To make sure that you show up to the page and do the work you need to finish, you need to make it harder to not write.

How? By creating consequences.

I learned this from a friend of mine, writer and book marketing expert Tim Grahl .

“If you really want to finish your book,” he told me, “write a check for $1,000 to a charity you hate. Then give that check to a friend with instructions to send it if you don’t hit your deadline.”

“I don’t need to do that,” I told him. “I’m a pro. I have discipline.” But a month later, after I still hadn’t made any progress on my memoir, I finally decided to take his advice.

This was during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. So I wrote a $1,000 check to the presidential candidate that I most disliked (who shall remain nameless!), and gave it to a friend with instructions to send the check if I didn’t hit my final deadline.

I also created smaller consequences for the weekly deadlines, which I highly recommend. Here’s how it works:

Consequence #1 : Small consequence, preferably related to a guilty pleasure that might keep you from writing. For example, giving up a game on your phone or watching TV until you finish your book.

Consequence #2 : Giving up a guilty pleasure. For example, giving up ice cream, soda, or alcohol until you finish your book.

Consequence #3 : Send the $1,000 check to the charity you hate.

Each of these would happen if I missed three weekly deadlines. If I missed the final deadline, then just the $1,000 check would get sent.

After I put in each of these consequences, I was the most focused and productive I’ve ever been in my life. I finished my book in just nine weeks and never missed a deadline.

If you actually want to finish your memoir, give this process a try. I think you’ll be surprised by how well it works for you.

4. Decide What Kind of Story You’re Telling

Now that you’ve set your deadline, start thinking about what kind of book you’re writing. What is your story really about?

“Memoir is about something you know after something you’ve been through,” says Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project .

I think there are seven types of stories that most memoirs are about.

  • Coming of Age. A story about a young person finding their place in the world. A great example is 7 Story Mountain  by Thomas Merton.
  • Education. An education story , according to Kim Kessler and Story Grid, is about a naive character who, through the course of the story, comes to a bigger understanding of the world that gives meaning to their existing life. My memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris , is a great example of an education memoir.
  • Love. A love story is about a romantic relationship, either the story of a breakup or of two characters coming together. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is a great example of a love story memoir, as it tells the story of her divorce and then re-discovering herself and love as she travels the world.
  • Adventure/Action. All adventure stories are about life and death situations. Also, most travel memoirs are adventure stories. Wild by Cheryl Strayed is a great example, and Crowdsourcing Paris is also an adventure story. (You can apply the principles from our How to Write Adventure guide here , too!)
  • Performance. Performance memoirs are about a big competition or a competitive pursuit. Julie and Julia , Julie Powell’s memoir about cooking her way through Julia Child’s recipes, is a good example of a performance memoir. Outlaw Platoon , about the longest-serving Ranger platoon in Afghanistan, is another great performance story.
  • Thriller. Memoirs about abuse or even an illness could fall into the crime, horror, or thriller arena. (Our full guide on How to Write a Thriller is here .)
  • Society. What is wrong with society? And how can you rebel against the status quo? Society stories are very common as memoirs. I would also argue that most humor memoirs are society stories, since they talk about one person’s funny, transgressive view on society. Anything by David Sedaris, for example, is a society memoir.

For more on all of these genres, check out Story Grid’s article How to Use Story Grid to Write a Memoir .

Three Stories

Note that I included my memoir in two categories. That’s because most books, including memoirs, are actually a combination of three stories. You have:

  • An external story. For example, Crowdsourcing Paris is an adventure story.
  • An internal story . As I said, Crowdsourcing Paris is an education story.
  • A subplot . Usually the subplot is another external story, in my case, a love story.

What three stories are you telling in your memoir?

5. Visualize Your Intention

One of the things that I’ve learned as I’ve coached hundreds of writers to finish their books is that if you visualize the following you are much more likely to follow through and accomplish your writing goals:

  • Where you're going to write
  • When you're going to write
  • How much you're going to write

Here I want you to actively visualize yourself at your favorite writing spot accomplishing the word count goal that you set in step two.

For example, when I was writing Crowdsourcing Paris , I would imagine myself sitting at this one café that was eight doors down from my office. I liked it because it had a little bit of a French feel. Then I would imagine myself there from eight in the morning until about ten.

Finally, I would actively visualize myself watching the word count tracker go from 999 to 1,000 words, which was my goal every day. Just that process of imagining my intention was so helpful.

What is your intention? Where, when, and how much will you write? Imagine yourself actually sitting there in the place you’re going to write your memoir.

6. Who Will Be On Your Team?

No one can write a book alone. I learned this the hard way, and the result was that it took me five years to finish my memoir.

For every other book that I had written, I had other people holding me accountable. Without my team, I know that I would never have written those books. But when I tried to write my memoir, I thought, I can do this on my own. I don’t need accountability, encouragement, and support. I’ve got this.

To figure out who you need to help you finish your memoir, create three different lists of people:

  • Other writers. These are people who you can process, with who know the process of writing a book. Some will be a little bit ahead of you, so that when you get stuck, they can encourage you and say, “I’ve been there. You’re going to get through it. Keep working.”
  • Readers. Or if you don’t have readers, friends and family. These will be the people who give you feedback on your finished book before it’s published, e.g. beta readers.
  • Professional editors. But you also need professional feedback. I recommend listing two different editors here, a content editor to give feedback on the book as a whole (for example, I recommend a Write Practice Certified Coach), and a proofreader or line editor to help polish the final draft. (Having professional editing software is smart too. We like ProWritingAid. Check out our ProWritingAid review .)

Just remember: it takes a team to finish a book. Don’t try to do it on your own.

And if you don’t have relationships with other writers who can be on your team, check out The Write Practice Pro. This is the community I post my writing in to get feedback. Many of my best writing friends came directly from this community. You can learn more about The Write Practice Pro here .

7. What Other Books Will Inspire You?

“Books are made from books,” said Cormac McCarthy. Great writers learn how to write great books by reading other great books, and so should you.

I recommend finding three to five other memoirs that can inspire you during the writing process.

I recommend two criteria for the books you choose:

  • Commercially successful. If you want your book to be commercially successful, choose other books that have done well in the marketplace.
  • Similar story type. Try to find books that are the same story type that you learned in step four.

For my memoir, I had four main sources of inspiration.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert; The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain; A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway; and Midnight in Paris , the film by Woody Allen.

I referred back to these sources all the time. For example, when I was stuck on the climactic scene in the memoir, I watched one scene in A Midnight in Paris twenty times until I could quote the dialogue. I still didn’t come up with the solution until the next day, but understanding how other writers solved the problems I was facing helped me figure out my own solutions for my story.

8. Who Is Your Reader Avatar?

Who is your book going to be for? Or who is the one person you’ll think of when you write your book? When the writing gets hard and you want to quit, who will be most disappointed if you never finish your book?

I learned this idea from J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote his novel The Hobbit for his three boys as a bedtime story. Every day he would work on his pages, and every night he would go home and read them to his sons. And this gave him an amazing way to get feedback. He knew whether they laughed at one part or got bored at another.

This helped him make his story better, but I also imagine it gave him a tremendous amount of motivation.

This Can Be You, Sort Of

I don’t think your reader avatar should be you. When it comes to your own writing, you are the least objective person.

There’s one caveat: you can be your own reader avatar IF you’re writing to a version of yourself at a different time. For example, I have friends who have imagined they were writing to a younger version of themselves.

Who will you write your memoir for?

9. Publishing and Marketing

How will you publish your book? Will you go the traditional route or will you self-publish? Who is your target market (check your reader avatar for help)? What will you do to promote and market your book? Do you have an author website ?

It might be strange to start planning for the publishing and marketing of your book before you ever start writing it, but what I’ve discovered is that when you think through the entire writing process, from the initial idea all the way through the publishing and marketing process, you are much more likely to finish your book.

In fact, in my 100 Day Book program, I found that people who finished this planning process were 52 percent more likely to finish their book.

Spend some time thinking about your publishing and marketing plans. Just thinking about it will help you when you start writing.

Start Building Your Audience Before You Need It

In the current publishing climate, most memoir agents and publishers want you to have some kind of relationship with an audience before they will consider your book.

Start building an audience before you need it. The first step to building an audience, and the first step to publishing in general, is building an author website. If you don’t have a website yet, you can find our full author website guide here .

(Building a website doesn’t have to be intimidating or time-consuming if you have the right guide.)

10. Outline Your Memoir

The final step of the planning process is your memoir outline . This could be the subject of a whole article itself. Here, I’ve learned so much from Story Grid, but if you don’t have time to read the book and listen to over 100 podcast episodes, here’s a quick and dirty process for you.

But First, for the Pantsers

There are two types of writers: the plotters and the pansters . Plotters like to outline. Pantsers think outlining crushes their creative freedom and hate it.

If you identify with the pantsers, that’s okay. Don’t worry too much about this step. I would still recommend writing something in this section of your memoir plan, even if you only know a few moments that will happen in the book, even recording a series of events might help as you plan.

And for you plotters, outline to your heart’s content, as long as you’ve already set your deadline!

Outlining Tips

When you’re ready to start outlining, here are a few tips:

  • Begin by writing down all the big moments in your life that line up with your premise. Your premise is the foundation of your story. Anything outside of that premise should be cut.
  • S eparate your life events into three acts. One of the most common story structures in writing is the three-act story structure. Act 1 should contain about 25 percent of your story, Act 2 about 50 percent of your story, and Act 3 about 25 percent.
  • Act 1 should begin as late into the story as possible. In Crowdsourcing Paris , like most travel memoirs, I began the story the day I arrived in Paris.
  • Use flashbacks, but carefully. Since I began Crowdsourcing Paris so late into the action, I used flashbacks to provide some details about what happened to lead up to the trip. Flashbacks can be overused, though, so only include full scenes and don’t info dump with flashbacks.
  • Start big. The first scene in your book should be a good representation of what your book is about. So if you’re writing an adventure story (see Step 4), then you should have a life or death moment as the first scene. If you’re writing a love story, you should have a moment of love or love lost.
  • End Act 1 with a decision. It is you, and specifically your decisions , that drive the action of your memoir. So what important decision did you make that will drive us into Act 2?
  • Start Act 2 with your subplot. In Step 4, I said most books are made up of three stories. Your subplot is an important part of your book, and in most great stories, your subplot begins in Act 2.
  • Act 2 begins with a period of “fun and games.” Save the Cat , one of my favorite books for writers, says that after the tension you built with the big decision in Act 1, the first few scenes in Act 2 should be fun and feel good, with things going relatively well for the protagonist.
  • Center your second act on the “all is lost” moment. Great stories are about a character who comes to the end of him or herself. The all is lost moment is my favorite to write, because it’s where the character (in this case you ) has the most opportunity to grow. What is YOUR “all is lost” moment?
  • Act 3 contains your final climactic moment. For Crowdsourcing Paris , this was the moment when I thought I was going to die. In a love story memoir, it might be when you finally work things out and commit to your partner.
  • Act 3 is also where you show the big lesson of the memoir. Emphasis on show. Back in Step 1, you identified the lesson of your memoir. Act 3 is when you finally demonstrate what you’ve learned throughout the memoir in one major event.
  • A tip for the final scene: end your memoir with the subplot. This gives a sense of completion to your story and works as a great final moment.

Use the tips above to create a rough outline of your memoir. Keep in mind, when you start writing, things might completely change. That’s okay! The point with your plan isn’t to be perfect. It’s to think through your story from beginning to end so that you’ll be prepared when you get to that point in the writing process.

Want to make this process as easy as possible? Get the memoir plan in a downloadable worksheet. Click to download your memoir plan »

That’s the end of the planning stage of this guide. Now let’s talk about how to write your first draft.

How to Write the First Draft of Your Memoir

If you’ve followed the steps above to create a memoir plan, you’ve done the important work. Writing a memoir, like writing any book, is hard. But it will actually be harder to not be successful if you’ve followed all the steps in the memoir plan.

But once you’ve created the “perfect” plan, it’s time to do the dirty work of writing a first draft.

In part two of our guide, you’ll learn how to write and finish a first draft.

1. Forget Perfection and Write Badly.

First drafts are messy. In fact, Anne Lamott calls them “shitty first drafts” because they are almost always terrible.

Even though I know that, though, any time I’m working on a new writing project, I still get it into my head that my first draft should be a masterpiece.

It usually takes me staring at a blank screen for a few hours before I admit defeat and just start writing.

If you’re reading this, don’t do that! Instead, start by writing badly.

Besides, when you’ve done the hard planning work, what you write will probably be a lot better than you think.

2. Willpower Doesn’t Work. Neither Does Inspiration. Instead, Use the “3 Minute Timer Trick.”

My biggest mistake when I began Crowdsourcing Paris was to think I had the willpower I needed as a professional writer and author of four books to finish the book on my own. Even worse, I thought I would be so inspired that the book would basically write itself.

I didn’t. It took not making much progress on my book for more than a year to realize I needed help.

The best thing you can do to help you focus on the writing process for your second draft is what we talked about in Step 4: Creating a Consequence.

But if you still need help, try my “3 Minute Timer Trick.” Here’s how it works:

  • Set a timer for three minutes. Why three minutes? Because for me, I’m so distractible I can’t focus for more than three minutes. I think anyone can focus for three minutes though, even me.
  • Write as fast as you can. Don’t think, just write!
  • When the timer ends, write down your total word count in a separate document (see image below). Then subtract from the previous word count to calculate how many words you wrote during that session.
  • Also write down any distractions during those three minutes. Did the phone ring? Did you have a tough urge to scroll through Facebook or play a game on your phone? Write it down.
  • Then, repeat the process by starting the timer again. Can you beat your word count?

This process is surprisingly helpful, especially when you don’t feel like writing. After all, you might not have it in you to write for an hour, but anyone can write for three minutes.

And the amazing thing is that once you’ve started, you might find it much easier to keep going.

Other Tools for Writers

By the way, if you’re looking for the tools I use and other pro writers I know use, check out our Best Tools for Creative Writers guide here .

3. Make Your Weekly Deadlines.

You can’t finish your book in an all-nighter. That being said, you can finish a chapter of your book in an all-nighter.

That’s why it’s so important to have the weekly deadlines we talked about in Part 1, Step 2 of this guide.

By breaking up the writing process into a series of weekly deadlines, you give yourself an achievable framework to finish your book. And with the consequences you set in Step 3 of your memoir plan, you give your deadlines the teeth they need to hold you accountable.

And as I mentioned above, Scrivener is especially helpful for keeping track of deadlines (among other things). If you haven’t yet, check out my review of Scrivener here .

4. Keep Your Team Updated.

Having a hard time? It’s normal. Talk to your team about it.

It seems like when you’re writing a book, everything in the universe conspires against you. You get into a car accident, you get sick, you get into a massive fight with your spouse or family member, you get assigned a new project at your day job.

Writing a book would be hard enough on its own, but when you have the rest of your life to deal with, it can become almost impossible.

Without your team, which we talked about in Step 6 of your book plan, it would be.

For me, I would never have been able to finish one book, let alone the twelve that I’ve now finished, without the support, encouragement, and accountability of the other writers whom I call friends, the readers who believe in me, and most of all, my wife.

Remember: No book is finished alone. When things get hard, talk about it with your team.

And if you need a team, consider joining mine. The Write Practice Pro is a supportive encouraging community of writers and editors. It’s where I get feedback on my writing, and you can get it here too. Learn more about the community here.

5. Finally, Trust the Process.

When I walk writers through the first draft writing process, inevitably, around day sixty, they start to lose faith.

  • They think their book is the all-time worst book ever written.
  • They get a new idea they want to work on instead.
  • They decide the dream to write a book and become a writer was foolish.
  • They want to quit.

A few do quit at this point.

But the ones who keep going discover that in just a few weeks they’ve figured out most of the problems in their book, they’re on their last pages, and they’re almost finished.

It happens every time, even to me.

If you take nothing else from this post, please hear this: keep going. Never quit. If you follow this process from start to finish, you’re going to make it, and it’s going to be awesome.

I’m so excited for you.

How to Finish Your Memoir

More than half of this guide is about the planning process. That’s because if you start well, you’ll finish well.

If you create the right plan, then all that’s left is doing the hard, messy work of writing.

Without the right plan, it’s SO easy to get lost along the way.

That’s why I hope you’ll download my Memoir Plan Worksheet. Getting lost in the writing process is inevitable. This plan will become your map when it happens. Click to download the Memoir Plan Worksheet.

More than anything, though, I hope you’ll never quit. It took me five years to write Crowdsourcing Paris , but during that time I matured and grew so much as a writer and a person, all because I didn’t quit.

Even if it takes you five years, the life lessons you’ll learn as you write your book will be worth it.

And if you’re interested in a real-life adventure story set in Paris, I’d be honored if you’d read Crowdsourcing Paris . I think you’ll love it.

Good luck and happy writing.

More Writing Resources:

  • How to Write a Memoir Outline: 7 Essential Steps For Your Memoir Outline
  • 7 Steps to a Powerful Memoir
  • The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith
  • Crowdsourcing Paris by J.H. Bunting

Are you going to commit to writing a memoir (and never quitting, no matter what)? Let me know in the comments .

Summarize your memoir idea in the form of a one-sentence premise. Make sure it contains all three elements:

  • A character
  • A situation

Take fifteen minutes to craft your premise. When you’re finished, share your memoir premise in the Pro Practice Workshop for feedback. And if you share, please be sure to give feedback to three other writers. Not a member? Join us .

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Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris , a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.

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Work with Joe Bunting?

WSJ Bestselling author, founder of The Write Practice, and book coach with 14+ years experience. Joe Bunting specializes in working with Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, How To, Literary Fiction, Memoir, Mystery, Nonfiction, Science Fiction, and Self Help books. Sound like a good fit for you?

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63 Best Memoir Writing Prompts To Stoke Your Ideas

You’re writing a memoir. But you’re not sure what questions or life lessons you want to focus on.

Even if only family members and friends will read the finished book, you want to make it worth their time. 

This isn’t just a whimsical collection of anecdotes from your life.

You want to convey something to your readers that will stay with them. 

And maybe you want your memoir’s impact to serve as your legacy — a testament to how you made a small (or large) difference. 

The collection of memoir questions in this post can help you create a legacy worth sharing.

So, if you don’t already have enough ideas for a memoir, read on. 

A Strong Theme

Overcoming obstacles, emotional storytelling, satisfying ending, examples of good starting sentences for a memoir , 63 memoir writing prompts , what are the primary parts of a memoir.

Though similar to autobiographies, memoirs are less chronological and more impressionable – less historical and more relatable.

Resultantly, they’re structured differently. 

With that in mind, let’s look at five elements that tie a memoir together, rendering it more enjoyable.

Biographies are histories that may not hew to a cohesive theme. But memoirs focus on inspiring and enlightening experiences and events.

As such, books in the genre promote a theme or idea that binds the highlighted happenings to an overarching reflection point or lesson.

Many people are super at sniffing out insincerity, and most folks prefer candidness.

So while exact dates and logistical facts may be off in a memoir, being raw and real with emotions, revelations, and relational impacts is vital. To put it colloquially: The best personal accounts let it all hang out. 

People prefer inspiring stories. They want to read about people overcoming obstacles, standing as testaments to the tenacious nature of the human spirit. Why?

Because it engenders hope. If this person was able to achieve “x,” there’s a possibility I could, too. Furthermore, people find it comforting that they’re not the only ones who’ve faced seemingly insurmountable impediments.

Readers crave emotion. And for many of the stoic masses, books, plays, television shows, and films are their primary sources of sentimentality.

Historically, the best-performing memoirs are built on emotional frameworks that resonate with readers. The goal is to touch hearts, not just heads.

In a not-so-small way, memoirs are like romance books: Readers want a “happy” ending. So close strongly. Ensure the finale touches on the book’s central themes and emotional highlights.

End it with a smile and note of encouragement, leaving the audience satisfied and optimistic.

Use the following questions as memoir writing exercises . Choose those that immediately evoke memories that have stayed with you over the years.

biography memoir writing

Group them by theme — family, career, beliefs, etc. — and address at least one question a day. 

For each question, write freely for around 300 to 400 words. You can always edit it later to tighten it up or add more content. 

1. What is your earliest memory?

2. What have your parents told you about your birth that was unusual?

3. How well did you get along with your siblings, if you have any?

4. Which parent were you closest to growing up and why?

5. What parent or parental figure had the biggest influence on you growing up?

6. What is your happiest childhood memory?

7. What is your saddest or most painful childhood memory?

8. Did you have good parents? How did they show their love for you?

9. What words of theirs from your childhood do you remember most, and why?

10. What do you remember most about your parents’ relationship? 

11. Were your parents together, or did they live apart? Did they get along? 

12. How has your relationship with your parents affected your own love relationships?

13. Who or what did you want to be when you grew up? 

14. What shows or movies influenced you most during your childhood?

15. What were your favorite books to read, and how did they influence you?

16. If you grew up in a religious household, how did you see “God”? 

17. How did you think “God” saw you? Who influenced those beliefs?

18. Describe your spiritual journey from adolescence to the present?

19. Who was your first best friend? How did you become friends? 

20. Who was your favorite teacher in elementary school, and why?

21. Did you fit in with any social group or clique in school? Describe your social life?

22. What were your biggest learning challenges in school (academic or social)? 

23. Who was your first crush, and what drew you to them? How long did it last?

24. What was your favorite subject in school, and what did you love about it?

25. What do you wish you would have learned more about growing up?

26. What did you learn about yourself in high school? What was your biggest mistake?

27. What seemed normal to you growing up that now strikes you as messed up?

28. How old were you when you first moved away from home?

29. Who gave you your first kiss? And what do you remember most about it?

30. Who was your first love ? What do you remember most about them?

31. Was there ever a time in your life when you realized you weren’t straight? 

32. Describe a memorable argument you had with one of your parents? How did it end?

33. Have you lost a parent? How did it happen, and how did their death affect you?

34. What was your first real job? What do you remember most about it?

35. How did you spend the money you earned with that job? 

36. At what moment in your life did you feel most loved? 

37. At what moment in your life did you feel most alone?

38. What do you remember most about your high school graduation? Did it matter?

39. What’s something you’ve done that you never thought you would do?

40. What has been the greatest challenge of your life up to this point?

41. What did you learn in college that has had a powerful influence on you?

42. How has your family’s financial situation growing up influenced you?

43. How has someone’s harsh criticism of you led you to an important realization? 

44. Do you consider yourself a “good person”? Why or why not?

45. Who was the first person who considered you worth standing up for?

46. If you have children, whom did you trust with them when they were babies?

47. Did you have pets growing up? Did you feel close or attached to any of them?

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48. Describe someone from your past whom you’d love to see again. 

49. Do you have a lost love? If yes, describe them, how you met, and how you lost them. 

50. Describe a moment when you made a fool of yourself and what it cost you. 

51. What is something you learned later in life that you wish you’d learned as a child?

52. How do you want others to see you? What words come to mind? 

53. What do you still believe now that you believed even as a child or as a teenager?

54. What do you no longer believe that you did believe as a child or teenager?

55. When have you alienated people by being vocal about your beliefs? 

56. Are you as vocal about your beliefs as you were when you were a young adult ?

57. Are you haunted by the consequences of beliefs you’ve since abandoned? 

58. How have your political beliefs changed since you were a teenager? 

59. Have you ever joined a protest for a cause you believe in? Would you still? 

60. How has technology shaped your life for the past 10 years? 

61.Has your chosen career made you happy — or cost you and your family too much?

62. What comes to mind if someone asks you what you’re good at? Why does it matter?

63. How is your family unique? What makes you proudest when you think about them?

We’ve looked at the elements that make memoirs shine. Now, let’s turn our attention to one of the most important parts of a personal account: the opening sentence.

We’ve scoured some of the most successful, moving memoirs of all time to curate a list of memorable starting sentences. Notice how all of them hint at the theme of the book.

Let’s jump in.

1. “They called him Moishe the Beadle, as if his entire life he had never had a surname.” From Night, a first-hand account of the WWII Holocaust by Elie Wiesel

2. “My mother is scraping a piece of burned toast out of the kitchen window, a crease of annoyance across her forehead.” From Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, foodie Nigel Slater’s account of culinary events that shaped his life.

3. “Then there was the bad weather.” From A Moveable Feast , Ernest Hemingway’s telling of his years as an young expat in Paris

4. “You know those plants always trying to find the light?” From Over the Top: A Raw Journey of Self-Love by Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s beloved star, Jonathan Van Ness

5. “What are you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay.” From Maya Angelou’s masterpiece, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , the story of persevering in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles

6. “I’m on Kauai, in Hawaii, today, August 5, 2005. It’s unbelievably clear and sunny, not a cloud in the sky.” From What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, a memoir about the fluidity of running and writing

7. “The soil in Leitrim is poor, in places no more than an inch deep. ” From All Will be Well , Irish writer John McGahern’s recounting of his troubled childhood 

8. “The past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time.” From Educated , Tara Westover’s engrossing account of her path from growing up in an uneducated survivalist family to earning a doctorate in intellectual history from Cambridge University 

9. “I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious.” From When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, the now-deceased doctor’s journey toward mortality after discovering he had terminal cancer

10. “Romantic love is the most important and exciting thing in the entire world.” From Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton, a funny, light-hearted memoir about one woman’s amorous journey from teenager to twentysomething

Final Thoughts

These memoir topics should get ideas flooding into your mind. All you have to do, then, is let them out onto the page. The more you write, the easier it will be to choose the primary focus for your memoir. And the more fun you’ll have writing it. 

That’s not to say it’ll be easy to create a powerful memoir. It won’t be. But the more clarity you have about its overall mission, the more easily the words will flow. 

Enjoy these memoir writing exercises. And apply the same clarity of focus during the editing process. Your readers will thank you. 

Best Memoir writing Prompts

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Writing a Memoir: How to Craft a Compelling Story

  • September 6, 2023

Table of Contents:

What is memoir, a step-by-step guide on how to write a memoir, think of ideas for a memoir:, put the reader in your place, draft titles:, make it emotive:, memoir theme:, show your progress:.

  • Revise Until You're Satisfied:

Key Characteristics and Profound Details


Writing a biography is all about learning how to tell an engaging story based on real events but in a way that grabs the reader’s attention.

You might have some great stories to tell, but with a good memoir outline and tone, you might get the memoir or writer’s life experiences outline that keeps your reader’s attention from the beginning to the end.

Have you ever tried to tell a really interesting family story, but it didn’t come out right?

It’s different than giving an interview to tell a story. Your family life, life experiences, and adventures require a good, engaging story format to get the reader’s attention for the emotional truth you’re trying to tell, but in a way that lets them understand where your strong story is coming from.

An autobiography is not the same as a memoir. In other words, it’s part of your life’s story. A memoir is a story from your life or about a part of your life.

The length and memoir outline will depend on what it’s about, but most of the time, people who want to write one have too much to say and need to cut it down. One way to do this is to make sure your themes are clear. Memoir is usually kept in check when the author knows what her main ideas are and writes each scene while keeping in mind two questions:

  • What does this scene have to do with my main point?
  • How do I want this scene to fit into the rest of my story?
  • Memoir is about making sense of your story so that others can connect to it.

Memoir is not “what happened,” because unless you are famous, what happened to you in your life is not what will draw people to the page. The topic (like escaping a traumatic event, trying to live by the rules of self-help books, or being in jail) or the theme (like addiction, parent-child relationships, repeated family patterns, or finding your own identity) draws readers in.

Most memoirs are slow to read because the author needs to try to find value in their story. A person who reads it might wonder, “What’s the point?” If there’s nothing for the reader to learn from the story, the memoir needs two key parts that make it a memoir: thought and lesson.

If you share your life story with others, make it one they will remember. Many samples of memoir outline and advice for writing your own are included on this page.

How to start a biography? Start-up is always the hardest part of anything. Check out the “I Remember” writing exercise, similar to exercises found in “Writing Prompts” .  if you haven’t decided what to write about yet. This prompt is a great way to create a list of memories. Joe inspired it

Brainard’s book I Remember. From there, pick your most intense memory and start writing your story. It’s that easy! If you want more ideas, our Facebook group is a great place to look.

Writers with a lot of power show, not tell. And if you’re writing a biography, this is important to your success because you have to let the reader see things from your point of view so she can come to her conclusions.

The best way to do this is to let your reader see the story unfold before their eyes by using descriptive language that helps them picture each scene. Mary Karr has written three diaries and a book called “The Art of Memoir.” In “The Art of Memoir,” she says you must “zip the reader into your skin.” You could also think of it as if you were carrying an old-fashioned camera on your shoulder as you took your reader through the scenes of your life. You want your reader to feel like they are with you or, even better, inside your experiences.

Your autobiography is not a book or a guide. It’s a fun book, and people expect it to be exciting. Titles should be interesting and catchy but also make sense of the story.

Most writers make a rough draft of titles at the beginning, a process detailed in “E-Book Writing and Publishing Services” .

Once they finish writing, Book Writing Services check to ensure their titles are in the best shape possible. You can start by writing rough drafts of your titles.

Don’t try to blow the minds of your readers. Take off their pants, shirt, shoes, and even their underwear. Make your readers gasp in amazement, laugh wildly, cry tears of sadness or pity, or do all three.

Take them on an emotional journey that makes them want to read the next chapter. The best way to make your readers feel these emotions is to link your feelings. So as the main character, key thoughts and takeaways about what’s happening in your story.

If you want to write a good memoir, it needs to have an interesting theme. Think about the themes that run through the stories you want to tell.

What will your readers learn from them? Most great memoirs’ tone, style, characters, and stories show how the author feels about something.

So, the memoir outline of your book stays the same from beginning to end, and your readers can feel the vibe that made them want to read it in the first place. Now, think about the idea and look into the best ways to write about it.

Find out which frameworks, ways of telling a story, and nuances of language work best with the topic you chose to write about. Write down ideas for what kind of words to use and how to tell the story in a way that fits the theme.

By the end of your memoir, you should have show how you have grown, changed, or evolved, a crucial aspect in stories about “How to Write a Self-Help Book” .

Any events you talk about in your book will be more meaningful if you show how they affected you and how you grew and changed because of what you went through or survived. How has what you’ve been through altered the way you think about life? Change how you feel about other people or yourself. Help you in some way to get better or smarter?

It needs you to know things your character might not have known when they were the same age as you. That is why learning to mix in thoughts that don’t break the fictional dream is so important.

Revise Until You’re Satisfied:

Every good piece of writing is the result of many rounds of editing. Depending on what kind of writer you are and how you describe a “draft,” you may need three, seven, or even ten changes. There is no “magic number” of drafts you should aim for, so go with your gut.

You’ve wanted to write a biography for a long time, and resources like “Book Publishing Services” can help. and now is the time to do it. Now that you have a clear memoir outline plan, you can focus on how the reader will experience your story as you find the best ways to tell it. As you write, imagine that you are telling the story to a stranger for the first time. It is a good way to visualize how your reader will respond.

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Guides • Perfecting your Craft

Last updated on Apr 27, 2023

How to Outline a Memoir in 6 Steps (with Template)

Memoirists are often daunted by the task of translating memories into a captivating narrative. Even with a clear understanding of your memoir's central themes and the stories you want to share, it can be challenging to weave them together seamlessly. 

In this article, we’ll share 6 steps to organize your memories into a compelling narrative, along with a free template to help you plot your personal story. 

How to outline a memoir: 

1. Order your stories chronologically

2. pick a fitting story structure, 3. hook the reader from the start, 4. lay out your goals and desires, 5. describe how you dealt with challenges, 6. end by showing how you’ve changed.



Memoir Outline Template

Craft a memorable memoir with our step-by-step template.

If you’ve worked through our article on how to write a memoir , you should already have a hand-picked selection of powerful memories. The challenge now is to piece them together, with each memory serving as a crucial puzzle piece in an overarching narrative. 

A popular first step is to arrange your stories in chronological order. You could do this on a whiteboard, a notebook, or within your writing software of choice. For example, the Reedsy Book Editor offers an outlining board where you can create notes for your stories, then drag and drop them around.

Screengrab of Reedsy's Book Editor Outlining features

With this bird’s-eye view, it becomes easier to spot patterns and understand what fundamentally connects your stories together, helping you find a suitable structure for your memoir. 

👻 Want to collaborate with a master storyteller to bring your memoir to life? Hire a ghostwriter! They'll handle everything in the background, but your name will be the one on the cover.



Find a ghost you can trust

Your mission? A fantastic book. Find the perfect writer to complete it on Reedsy.

Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said that every story “has a beginning, a middle, and an end — not necessarily in that order.” When it comes to telling your own story, there isn’t a single way to structure them 一 you'll have to figure out what will have the greatest impact. To help you along, look at some of the most common memoir structures authors use. Three, in particular, stand out: 

Chronological. For memoirs that cover a specific time period or event of the author’s life and have a clear, chronological timeline (e.g. defeating cancer, or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.) For example, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air recounts the 1996 Mount Everest disaster by chronicling the ascent, summit, and descent of the mountain.

Before/After. For memoirs that revolve around a particular event so central to the story that it makes sense to organize the book in a Before/After format, where the narration keeps cutting before and after that event occurred (e.g. being sentenced to jail, or surviving a hurricane). In Lee Lawrence's The Louder I Will Sing , the author describes his life before and after his mother was wrongly shot by police during a raid on their home, using the contrast to describe the two strikingly different realities he experienced.

Theme-based. For memoirs that aren't linked together by a specific timeframe, but rather a common theme, with each story offering a unique perspective into the author's life, yet all coalescing around a central theme. A good example is Trevor Noah's memoir Born a Crime, which explores his experiences as a mixed-race child growing up in Apartheid South Africa. Noah shares a range of poignant and often humorous stories, from going to Church with his mum to selling CDs to his first date, which all grapple with the book’s central themes of resilience and identity.

When outlining your own memoir, play around with your story notes and see if you can arrange them in a unique way that emphasizes your central message or story arc. If you find this especially challenging, don’t despair. You can always collaborate with a book coach 一 they’ll help you make sense of your tales and neatly organize them into a powerful narrative. 



Meet writing coaches on Reedsy

Industry insiders can help you hone your craft, finish your draft, and get published.

But in the end, the old ways are often the best — and most stories are best suited to having a distinguishable beginning, middle, and end. Most often, the strongest outline is one that follows a chronological, novel-like structure. To that end, we’ve created a free downloadable template that will help you deconstruct your memoir scene by scene and synthesize an overarching narrative.

Let’s dive deeper into your memoir outline and see that your story hits all the right chords. 

It’s never a bad idea to start your memoir with a moment of high emotion. When deciding whether your book is worth reading, readers will skim through the opening passages , either in-store or with Amazon’s Look Inside feature. If the first few pages don’t grab them, they won’t buy it. To engage readers from the get-go, open with a powerful moment from the middle or even the end of your story .  

For example, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild (which we’ll reference throughout the rest of this post) doesn’t start with her mother’s death, failing marriage, or struggle with drugs. Instead, it begins on day 38 of her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) when Strayed accidentally drops one of her hiking shoes off a cliff. It’s a moment of profound helplessness and loneliness, evoking feelings she’s been grappling with since her mother died, ones that she hopes to overcome on her journey.  

Actress Reese Whiterspoon screaming from the top of her lungs in Wild

Strayed hooks her reader right from the prologue . She knows they’ve picked up her book on the promise that they’ll get stories of hiking through the wilderness, and she delivers on it instantly, instead of spending the first 100 pages detailing her mundane ‘normal’ life.

This kind of in medias res opening is an effective way for memoirists to engage the reader right away, and leave them wanting to know more before providing background information and developing the story. 

Once you’ve figured out your hook, it’s time to lay the foundation for your narrative. If you’re following the classic Three-Act story structure , this would be your Act One.



How to Plot a Novel in Three Acts

In 10 days, learn how to plot a novel that keeps readers hooked

Some of the story elements you may want to include in the first part of your memoir are: 


As the main character, you’ll have to provide some background information about yourself (as long as it’s relevant to your memoir’s main focus.) You’ll want to paint a picture of who you were before the story starts, so that readers can follow along as you evolve through it. 

In Wild , Cheryl vividly portrays the profound bond she shared with her mother, and how her death set her on a destructive path of substance abuse and infidelity.

Character Cheryl Strayed and her mother on the horse in the movie Wild

If your memoir is about joining the Navy Seals, this is the part where you share your ordinary life before military training. If it’s about grieving for your late husband, your exposition might detail how you fell in love with each other, and what made your relationship special. 

An Inciting Incident 

In most cases, you’ll be able to identify a defining moment that set your story in motion, and propelled you on a transformational journey. It’s the moment you fully decide to get out of your comfort zone to achieve your goals and desires. 

Cheryl's turning point in Wild comes after she hits rock bottom in the wake of an unwanted pregnancy. Browsing through a store, she impulsively purchases a guidebook for the PCT, thinking that the trail may help her “walk herself back to the woman she once was.”  

The inciting moment when Cheryl Strayed finds the Pacific Coast Trail guidebook

Of course, not all true life stories start with an earth-shaking epiphany or a serendipitous meeting. Maybe your decision to run an Ironman in your 40s was something that was brewing over a number of years, but try to think of a moment of high emotion that contributed to that choice. Was it the day you were fired from your job, or the time when a kid on the street called you 'old'? This moment could very well be your inciting incident. 

Introduction of Main Theme

As your story develops, make sure that your personal objectives are tied to a larger, universal theme that can resonate with your readers. In Cheryl's story, her primary goal is to hike the PCT, but on a deeper level, her quest touches on the themes of redemption and self-discovery. As she writes in the first pages of the book:

“It was a world [the trail] I’d never been to and yet had known was there all along, one I’d staggered to in sorrow and confusion and fear and hope. A world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me into the girl I’d once been.”

Think about what your memoir's theme really is (e.g. parenting, mental health, social inequality) and spotlight it from the very beginning.

Now that your story is truly in motion, with backstory, an inciting incident, and thematic heft, it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty. 

The second act of your memoir is often the trickiest. This is the section where you will usually deliver on the ‘ promise of the premise ’: if your book is about becoming an astronaut, this is the part where you’ll undergo training and plan for your mission. If you’re writing a memoir about hiking the wilderness, you better be in the woods by the start of the second act.

The tough part comes with making sure that you’re building momentum, increasing the stakes, and not just telling anecdotes that don’t contribute to the bigger picture. For this reason, a memoir’s second act usually sees your hero (you!) responding to bigger and bigger obstacles. 

Here are a few key plot points to consider to keep your narration strong: 

Rising Action

During this part of the story, you usually face external and internal challenges in order to achieve your goal. The key to maintaining credibility is to share both your failures and successes, moments of both fear and courage. 

On her first sleepless night camping on the trail, Cheryl is terrified of animal sounds. But as she grows more confident each day, she starts to join in with their howls. Despite her undersized boots, her heavy backpack, and her lack of camping experience, she manages to walk 100 miles through the Mojave Desert and reach the first campground. She also learns to trust strangers and ask for help, especially when it comes to letting go of some of her unnecessary baggage.

Cheryl camping in the woods in the movie Wild

The rising action in your story may be less adventurous than in a travel memoir. If your topic is recovering from addiction, for example, it may include getting into arguments at Alcoholics Anonymous, before developing an uneasy friendship with your sponsor and growing more confident in your ability to get better. 

This is a turning point in your story, like a crisis, triumph, or simply a realization, that pivots your journey in a new direction. Usually, it’s a moment that carries significant emotional weight and sets the stage for the climax to come. 

Despite her growing confidence, Cheryl is forced to reckon with her emotions. This is when she loses her boots and feels helpless, used as the story hook. This time though, we get to see how she reacts: she reinforces her sandals with duct tape and keeps marching forward, with ever more strength and determination.   

Dig around your memories and try to identify that path-altering, highly emotional moment 一 it may be your midpoint. In a memoir chronicling the journey of building a successful startup, the midpoint may be a promising call from angel investors, willing to pour some money into your idea. It’s the moment when things turn around. 

It’s time to outline the final act of your memoir to end on a strong note and with a powerful message.

The Third Act is where the main conflict of your story is finally resolved, so the stakes and tension should be at their highest. Some of the key plot points to outline in this last section are: 

This is where you introduce your greatest challenge for the final act of your manuscript. It often involves a series of events that further escalate the conflict and heighten the anticipation for the ultimate resolution. 

In Wild , Cheryl deals with debilitating thirst, dodgy hunters, and a heavy storm, but more importantly, she revisits some of her most painful memories, from the abuses of her alcoholic father, to the heart-wrenching task of putting down her mother's cherished horse after her passing.

Cheryl crying and reckoning with her emotions in Wild

In your memoir, this is the moment before the end of your story that threatens to dash your dreams once and for all. It may be the moment when a global pandemic hits, countries close borders, and flights to Vanuatu are suspended, threatening your quest to visit every single country in a year.  

This is the point where the central conflict or challenge of your memoir comes to a head. It’s the culmination of everything you've built up to, and it should feel like a defining moment in your life. For Cheryl, it’s finally reaching the Bridge of the Gods and completing the PCT after a three-month-long hike. In your story, it may be the moment you complete an Ironman, sell your successful startup, or finally land in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu.  

Resolution/Thematic Wrap-Up

The resolution is an opportunity for you to show the results of your journey and how you’ve changed as a result of it. Here you can again address the central theme of the book, sharing the lessons you’ve learned and how your perspective has changed over time. 

For Cheryl, it’s all about redeeming her turbulent past 一 from cheating to heroine 一 owning up to it, and rediscovering that inner strength and beauty she had lost touch with. In your memoir, this is the time to reflect on what you learned from overcoming addiction or running a race, and muse on how you have been able to move forward since.

Close up of Cheryl at the end of the movie Wild

Aaand scene! It's important to keep in mind that every memoir is unique and may require a distinctive structure, but we hope that our suggestions and template will provide you with a solid foundation to write with more clarity and get that memoir published.

Also, remember that writing a book is a marathon. After outlining, writing, and publishing your memoir, you'll have to publish it! Proceed onto our post teaching you how to publish a memoir and rest assured that you have a solid roadmap in front of you.

Evelyn Sinclair says:

04/03/2018 – 21:17

I've read a lot of the Reedsy information about memoirs, finding it all very helpful and I'm around 20,000 words in. Recently I'm struggling over how to bring it to an interesting end, and whether I can reach the length of a novel.

Comments are currently closed.

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127 Best Memoir Writing Prompts You’ll Love

Memoir writing requires dedication and talent to describe critical points of your life. See our memoir writing prompts to inspire you to make your own.

So you finally decided to put your life on paper. Writing a memoir and sharing it with others is a great way to immortalize your achievements, failures, and lessons. 

However, you might find it hard to decide which areas of your life to focus on. Because a memoir requires themed occurrences, you can’t make it a compilation of narratives from the moment you were born. As memoir coach Marion Roach Smith told us in a podcast interview , your memoir must be honest and also impart something valuable to readers. 

How To Use These Memoir Writing Prompts

The process, memoir writing prompts, what are good topics for a memoir.

How to use these memoir writing prompts?

Memoir writing is personal. It involves sensitive information such as personal and family history. So, be careful to only pick highlights in your life that you are comfortable sharing. At the same time, these key events should be those you think your readers will find interesting.  

Memoirs don’t need to be chronological, nor should they read like an autobiography. These non-fiction pieces don’t need to include everything in your life. Memoirs can center on one colossal event and are primarily created to share lessons that inspire and encourage. Use the prompts below to get an idea of what to include in your memoir.

We’ve written extensively about writing prompts before. Here, you can read through our list of prompts and choose those closest to your experiences for a memoir. Pick as many as you want. Then, evaluate which ones you find most relatable. Continue this process of elimination until you have a foundation of what you want to include in your memoir.

  • What’s the story behind your name?
  • Talk about your first love. It can be a person, a thing, or a feeling. 
  • Identify your proudest moments. Give details on how you felt during those times.
  • What would you say to your older or younger self if you had the chance?
  • If you can delete a memory, what will it be? Why?
  • Recall a time when you’ve been in an accident.
  • What’s your earliest memory?
  • Talk about the worst day of your life.
  • Narrate an event you feel already happened, like a deja vu.
  • Describe your childhood room in detail.
  • Detail a situation when you feel betrayed. What did you do, and how did you handle it?
  • If you have traumas or illnesses, share how you got them and discuss your recovery story.
  • What were you afraid of when you were a child, and why? Are you still scared of it today?
  • Talk about an occasion when you were terrified to do something but still did it.
  • How did your first date go? What’s your ideal first date?
  • List three ways people always describe you. Why do you think they describe you as such?
  • Identify your worst insecurity and why you got it. What are the steps you’re taking to overcome it?
  • Write about winning something.
  • Talk about your first heartbreak. It can be about a past lover or a failed endeavor.
  • Who’s your favorite teacher? Why?
  • What’s your worst fear?
  • Describe the most beautiful art you’ve seen.
  • What are your quirks?
  • What are you most grateful for today? Why?
  • Have you ever had a spiritual or religious experience? Expound on it.
  • What are your most valuable possessions? Why?
  • List three of your worst phobias. Share your worst experience concerning these fears.
  • Talk about your hobbies and how you got them. If you have a hobby from childhood that you carried to your adult life, what are they?
  • Talk about the most memorable holiday you’ve had.
  • Share an experience where you feel the most embarrassed.
  • Recall a time when you met a terminally ill person. How did their life philosophy affect you?
  • What’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made? What did you do to mitigate or correct it?
  • Talk about any experience you have with the supernatural.
  • Talk about an unforgettable memory you had with your mom or dad.
  • Recount your experiences growing up with strict or devout parents.
  • Describe your worst physical pain and share the story behind it.
  • Describe your relationship with your siblings.
  • Recall a time when you had a meltdown. What were the events that led up to it?
  • Talk about the funniest incident you’ve witnessed.
  • Talk about a time when you were dirt poor – no money, no friends, and no motivation.
  • List five of your all-time favorite songs. What memories do you connect to these songs?
  • Talk about your first job. How did it go, and what did you learn from it?
  • Narrate how your graduation went. Include what you felt and who you celebrated it with you.
  • Describe the most beautiful wedding you’ve attended.
  • Talk about when your experiences with racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination.
  • Is there a period when you feel lost? Share what you felt and how you overcame it.
  • What’s the first school memory you can recall?
  • Talk about the time when you hated yourself the most.
  • Recount a time in your life that you consider a fresh start. Compare the person you were before and after this new beginning.
  • Talk about the happiest day of your life.
  • What’s the most shocking event you’ve experienced?
  • What part of schooling did you hate the most?
  • Talk about the origin of a lie you still present as truth today.
  • What is your dream job? Recount your experiences during the period when you strived to get that dream job.
  • Walk around your house and look for items that trigger your consciousness. Relay the memories connected to these items.
  • Recount the story of your birth. How did your parents or guardian describe it?
  • Think back to a time when you had to make an important decision. What did you pick, and how do you feel about it today?
  • Talk about your greatest regret.
  • Narrate an encounter where you were stereotyped based on your gender.
  • What skill are you most proud of, and how did you develop it?
  • Talk about your favorite childhood toy and share a prominent memory of it.
  • Is there a family secret you wish you didn’t know? What is it, and why?
  • If you’re a part of the LGBTQ+ community, share your journey to discovering and understanding your sexuality.
  • Look back to your past expectations of yourself. How different are they from your current goals?
  • If you have an experience with a grave disease, share your life before and after your diagnosis.
  • Recount your experiences and lessons as a first-time parent.
  • If you’re a war veteran, narrate your first-hand experiences during your service.
  • Speak about the meaningful experiences you’ve had in your job or career. 
  • Talk about a time when you had to break the law to survive.
  • Recall a time when you were pushed to be the leader of a group or a project. How did it go?
  • Pick the largest scar on your body and share how you got it.
  • Talk about something you’ve gone through that you pretend never happened. Include how you finally faced and pulled through this tribulation.
  • If you have any tattoos, talk about their meaning/s.
  • Describe the moment you realized you’ve matured or grown up.
  • Describe what you expect your retirement to be like.
  • Talk about a book you deeply feel connected to.
  • Talk about your favorite photo of yourself and the story behind it.
  • Recount the day when you got your first car.
  • What did it feel like when you moved out of your family home?
  • Describe your childhood home and pick your favorite areas. Explain why.
  • Recall an incident when your feelings were hurt the most.
  • Talk about an experience that made you believe in extraterrestrial life.
  • What vegetable do you hate the most? Share a memory of when you realized you hate that food.
  • If you’ve had a poor relationship with food, share your struggles with eating, weight, and self-concept.
  • What do you do when you feel sad? How do you lift your mood?
  • Talk about how you met the best people you know today.
  • Do you have unique family traditions? What are they, and what do you feel about them?
  • Tell the story of how you met your current partner.
  • Talk about your different friend groups. What memories of them do you like the most?
  • Describe your parents’ dynamic. How did their relationship affect your perception of love and marriage?
  • Recount the most intense argument you’ve had with someone close to you. Include why the fight happened and how you solved it.
  • Identify your greatest personal challenge so far and elaborate on it.
  • Talk about a time when your family prepared for a death of a loved one.
  • Recount the period after losing a loved one. Talk about your grief, mourning, and how you coped with the death.
  • Talk about how you started and achieved success in your field. Add tips to help aspiring beginners of the craft.
  • If you’re from a broken marriage, share how the separation affected you growing up. Include your struggles with your identity, self-respect, etc. 
  • Talk about a time when you were falsely accused of something.
  • Have you ever joined an organization? Share your most memorable experience with the group.
  • Share your experience with a natural calamity, such as an earthquake or a hurricane.
  • Talk about the first year of your marriage to your current partner. Include your realizations, compromises, and adjustments.
  • Discuss a relationship you’ve been in that made you a better person. For example, you can speak about a toxic or a healing relationship.
  • Talk about a rare habit one of your friends or relatives has that you find amusing.
  • Talk about a major change you had to go through in your life. How did you cope with it, and what did you learn?
  • Speak about a time when you were addicted to something.
  • Talk about a time you felt the closest to your mother or father.
  • Recount an incident that pushed you to cut ties with someone special to you.
  • Narrate the story of how a grandparent imparted a vital life lesson to you.
  • Talk about your celebrity idols and how they influenced your life.
  • Talk about your best friend and how the two of you became close.
  • Did you have a school bully? Recall the worst thing they did and how their actions impacted your school life.
  • Talk about a family feud. How did it start, and how did the dispute affect you?
  • Discuss a life-or-death situation you’ve been in. How dangerous was it, and how did you survive it?
  • Talk about your best traveling experience that changed your perception of life.
  • Talk about a time when you feel powerful or unstoppable.
  • Write about a bizarre encounter you’ve experienced.
  • Talk about your political beliefs and why you support these beliefs.
  • Write about a time when you felt a place is hunted. Share the details of your trip.
  • Try to describe your hometown in vivid detail. What’s one thing you remember the most about your hometown?
  • Write about a historical event that greatly affected your life. What is it, and how did it change your everyday living?
  • Pick one memory you strongly associate with each: spring, summer, autumn, and winter.
  • Think of a time when you had to choose between two good things. For example, love or career, then talk about your experience.
  • Recall the most memorable adventure you’ve had. 
  • Talk about an instance when you saved someone. 
  • Talk about your experience when you moved to another country.
  • Talk about the time when you met your childhood hero.
  • Recount what happened when you had your first child.
  • Think of your first major loss. Explain what it’s about

Childhood Memories : Remember when you climbed that giant oak tree in your backyard or had your first heartbreak in middle school? Your early years are a goldmine of raw, evocative memories. Delve deep, and you might be surprised at the rich tales you can tell. If it helps, read old journal entries .

Overcoming Adversities : Have you ever faced a daunting challenge? Perhaps you battled an illness or overcame financial hardship. These experiences shape who you are and resonate with readers who seek inspiration and hope in the face of their own struggles.

Travel Adventures : That backpacking trip across Europe, or the time you got lost in a bustling market in Bangkok? Travel stories transport readers to a different world, filled with sights, sounds, and cultural nuances.

Relationship Dynamics : Love, friendships, and even the intricacies of family dynamics can make for poignant memoir material. Dive into the beauty, the pain, and the lessons learned from the people who’ve come in and out of your life.

Professional Life : If you’ve built a unique career or made significant shifts in your profession, these experiences might intrigue those looking to understand the ins and outs of a particular field or those seeking motivation to change their own career paths, like a writing job .

Personal Transformations : Did you embark on a journey of self-discovery, perhaps through spirituality, weight loss, or even a simple hobby that grew into a passion? Sharing such personal evolutions can be deeply moving.

Historical or Cultural Insights : If you’ve lived through significant historical events or come from a rich cultural background, offer readers a window into that world. Paint them a picture of a time or place they might never personally experience.

Life in the Shadows : Maybe you’ve had experiences on the fringes of society or in lesser-known subcultures, for example triathlon training. Shedding light on these areas can be both enlightening and captivating.

Educational Pursuits : Remember when you returned to school or pursued an unconventional educational path? There’s always someone out there wondering if it’s too late or if they’re on the right path.

Mundane Magic : Sometimes, the simple, everyday moments hold the most beauty. The smell of your grandmother’s kitchen, the laughter shared over a family dinner, or the quiet moments alone with your thoughts. Celebrate the ordinary; it often holds extraordinary stories.

If you’re still stuck, get the best memoir-writing apps to assist you.

biography memoir writing

Maria Caballero is a freelance writer who has been writing since high school. She believes that to be a writer doesn't only refer to excellent syntax and semantics but also knowing how to weave words together to communicate to any reader effectively.

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Creative Writing News

How To Write An Autobiography, A Biography and Memoir.

Every writer will, at some point, be presented with the opportunity to write creative non-fiction. in this article, the prolific biographer. mike ekunno, teaches us how to write an autobiography, biography, and memoir. ready to learn from this maestro keep reading..

To understand how to write an autobiography, you must consider how a biography differs from an autobiography. 

A biography is the story of one’s life which when written by the subject becomes an autobiography. A memoir is also a biography or autobiography but concerned more with the subject’s career and public life. Understanding these terminologies will help you on your journey to learning how to write an autobiography.

While late Owelle Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe’s My Odyssey is a good example of an autobiography, Malam Nasir el-Rufai’s The Accidental Public Servant is a memoir. Michelle Obama’s Becoming is another good example of a memoir. 

Autobiographies and memoirs are often written with the assistance of professional freelancers. By prior mutual agreement, this fact can be hidden. When anonymous, the paid author or co-author becomes the ghostwriter . He/she is paid off and loses all future claims to authorship or co-authorship of the work.

A Detailed Guide On How To Write An Autobiography.

At this point, you’ve probably ascertained that there isn’t much of a difference in the process of writing an autobiography and a biography.

Below is a step-by-step guide for writing that award-winning autobiography or biography.

Draw Up The Outline For Your Autobiography Or Biography.

Generating an outline is like drawing the building plan for a construction project. As with building construction, the outline is of existential consequence for the biography or autobiography project.

 In the classical biography, the outline follows a chronological order beginning with family genealogy, birth, childhood, education, career, and so on. 

biography memoir writing

But with a memoir, the outline is episodic dwelling on the milestones in the subject’s career path and public life. The freelancer must work with the subject-client to tease out a workable outline. 

Since the chapters of the resultant book will mimic the outline, a grouping of topics in the outline is to be done with an eye for coevality and volume. By coevality, I mean those events that occurred around the same period of time. 

These should naturally be grouped together. However, the chances of overlap of references to the same event are always there. And this shouldn’t be a worry at the outline stage.

How To Group Your Headings and Sub-Headings.

While grouping the headings and sub-heads, the writer should be sensitive about achieving approximate uniformity in the volume of each chapter. This is to forestall a scenario where one chapter is five pages long, while the other is twenty-five pages long.

The autobiographer or biographer has a duty at this stage to tease out as wide a range of events and occurrences as possible. This should include their ramifications done by asking the kind of searching questions that will help the subject clarify fuzzy connections. 

In other words, this is not the time for minimalism . Rather, it is the time to be expansive.  Understand that the outline will form the compass for the project. Just as architects take one section of the project and blow it up for details in the plan, the biographer also has to explore the detours and subheads to the main headings and events.

Embarking On Background Research For Your Autobiography, Biography, and Memoir.

In the run-up to beginning the biography or autobiography and having drawn up the outline, one should prepare oneself with background research. This step is important for autobiographers, biographers, and memoirists. 

Many writers wonder how to find materials for their autobiographies and biography projects. If you’re such a writer, you should consider exploring the most popular sources of research materials. 

How to conduct research for your autobiography or biography.

Sources of background research can be divided into: 

How To Use Written Sources During Your Background Research.

Written sources include files and diaries relating to the period under consideration. Also, newspaper cuttings if the issues involved were captured in the media. There would probably be pictures and other graphic records. 

As social media becomes a prominent part of our lives, future biographers may also have recourse to social media archives. Clients who had public service careers should be mindful of the Official Secrets Act. Also, be well advised on excerpting official documents.

The oral sources would include relations and workplace colleagues of the subject. However, these sources needn’t be approached at the onset until the outline progresses and these sources’ perspectives become relevant. 

The ethics of the business demands that the freelancer must obtain the client’s fiat before speaking with these third-party sources. In the sub-genre known as unauthorized biography however, the freelancer operates more like a sleuth to unearth what may not be favorable to the subject which makes the requirement for the subject’s prior approval unnecessary. 

One of such unauthorized biographies happened by serendipity in Nigeria in relation to a man of letters who fell out with his biographer. Interesting right?

The Quest for Volume and Why It Should Matter To The Writer.

During the outlining and research phase, think about the volume of the project. The volume will determine how successful you’ll be in your quest to figure out how to write an autobiography or a biography.

Most biography-writing projects are faced with a mortal threat in the quest for a sizeable volume for the resulting publication. This is caused by the subject-client overestimating the quantum of the story he/she has got.

Also, the volume is often a source of worry to many writers who are in the process of figuring out how to compose an autobiography or biography.

The perfect volume for your autobiography or biography

Many prospects for autobiographies think because the story of their life appears huge to them, it can actually make a good volume in book form. For others, it is a question of not having the ability of a raconteur to tell their story in a compelling way. 

One client of mine ended up with essay-type print-outs of her life’s story which were useless to me. I had to subject her to a re-telling of the narrative in order to give it flesh as a story.

Many who think of their story as vast start off well, but end up with something very scanty. This is where the professional freelance biographer comes in to help achieve your dream of writing a biography.

Again, many biography prospects do involuntary self-censorship of their stories or adopt a minimalist approach believing the reader would not be interested in the details. 

It is the duty of the professional biographer to tease out these details glossed over by the subject during recorded interviews with follow-up questions.

If you’re experimenting with styles and ways to write an autobiography, you can adopt the strategies of professional biographers. Put in a lot of details.  It is better to over-write and cut than under-write and look for augmentation. 

Handling The Interview Session.

For a freelance biographer whether writing overtly or ghostwriting, the interview sessions with the subject are of utmost importance. The freelancer should pre-arrange each session in consultation with the subject-client and agree as to venue and time. 

Over time, all parties will come to know what works best for them as to durations, venues, and times. Many biography prospects are senior citizens and would be managed as such. 

I remember having to pre-order one such client’s favorite wine to be at the ready at our rendezvous. With a glass of this drink, he came alive in his best narrative elements and began to ‘sing.’

More tips on having a successful interview session.

  • The freelancer should come to each interview session prepared with extra batteries for the voice recorder and a clear idea of where the day’s session stood on the outline. 
  • Also, there should be a way of identifying the voice files with alphanumeric codes in the transcription file in order to be able to access the right voice file at the right time knowing the approximate time count of anything needed on playback. 
  • Files that have been transcribed and vetted by the subject should be deleted to free up space in the recorder. 

In working as a freelance biographer, progress comes incrementally. It comes through many continual cycles of the interview – transcription – vetting – final drafting – vetting until the work is complete.

Cycle of the Process of How To Write An Autobiography


Narrating one’s life story can be an emotional rollercoaster and freelance biographers should come loaded with a good swathe of emotional intelligence to manage their clients. 

The major part of managing clients comes in their tardiness with timelines. He is expected to vet and approve a transcribed section in one week but he has not got back to you after one month.

How To Get Payment For The Writing Project.

Except the writer has achieved name recognition in the trade of biographing, there’s always the prospect of being regarded with suspicion by most clients. One way to assuage this suspicion is to agree to a Pay-As-You-Go arrangement. 

This aspect might come in handy for anyone who’s in the process of figuring out how to write an autobiography. Chances are that you might want to employ the services of a professional biographer.

In a Pay-As-You-Go arrangement. the client pays on a pro-rata basis as the manuscript progresses according to the outline. (This is another raison d’etre for the outline). If the project does not go to full term and gets aborted midway, neither party would feel short-changed.

When the full manuscript is ready, a professional book editor should be engaged to edit it. This goes beyond spellings and typos and nothing can fully capture all the ways in which a good editor can improve a literary piece.

 Sections of the story with legal implications should be shown to a lawyer. An experienced lawyer will do a good job of vetting your book for possible libel. It is the duty of a good freelancer to not presume to be a Jack of all Trade in these matters. It is wise to advise the client as a fiducial power.

Talking of the fiduciary relationship between the client and freelancer on a biography project – this cannot be overstated. The implication of this for the freelancer is that all information received in the process should be treated as privileged and of confidential nature. 

A contractual agreement should be endorsed by both parties at the beginning with provision for arbitration if things don’t go well.

How To Get Payments When Writing An Autobiography

Backing Up Files For The Book And Why It Matters When Learning How To Write An Autobiography. .

Backing up files is of acute importance in writing a biography. The freelance should use the client as a veritable back-up resource, in so far as the relevant section of the manuscript has been paid for. 

No writer should depend solely on their digital devices for back-up of sensitive work. Always use email to send your drafts. Emails provide an unwitting but reliable back-up in the event of any system crash or loss. 

What’s The Purpose Of An Autobiography or A Biography?

One of the first things the subject-client must determine is the goal of the proposed memoir, biography, or autobiography. Reviewing the goal of the project will help you determine if you really should go through the long haul of learning how to write an autobiography or a biography.

People embark on writing autobiographies for different reasons including:

  • financial gains 
  • setting the records straight 
  • leaving a legacy for posterity. 

Most memoirs from past public officers are written for posterity and to court the favorable judgment of history. However, past American presidents and entertainment industry celebrities write for financial gains also. 

The more common thing is to find a combination of these goals undergirding one’s excuse for penning an autobiography, biography, or memoir. In Nigeria, if one hasn’t lived in the public space, one has no business writing an autobiography or expecting any commercial success from the publication. 

Also, any expectation of massive financial returns has to be highly moderated except one were ready for an elaborate launch at the book presentation.

biography memoir writing

Wrap Up On How To Write An Autobiography, Biography or Memoir.

Writing a book is not an easy feat. You have to plan, strategize, and give a lot of thought to the literary elements at your disposal. While drawing up your outline and unearthing background information, take note of subtexts, themes, and plotlines that you can play up.  

Don’t overestimate or underestimate the volume of the material. To do this is to risk boxing yourself into a corner. Remember, it is better to overwrite than to underwrite.

Have you written an autobiography, biography, or memoir? Let us know in the comments section. Your experience might help those who are learning how to pen down an autobiography, memoir, or biography.

Mike Ekunno On How To Write An Autobiography

His career path has passed through film, television, radio and newspaper. He was Senior Speechwriter to late Prof Dora Akunyili as Information and Communications Minister and Special Assistant to DG of Radio Nigeria. His children’s book, Cowboy Lamido , is on the approved text for schools in the FCT and across the states.

Interested in writing for Creative Writing News ? Our submission guidelines are on the Write for Us page . We look forward to hearing from you.

Photo credit: Stephen Phillips – Hostreviews.co.uk on Unsplash

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Ohita Afeisume

Jun 27, 2020 at 5:14 pm

Thanks, Mike for this enlightening post. I am interested in writing about sections of my life, for instance, my childhood, education and marriage all in separate books. As I am no celebrity yet, don’t you think writing memoirs about snapshots of my life is the way to go?

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Jun 28, 2020 at 12:42 pm

Thanks for your interest. It all depends on what you want to achieve. Everybody can put down their life stories but you have to be a celebrity or public figure to expect commercial success from the venture. Again, when you talk of ‘in separate books’ how’re you gonna handle that seeing what we said about the quest for volume? But please don’t give up on documenting your life – celebrity or not.

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The New York Times

Books | the 50 best memoirs of the past 50 years, the 50 best memoirs of the past 50 years.


The New York Times’s book critics select the most outstanding memoirs published since 1969.

Click the star icon to create and share your own list of favorites or books to read.

Fierce Attachments

Vivian gornick, farrar, straus & giroux, 1987.

“I remember only the women,” Vivian Gornick writes near the start of her memoir of growing up in the Bronx tenements in the 1940s, surrounded by the blunt, brawling, yearning women of the neighborhood, chief among them her indomitable mother. “I absorbed them as I would chloroform on a cloth laid against my face. It has taken me 30 years to understand how much of them I understood.”

When Gornick’s father died suddenly, she looked in the coffin for so long that she had to be pulled away. That fearlessness suffuses this book; she stares unflinchingly at all that is hidden, difficult, strange, unresolvable in herself and others — at loneliness, sexual malice and the devouring, claustral closeness of mothers and daughters. The book is propelled by Gornick’s attempts to extricate herself from the stifling sorrow of her home — first through sex and marriage, but later, and more reliably, through the life of the mind, the “glamorous company” of ideas. It’s a portrait of the artist as she finds a language — original, allergic to euphemism and therapeutic banalities — worthy of the women that raised her. — Parul Sehgal

I love this book — even during those moments when I want to scream at Gornick, which are the times when she becomes the hypercritical, constantly disappointed woman that her mother, through her words and example, taught the author to be. There’s a clarity to this memoir that’s so brilliant it's unsettling; Gornick finds a measure of freedom in her writing and her feminist activism, but even then, she and her mother can never let each other go. —  Jennifer Szalai

Gornick’s language is so fresh and so blunt; it’s a quintessentially American voice, and a beautiful one. The confidence of her tone in “Fierce Attachments” reminds me of the Saul Bellow who wrote, in the opening lines of “The Adventures of Augie March,” “I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.” — Dwight Garner

Buy this book

biography memoir writing

The Woman Warrior

Maxine hong kingston, alfred a. knopf, 1976.

This book is more than four decades old, but I can’t think of another memoir quite like it that has been published since. True stories, ghost stories, “talk stories” — Maxine Hong Kingston whirs them all together to produce something wild and astonishing that still asserts itself with a ruthless precision.

The American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, Kingston navigates a bewildering journey between worlds, each one stifling yet perforated by inconsistencies. There’s the Chinese village of Kingston’s ancestors, where girls learn the song of the warrior woman while being told they are destined to become a wife and a slave. There’s the postwar California of her childhood, where she has to unlearn the “strong and bossy” voices of the Chinese women in her family in favor of an “American-feminine” whisper. There’s Mao’s revolution, which is supposed to upend the old feudal system that kept her female ancestors trapped in servitude (if they weren’t victims of infanticides as unwanted baby girls) but also imposes its own deadly cruelty, preventing her parents from returning home.

The narrative undulates, shifting between ghost world, real world and family lore. It can be deadpan and funny, too. The young Kingston resolves to become a lumberjack and a newspaper reporter. Both worthy ambitions, but I’m thankful she wrote this indelible memoir instead. — Jennifer Szalai

Alison Bechdel

Houghton mifflin harcourt, 2006.

Alison Bechdel’s beloved graphic novel is an elaborately layered account of life and artifice, family silence and revelation, springing from her father’s suicide. He was a distant man who devoted himself to the refurbishment of his sprawling Victorian home — and to a hidden erotic life involving young men. The title comes from the abbreviation of the family business — a funeral home — but it also refers to the dual funhouse portrait of father and daughter, of the author’s own queerness.

It’s a sexual and intellectual coming-of-age story that swims along literary lines, honoring the books that nourished Bechdel and her parents and seemed to speak for them: Kate Millet, Proust, Oscar Wilde, theory, poetry and literature. “Fun Home” joins that lineage, an original, mournful, intricate work of art. — Parul Sehgal

The Liars’ Club

Viking, 1995.

This incendiary memoir, about the author’s childhood in the 1960s in a small industrial town in Southeast Texas, was published in 1995 and helped start the modern memoir boom. The book deserves its reputation. You can almost say about Mary Karr’s agile prose what she says about herself at the age of 7: “I was small-boned and skinny, but more than able to make up for that with sheer meanness.”

As a girl, Karr was a serious settler of scores, willing to bite anyone who had wronged her or to climb a tree with a BB gun to take aim at an entire family. Her mother, who “fancied herself a kind of bohemian Scarlett O’Hara,” had a wild streak. She was married seven times, and was subject to psychotic episodes. Her father was an oil refinery worker, a brawling yet taciturn man who came most fully alive when telling tall stories, often in the back room of a bait shop, with a group of men called “The Liars’ Club.”

This is one of the best books ever written about growing up in America. Karr evokes the contours of her preadolescent mind — the fears, fights and petty jealousies — with extraordinary and often comic vividness. This memoir, packed with eccentrics, is beautifully eccentric in its own right. — Dwight Garner

For generations my ancestors had been strapping skillets onto their oxen and walking west. It turned out to be impossible for me to “run away” in the sense other American teenagers did. Any movement at all was taken for progress in my family.

—Mary Karr, “The Liar’s Club”

Christopher Hitchens

Twelve, 2010.

This high-spirited memoir traces the life and times of this inimitable public intellectual, who is much missed, from his childhood in Portsmouth, England, where his father was a navy man, through boarding school, his studies at Oxford and his subsequent career as a writer both in England and the United States.

Christopher Hitchens was a man of the left but unpredictable (and sometimes inscrutable) politically. “Hitch-22” demonstrates how seriously he took the things that really matter: social justice, learning, direct language, the free play of the mind, loyalty and holding public figures to high standards.

This is a vibrant book about friendships, and it will make you want to take your own more seriously. Hitchens recounts moments with friends that include Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and the poet James Fenton. There is a lot of wit here, and bawdy wordplay, and accounts of long nights spent drinking and smoking. Hitchens decided to become a student of history and politics, he writes, after the Cuban missile crisis. “If politics could force its way into my life in such a vicious and chilling manner, I felt, then I had better find out a bit more about it.” He was a force to contend with from the time he was in short pants. “I was probably insufferable,” he concedes. — Dwight Garner

Read the critics discuss the process of putting together the list.

Men We Reaped

Jesmyn ward, bloomsbury, 2013.

“Men’s bodies litter my family history,” the novelist Jesmyn Ward writes in this torrential, sorrowing tribute to five young black men she knew, including her brother, who died in the span of four years, lost to suicide, drugs or accidents. These men were devoured by her hometown, DeLisle, Miss. — called Wolf Town by its first settlers — “pinioned beneath poverty and history and racism.”

Ward tells their stories with tenderness and reverence; they live again in these pages. Their fates twine with her own — her dislocation and anguish, and later, the complicated story of her own survival, and isolation, as she is recruited to elite all-white schools. She is a writer who has metabolized the Greeks and Faulkner — their themes course through her work — and the stories of the deaths of these men join larger national narratives about rural poverty and racism. But Ward never allows her subjects to become symbolic. This work of great grief and beauty renders them individual and irreplaceable. — Parul Sehgal

Random House, 1995

It’s Vidal, so you know the gossip will be abundant, and top shelf. Scores will be settled (with Anaïs Nin, Charlton Heston, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, his mother), conquests enumerated (Jack Kerouac), choice quips dispensed. “At least I have a style,” Truman Capote once sniped at him. “Of course you do,” Vidal responded soothingly. “You stole it from Carson McCullers.”

It was a rangy life — one that took him into the military, politics, Hollywood, Broadway — and he depicts it with the silky urbanity you expect. What comes as a shock is the book’s directness and deep feeling — its innocence.

It’s a love story, at the end of the day. Vidal had a lifelong companion but remained passionately compelled by a beautiful classmate, his first paramour, Jimmie, who died at 19, shot and bayoneted while sleeping in a foxhole on Iwo Jima. He is the phantom that has haunted Vidal’s long, eventful life. “Palimpsest” is a book full of revelations.

“By choice and luck, my life has been spent reading other people’s books and making sentences for my own,” Vidal writes. Our great luck, too. — Parul Sehgal

Giving Up the Ghost

Hilary mantel, a john macrae book/henry holt & company, 2003.

As a poor Catholic girl growing up in the north of England, Hilary Mantel was an exuberant child of improbable ambition, deciding early on that she was destined to become a knight errant and would change into a boy when she turned 4.

Her mesmerizing memoir reads like an attempt to recover the girl she once was, before others began to dictate her story for her. At the age of 7, looking about the garden, she saw an apparition, perhaps the Devil. She thought it was her fault, for allowing her greedy gaze to wander. Her stepfather was bullying, judgmental, condescending; anything Mantel did seemed to anger him. As a young woman, she started to get headaches, vision problems, pains that coursed through her body, bleeding that no longer confined itself to that time of the month. The doctors told her she was insane.

The ghost she is giving up in the title isn’t her life but that of the child she might have had but never will. Years of misdiagnoses culminated in the removal of her reproductive organs, barnacled by scar tissue caused by endometriosis. Her body changed from very thin to very fat. Mantel, perhaps best known for her novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” writes about all of this with a fine ear and a furious intelligence, as she resurrects phantoms who “shiver between the lines.” — Jennifer Szalai

I used to think that autobiography was a form of weakness, and perhaps I still do. But I also think that, if you’re weak, it’s childish to pretend to be strong.

—Hilary Mantel, “Giving Up the Ghost”

A Childhood

Harry crews, harper & row, 1978.

This taut, powerful and deeply original memoir covers just the first six years of this gifted novelist’s life, but it is a nearly Dickensian anthology of physical and mental intensities.

Harry Crews grew up in southern Georgia, not far from the Okefenokee Swamp. His father, a tenant farmer, died of a heart attack before Crews was 2. His stepfather was a violent drunk. When Crews was 5, he fell into a boiler of water that was being used to scald pigs. His own skin came off, he writes, “like a wet glove.” When he recovered from this long and painful ordeal, he contracted polio so severely that his heels drew back tightly until they touched the backs of his thighs. He was told, incorrectly, that he would never walk again. “The world that circumscribed the people I come from,” he writes, “had so little margin for error, for bad luck, that when something went wrong, it almost always brought something else down with it.”

Crews sought solace in the Sears, Roebuck catalog, the only book in his house besides the Bible. He began his career as a writer by making up stories about the people he saw there. These humans didn’t have scars and blemishes like everyone he knew. “On their faces were looks of happiness, even joy, looks that I never saw much of in the faces of the people around me.” — Dwight Garner

Dreams From My Father

Barack obama, times books/random house, 1995.

Barack Obama’s first book was published a year before he was elected to the Illinois senate and long before his eight years in the White House under the unrelenting gaze of the public eye. “Dreams From My Father” is a moving and frank work of self-excavation — mercifully free of the kind of virtue-signaling and cheerful moralizing that makes so many politicians’ memoirs read like notes to a stump speech.

Obama recounts an upbringing that set him apart, with a tangle of roots that didn’t give him an obvious map to who he was. His father was from Kenya; his mother from Kansas. Obama himself was born in Hawaii, lived in Indonesia for a time, and was largely raised by his mother and maternal grandparents, after his father left for Harvard when Obama was 2.

“I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds,” he writes, “understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.” To see what held his worlds together was also to learn what kept them apart. This is a book about the uses of disenchantment; the revelations are all the more astonishing for being modest and hard-won. — Jennifer Szalai

Philip Roth

Simon & schuster, 1991.

Philip Roth’s book is a Kaddish to his father, Herman Roth, who developed a benign brain tumor at 86. Surgery was not an option, and Herman became immured in his body, which “had become a terrifying escape-proof enclosure, the holding pen in a slaughterhouse.”

“Patrimony,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, is written plainly, without any flourishes — just the unbearable facts of a father’s decline, the body weakening, the vigorous mind dimming. It’s the rough stuff of devotion. Roth adopts care of his increasingly difficult father and witnesses his rapid decline, admonishing himself: “You must not forget anything.”

“He was always teaching me something,” Roth recalls of his father. He never stopped. In this book, Roth offers a moving tribute to the man but also a portrait almost breathtaking in its honesty and lack of sentimentalism, so truthful and exact that it is as much a portrait of living as dying, son as father. “He could be a pitiless realist,” Roth writes of Herman, proudly. “But I wasn’t his offspring for nothing.” — Parul Sehgal

I had seen my father’s brain, and everything and nothing was revealed. A mystery scarcely short of divine, the brain, even in the case of a retired insurance man with an eighth-grade education from Newark’s Thirteenth Avenue School.

—Philip Roth, “Patrimony”

All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw

Theodore rosengarten, alfred a. knopf, 1974.

This indelible book, an oral history from an illiterate black Alabama sharecropper, won the National Book Award in 1975, beating a lineup of instant classics that included “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s biography of Robert Moses; Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s “All the President’s Men”; Studs Terkel’s “Working”; and Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” Unlike these other books, “All God’s Dangers” has largely been forgotten. It’s time for that to change.

This book’s author, Theodore Rosengarten, was a Harvard graduate student who went to Alabama in 1968 while researching a defunct labor organization. Someone suggested he speak with Shaw, whose real name was Ned Cobb. What emerged from Cobb’s mouth was dense and tangled social history, a narrative that essentially takes us from slavery to Selma from the point of view of an unprosperous but eloquent and unbroken black man.

Reading it, you will learn more about wheat, guano, farm implements, bugs, cattle killing and mule handling than you would think possible. This is also a dense catalog of the ways that whites tricked and mistreated blacks in the first half of the 20th century. “Years ago I heard that Abraham Lincoln freed the colored people,” Cobb says, “but it didn’t amount to a hill of beans.” About his white neighbors, he declares, “Any way they could deprive a Negro was a celebration to ’em.” This book is not always easy reading, but it is the real deal, an essential American document. — Dwight Garner

Lives Other Than My Own

Emmanuel carrère. translated from the french by linda coverdale., metropolitan books/henry holt & company, 2011.

You begin this memoir thinking it will be about one thing, and it turns into something else altogether — a book at once more ordinary and more extraordinary than any first impressions might allow.

Emmanuel Carrère starts with the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka — he was there, vacationing with his girlfriend. But that’s just the first 50 pages. Then he turns to the story of his girlfriend’s sister, a small-town judge who’s dying of cancer, and her friendship with another judge, who also has cancer. Carrère’s girlfriend chides him for thinking that such unpromising material offers him some sort of golden storytelling opportunity: “They don’t even sleep together — and at the end, she dies,” she says to him. “Have I got that straight? That’s your story?”

She does have it straight, but there’s so much more to it. Carrère weaves in his own experiences, coming up against his own limitations, his own prejudices, his own understanding of what defines a meaningful life. His sentences are clean, never showy; he writes about himself through others in a way that feels both necessarily generous and candidly — which is to say appropriately — narcissistic.

Whenever I try to describe this memoir — and I do that often, since it’s a book I don’t just recommend but implore people to read — I feel like I’m trying to parse a magic trick. — Jennifer Szalai

A Tale of Love and Darkness

Amos oz. translated from the hebrew by nicholas de lange., harcourt, 2004.

This memoir was born from a long silence, written 50 years after Amos Oz’s mother killed herself with sleeping pills, when he was 12, three months before his bar mitzvah. The resulting book is both brutal and generous, filled with meandering reflections on a life’s journey in politics and literature.

The only child of European Jews who settled in the Promised Land, Oz grew up alongside the new state of Israel, initially enamored of a fierce nationalism before becoming furiously (and in one memorable scene, rather hilariously) disillusioned. As a lonely boy, Oz felt unseen by his awkward father and confounded by his brilliant and deeply unhappy mother. She taught him that people were a constant source of betrayal and disappointment. Books, though, would never let him down. Hearing about what happened to those Jews who stayed in Europe, the young Oz wanted to become a book, because no matter how many books were destroyed there was a decent chance that one copy could survive.

Oz says he essentially killed his father by moving to a kibbutz at 15 and changing his name. But his father lives on in this memoir, along with Oz’s mother — not just in his recollections of her, but in the very existence of this book. She was the one who captivated him with stories that “amazed you, sent shivers up your spine, then disappeared back into the darkness before you had time to see what was in front of your eyes.” — Jennifer Szalai

This Boy’s Life

Tobias wolff, the atlantic monthly press, 1989.

“Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.” So begins Tobias Wolff’s powerful and impeccably written memoir of his childhood in the 1950s, a classic of the genre that has lost none of its power.

Divorced mother and son had hit the road together, fleeing a bad man, trying to change their luck and maybe get rich as uranium prospectors. The author’s wealthy and estranged father was absent. Soon his mother linked up with a man named Dwight (never trust a man named Dwight) who beat young Wolff, stole his paper route money and forced him to shuck horse chestnuts after school for hours, until his hands were “crazed with cuts and scratches” from their sharply spined husks. Wolff became wild in high school, a delinquent and a petty thief, before escaping to a prep school in Pennsylvania. His prose lights up the experience of growing up in America during this era. He describes going to confession and trying to articulate an individual sin this way: “It was like fishing a swamp, where you feel the tug of something that at first seems promising and then resistant and finally hopeless as you realize that you’ve snagged the bottom, that you have the whole planet on the other end of your line.” — Dwight Garner

A Life’s Work

Rachel cusk, picador, 2002.

Rachel Cusk writes about new motherhood with an honesty and clarity that makes this memoir feel almost illicit. Sleepless nights, yes; colic, yes; but also a raw, frantic love for her firstborn daughter that she depicts and dissects with both rigor and amazement.

As many readers as there are who love “A Life’s Work” as much as I do, I know others who have been put off by its steely register, finding it too denuded, shorn of warmth and giddiness — those very things that help make motherhood such an enormous experience, and not just a grueling one. But whenever I read Cusk’s book, I am irrevocably pulled along in its thrall, constantly startled by her observations — milk running “in untasted rivulets” down her baby’s “affronted cheek”; pregnancy literature that “bristles with threats and the promise of reprisal” — and her willingness to see her experience cold.

Or, at least, to try to, because what becomes clear is that it’s impossible for Cusk to hold on to her old self. The childless writer who could compartmentalize with ease and take boundaries for granted has to learn an entirely new way of being. Embedded in Cusk’s chiseled sentences are her attempts to engage with a roiling vulnerability. None of the chipper, treacly stuff here; motherhood deserves more respect than that. — Jennifer Szalai

J.M. Coetzee

Viking, 1997.

The Nobel Prize-winning J.M. Coetzee is one of those novelists who rarely give interviews, and when he does, he’s like the Robert Mueller of the literary world — reticent, discreet and quietly insistent that his books should speak for themselves.

Coetzee, in other words, is taciturn in the extreme. Yet he has also written three revealing volumes about his life — “Boyhood,” “Youth” and “Summertime.” The first, “Boyhood,” is most explicitly and conventionally a memoir, covering his years growing up in a provincial village outside of Cape Town. The child of Afrikaner parents who had pretensions to English gentility, he was buttoned-up and sensitive, desperate to fit into the “normal” world around him but also confounded and repulsed by it. He noticed how his indolent relatives clung to their privileged position in South Africa’s brutal racial hierarchy through cruelty and a raw assertion of power. Out in the world, he lived in constant fear of violence and humiliation; at home he was cosseted by his mother and presided like a king.

The memoir is told in the third-person present tense, which lends it a peculiar immediacy. Coetzee is free to observe the boy he once was without the interpretive intrusions that come with age; he can remain true to what he felt then, rather than what he knows now. His recollections are stark and painfully intimate: “He feels like a crab pulled out of its shell, pink and wounded and obscene.” — Jennifer Szalai

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974

“The book is already a period piece,” the legendary travel writer Jan Morris opens her memoir. “It was written in the 1970s, and is decidedly of the 1970s.” It might be of its time but it is also ardent, musical, poetic and full of warm humor — a chronicle of ecstasies. Best remembered as one of the first accounts of gender transition, “Conundrum” is a study of home in all its forms — of finding home in one’s body, of Morris’s native Wales, of all the cities she possesses by dint of loving them so fiercely.

We are carried from her childhood, in the lap of a family militantly opposed to conformity, to her long career as a reporter in England and Egypt. She went everywhere, met everyone: Che Guevara (“sharp as a cat in Cuba”), Guy Burgess (“swollen with drink and self-reproach in Moscow”). It’s an enviably full life, with a long marriage, four children and Morris’s determinedly sunny disposition and ability to regard every second of her life, however difficult — especially if difficult — as a species of grand adventure.

She chafes at the notion of “identity” (“a trendy word I have long distrusted, masking as it often does befuddled ideas and lazy thinking”). It is thrilling to watch her arrive at an understanding of a sense of self and language that is her own, bespoke. “To me gender is not physical at all, but is altogether insubstantial,” she writes. “It was a melody that I heard within myself.” — Parul Sehgal

I did not query my condition, or seek reasons for it. I knew very well that it was an irrational conviction — I was in no way psychotic, and perhaps not much more neurotic than most of us; but there it was, I knew it to be true, and if it was impossible then the definition of possibility was inadequate.

—Jan Morris, “Conundrum”

Sonali Deraniyagala

Alfred a. knopf, 2013.

Sonali Deraniyagala was searching the internet for ways to kill herself when one click led to another and she was staring at a news article featuring pictures of her two young sons. The boys had died not long before — victims of the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, which also killed Deraniyagala’s husband and her parents. She herself survived by clinging to a branch.

“Wave” is a meticulous account of derangement — of being so undone by grief that life becomes not just impossible but terrifying. She recalls stabbing herself with a butter knife. She couldn’t look at a flower or a blade of grass without feeling a sickening sense of panic. Reading this book is like staring into the abyss, only instead of staring back it might just swallow you whole.

This, believe it or not, is why you should read it — for Deraniyagala’s unflinching account of the horror that took away her family, and for her willingness to lay bare how it made her not only more vulnerable but also, at times, more cruel. Her return to life was gradual, tentative and difficult; she learned the only way out of her unbearable anguish was to remember what had happened and to keep it close. — Jennifer Szalai

Always Unreliable: Unreliable Memoirs, Falling Towards England and May Week Was in June

Clive james, picador, 2004.

The Australian-born critic, poet, memoirist, novelist, travel writer and translator Clive James isn’t as well known in America as he is in England, where he’s lived most of his adult life. Over there, cabdrivers know who James is: the ebullient man who hosted many comic and erudite television programs over the years. We have no one quite like him over here: Think Johnny Carson combined with Edmund Wilson.

James is the author of five memoirs, to which many readers have a cultlike devotion. The first three — “Unreliable Memoirs,” “Falling Towards England” and “May Week Was in June” — have been collected into one volume, “Always Unreliable,” and they are especially incisive and comic. In a preface to the first book, James dealt a truth few memoirists will admit: “Most first novels are disguised autobiographies. This autobiography is a disguised novel.” He’s an admitted exaggerator, but nonetheless he’s led a big life.

He was born in 1939 and grew up with an absent father, a Japanese prisoner of war. Released, his father died in a plane crash on his way home when James was 5. The author fully relives his adolescent agonies (“you can die of envy for cratered faces weeping with yellow pus”) and his rowdy troublemaking years. Later volumes take him to London and then to Cambridge University, where he edits Granta, the literary magazine, dabbles in theater (“It was my first, cruel exposure to the awkward fact that the arts attract the insane”) and gets married. He is never less than good company. — Dwight Garner

Travels With Lizbeth

Lars eighner, st. martin’s press, 1993.

Lars Eighner’s memoir contains the finest first-person writing we have about the experience of being homeless in America. Yet it’s not a dirge or a Bukowski-like scratching of the groin but an offbeat and plaintive hymn to life. It’s the sort of book that releases the emergency brake on your soul. Eighner spent three years on the streets (mostly in Austin, Tex.) and on the road in the late 1980s and early 1990s, after suffering from migraines and losing a series of jobs. The book he wrote is a literate and exceedingly humane document.

On the streets, he clung to a kind of dignity. He refused to beg or steal. He didn’t care for drugs; he barely drank. “Being suddenly intoxicated in a public place in the early afternoon,” he writes, “is not my idea of a good time.” He foraged for books and magazines as much as food, but an especially fine portion of this book is his writing about dumpster-diving. There’s the jarring impression that every grain of rice is a maggot. About botulism, he writes: “Often the first symptom is death.” There is something strangely Emersonian, capable and self-reliant, in his scavenging. “I live from the refuse of others,” he declares. “I think it a sound and honorable niche.” — Dwight Garner

Day after day I could aspire, within reason, to nothing more than survival. Although the planets wandered among the stars and the moon waxed and waned, the identical naked barrenness of existence was exposed to me, day in and day out.

—Lars Eighner, “Travels With Lizbeth”

Little, Brown & Company, 2015

The photographer Sally Mann’s memoir is weird, intense and uncommonly beautiful. She has real literary gifts, and she’s led a big Southern-bohemian life, rich with incident. Or maybe it only seems rich with incident because of an old maxim that still holds: Stories happen only to people who can tell them.

Like Mary Karr, Mann as a child was a scrappy, troublemaking tomboy, one who grew into a scrappy, troublemaking, impossible-to-ignore young woman and artist. She was raised in Virginia by sophisticated, lettered parents. When she grew too wild, they sent her away to a prep school in Vermont where, she writes, “I smoked, I drank, I skipped classes, I snuck out, I took drugs, I stole quarts of ice cream for my dorm by breaking into the kitchen storerooms, I made out with my boyfriends in the library basement, I hitchhiked into town and down I-91, and when caught, I weaseled out of all of it.”

This memoir recounts some of the Southern gothic elements of her parents’ lives. This book is heavily illustrated, and traces her growth as an artist. It recounts friendships with Southern artists and writers such as Cy Twombly and Reynolds Price. Her anecdotes have snap. About his advanced old age, in a line that is hard to forget, Twombly tells the author that he is “closing down the bodega for real.” But this story is entirely her own. — Dwight Garner

Country Girl

Edna o’brien, little, brown and company, 2013.

The enormously gifted Irish writer Edna O’Brien was near the red-hot center of the Swinging ’60s in London. She dropped acid with her psychiatrist, R.D. Laing. Among those who came to her parties were Marianne Faithfull, Sean Connery, Princess Margaret and Jane Fonda. Richard Burton and Marlon Brando tried to get her into bed. Robert Mitchum succeeded after wooing her with this pickup line: “I bet you wish I was Robert Taylor, and I bet you never tasted white peaches.”

O’Brien was born in a village in County Clare, in the west of Ireland, in 1930. This earthy and evocative book also traces her youth and her development as a writer. Her small family was religious. Her father was a farmer who drank and gambled; her mother was a former maid. She has described her village, Tuamgraney, as “enclosed, fervid and bigoted.” O’Brien didn’t attend college. She moved to Dublin, where she worked in a drugstore while studying at the Pharmaceutical College at night. She began to read literature, and she wondered: “Why could life not be lived at that same pitch? Why was it only in books that I could find the utter outlet for my emotions?” This memoir has perfect pitch. — Dwight Garner

Marjane Satrapi. Translated from the French by Mattias Ripa and Blake Ferris.

Pantheon, 2003.

At the age of 6, Marjane Satrapi privately declared herself the last prophet of Islam. At 14, she left Iran for a boarding school in Austria, sent away by parents terrified of their outspoken daughter’s penchant for challenging her teachers (and hypocrisy wherever she sniffed it out). At 31, she published “Persepolis,” in French (it was later translated into English by Mattias Ripa and Blake Ferris), a stunning graphic memoir hailed as a wholly original achievement in the form.

There’s still a startling freshness to the book. It won’t age. In inky shadows and simple, expressive lines — reminiscent of Ludwig Bemelmans’s “Madeline” — Satrapi evokes herself and her schoolmates coming of age in a world of protests and disappearances (and scoring punk rock cassettes on the black market).

The revolution, the rise of fundamentalism, a brutal family history of torture, imprisonment and exile are conveyed from a child’s perspective and achieve a stark, shocking impact. — Parul Sehgal

Margo Jefferson

Pantheon, 2015.

The motto was simple in Margo Jefferson’s childhood home: “Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.” Her family was part of Chicago’s black elite. Her father was the head pediatrician at Provident, America’s oldest black hospital; her mother was a socialite. They saw themselves as a “Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians.” Life was navigated according to strict standards of behavior and femininity. Jefferson writes of the punishing psychic burden of growing up feeling that she was a representative for her race and, later, of nagging, terrifying suicidal impulses.

Jefferson won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for her book reviews in The New York Times. “Negroland” is an extended form of criticism that dances between a history of social class to a close reading of her mother’s expressions; the information calibrated in a brow arched “three to four millimeters.”

The prose is blunt and evasive, sensuous and ascetic, doubting and resolute — and above all beautifully skeptical of the genre, of the memoir’s conventions, clichés and limits. “How do you adapt your singular, willful self to so much history and myth? So much glory, banality, honor and betrayal?” she asks. This shape-shifting, form-shattering book carves one path forward. — Parul Sehgal

25 More Great Memoirs

Presented in Alphabetical Order by Author

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

Viv albertine, thomas dunne books/st. martin’s press, 2014.

Viv Albertine participated in the birth of punk in the mid-1970s. She was in a band with Sid Vicious before he joined the Sex Pistols. She dated Mick Jones while he was putting together his new band, the Clash. She could barely play guitar, yet she became the lead guitarist for the Slits. Her memoir is wiry and fearless. It contains story after story about men who told her she couldn’t do things that she did anyway. Her life up to the breakup of the Slits occupies only half of the book. There’s a lot of pain in the second section: loneliness, doubt, a bad marriage, cancer, depression. Throughout, this account has an honest, lo-fi grace.

Martin Amis

Talk miramax books/hyperion, 2000.

In this memoir, the acclaimed author of “London Fields,” “Money” and other novels decided, he writes, “to speak, for once, without artifice.” The entertaining, loosely structured result is movingly earnest and wickedly funny. It includes a portrait, both cleareyed and affectionate, of the author’s father, the comic novelist and poet Kingsley Amis. In addition, “Experience” offers more vivid and harrowing writing about dental problems than you might have thought one person capable of producing.

Slow Days, Fast Company

Alfred a. knopf, 1977.

The Los Angeles-born glamour girl, bohemian, artist, muse, sensualist, wit and pioneering foodie Eve Babitz writes prose that reads like Nora Ephron by way of Joan Didion, albeit with more lust and drugs and tequila. “Slow Days, Fast Company” and “Eve’s Hollywood,” the book that preceded it, are officially billed as fiction, but they are mostly undisguised dispatches from her own experiences in 1970s California. Reading her is like being out on the warm open road at sundown, with what she called “4/60 air-conditioning” — that is, going 60 miles per hour with all four windows down. You can feel the wind in your hair.

Russell Baker

Congdon & weed, 1982.

Russell Baker’s warm and disarmingly funny account of his life growing up in Depression-era America has garnered comparisons to the work of Mark Twain. The book quickly became a beloved best seller when it was published, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for biography. Baker was born into poverty in Virginia in 1925. He was 5 years old when his father, then 33, fell into a diabetic coma and died. The author’s strong, affectionate mother is a major presence in the book. Baker, a longtime humorist and columnist for The New York Times, died in January at 93.

Kafka Was the Rage

Anatole broyard, carol southern books/crown publishers, 1993.

Anatole Broyard, a longtime book critic and essayist for The New York Times, died in 1990 of prostate cancer. What he had finished of this memoir before his death mostly concerned his time living in the West Village after World War II. “A war is like an illness,” he writes, “and when it’s over you think you’ve never felt so well.” He writes about the vogue for psychoanalysis, his experience opening a used-book store and, primarily, his formative relationship with the artist Sheri Martinelli (her pseudonym in the book is Sheri Donatti). The book was truncated, but the writing in it is brilliant and often epigrammatic: “I just want love to live up to its publicity.”

Between the World and Me

Ta-nehisi coates, spiegel & grau, 2015.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, in the form of a letter to his son, is a scalding examination of his own experience as a black man in America, and of how much of American history has been systemically built on exploiting and committing violence against black bodies. Inspired by a section of James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” that was addressed to the author’s nephew, Coates’s book is a powerful testimony that will continue to have a profound impact on discussions about race in America.

The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan didion, alfred a. knopf, 2005.

Joan Didion, so long an exemplar of cool, of brilliant aloofness, showed us her unraveling in this memoir about the sudden death of her husband of 40 years, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and the frightening illness of her daughter, Quintana. It’s a troubled, meditative book, in which Didion writes of what it feels like to have “cut loose any fixed idea I had ever had about death, about illness, about probability and luck, about good fortune and bad.”

Barbarian Days

William finnegan, penguin press, 2015.

This account of a lifelong surfing obsession won the Pulitzer Prize in biography. William Finnegan, a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, recalls his childhood in California and Hawaii, his many surfing buddies through the years and his taste for a kind of danger that approaches the sublime. In his 20s, he traveled through Asia and Africa and the South Pacific in search of waves, living in tents and cars and cheap apartments. One takes away from “Barbarian Days” a sense of a big, wind-chapped, well-lived life.

Personal History

Katharine graham, alfred a. knopf, 1997.

Katharine Graham’s brilliant but remote father, Eugene Meyer, capped his successful career as a financier and public servant by buying the struggling Washington Post in 1933 and nursing it to health. Graham took command of the paper in 1963, and steered it through the Watergate scandal and the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency, among other dramas. Her autobiography covers her life from childhood to her command of a towering journalistic institution in a deeply male-dominated industry. Her tone throughout is frank, self-critical, modest and justifiably proud.

Thinking in Pictures

Temple grandin, doubleday, 1995.

Memoirs are valued, in part, for their ability to open windows onto experiences other than our own, and few do that as dramatically as Temple Grandin’s “Thinking in Pictures.” Grandin, a professor of animal science who is autistic, describes the “library” of visual images in her memory, which she is constantly updating. (“It’s like getting a new version of software for the computer.”) As Oliver Sacks wrote in an introduction to the book, “Grandin’s voice came from a place which had never had a voice, never been granted real existence, before.”

Autobiography of a Face

Lucy grealy, houghton mifflin, 1994.

When she was 9 years old, Lucy Grealy was stricken with a rare, virulent form of bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma. She had radical surgery to remove half of her jaw, and years of radiation and chemotherapy, and recovered. She then endured a sense of disfigurement and isolation from other children. She became an accomplished poet and essayist before dying at 39 in 2002. Although entitled to self-pity, Grealy was not given to it. This memoir is a moving meditation on ugliness and beauty. Grealy’s life is the subject of another powerful memoir, Ann Patchett’s “Truth & Beauty,” which recounts the friendship between the two writers.

Dancing With Cuba

Alma guillermoprieto. translated from the spanish by esther allen., pantheon, 2004.

Alma Guillermoprieto was a 20-year-old dance student in 1969, when Merce Cunningham offered to recommend her for a teaching job at the National Schools of the Arts in Havana. This memoir is her account of the six months she spent there, a frustrating and fascinating time that opened her eyes to the world beyond dance. Eventually, political turmoil, piled on top of loneliness, youthful angst and assorted romantic troubles, led the author to the edge of a nervous breakdown. This remembrance is a pleasure to read, full of humanity, sly humor, curiosity and knowledge.

Minor Characters

Joyce johnson, houghton mifflin, 1983.

Joyce Johnson was 21 and not long out of Barnard College when, in the winter of 1957, Allen Ginsberg set her up on a blind date with Jack Kerouac, who was 34 and still largely unknown. Thus began an off-and-on relationship that lasted nearly two years, during which time “On the Road” was published, leading to life-altering fame — not only for Kerouac but many of his closest friends. Johnson’s book about this time is a riveting portrait of an era, and a glowing introduction to the Beats. It’s a book about a so-called minor character who, in the process of writing her life, became a major one.

The Memory Chalet

Penguin press, 2010.

The historian Tony Judt, who was known for his incisive analysis of current events and his synthesizing of European history in books like “Postwar,” wrote this book of autobiographical fragments after he was stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and had become “effectively quadriplegic.” He would think back over his life in the middle of the night, shape those memories into stories and dictate them to an assistant the next day. “The Memory Chalet,” the resulting unlikely artifact, ranges over Judt’s boyhood in England; the lives of his lower-middle-class Jewish parents; life as a student and fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, in the 1960s and early ’70s; and his life in New York City, where he eventually settled and taught.

Kiese Laymon

Scribner, 2018.

The most recently published entry on this list of 50 books, Kiese Laymon’s “Heavy” details the author’s childhood in Mississippi in the 1980s and his relationship with his alternately loving and abusive mother, who raised him on her own. It’s full of sharp, heart-rending thoughts about growing up black in the United States, and his fraught relationship with his body — Laymon’s weight has severely fluctuated over the years, a subject he plumbs with great sensitivity. This is a gorgeous, gutting book that’s fueled by candor yet freighted with ambivalence. It’s full of devotion and betrayal, euphoria and anguish.


Patricia lockwood, riverhead books, 2017.

Patricia Lockwood, an acclaimed poet, weaves in this memoir the story of her family — including her Roman Catholic priest father, who received a special dispensation from the Vatican — with the crisis that led her and her husband to live temporarily under her parents’ rectory roof. The book, consistently alive with feeling, is written with elastic style. And in Lockwood’s father, Greg, it has one of the great characters in nonfiction: He listens to Rush Limbaugh while watching Bill O’Reilly, consumes Arby’s Beef ’n Cheddar sandwiches the way other humans consume cashews and strides around in his underwear. Hilarious descriptions — of, to take one example, Greg’s guitar playing — alternate with profound examinations of family, art and faith.

H Is for Hawk

Helen macdonald, grove press, 2015.

When we meet Helen Macdonald in this beautiful and nearly feral book, she’s in her 30s, with “no partner, no children, no home.” When her father dies suddenly on a London street, it steals the floor from beneath her. Obsessed with birds of prey since she was a girl, Macdonald was already an experienced falconer. In her grief, seeking escape into something, she began to train one of nature’s most vicious predators, a goshawk. She unplugged her telephone. She told her friends to leave her alone. Nearly every paragraph she writes about the experience is strange in the best way, and injected with unexpected meaning.

The Color of Water

James mcbride, riverhead books, 1996.

This complex and moving story, which enjoyed a long run on best-seller lists, is about James McBride’s relationship with his mother, Ruth, the daughter of a failed itinerant Orthodox Jewish rabbi. She fervently adopted Christianity and founded a black Baptist church in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn with McBride’s father. The book is suffused with issues of race, religion and identity, and simultaneously transcends those issues to be a story of family love and the sheer force of a mother’s will.

Angela’s Ashes

Frank mccourt, scribner, 1996.

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all,” Frank McCourt writes near the beginning of his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir. His parents had immigrated to New York, where McCourt was born, but soon moved back to Ireland, where they hoped relatives could help them with their four children. Having returned, they experienced crushing poverty. The book did perhaps more than any other to cement the 1990s boom in memoir writing — and reading. It features a Dickensian gallery of schoolmasters, shopkeepers and priests, in addition to McCourt’s unforgettable family.


Scholastique mukasonga. translated from the french by jordan stump., archipelago books, 2016.

Thirty-seven of Scholastique Mukasonga’s family members were massacred in the Rwandan genocide in the spring of 1994, when the Hutu majority turned on their Tutsi neighbors, killing more than 800,000 people in 100 days. “Cockroaches” is Mukasonga’s devastating account of her childhood and what she was able to learn about the slaughter of her family. (“Cockroach” was the Hutu epithet of choice for the Tutsis.) It is a compendium of unspeakable crimes and horrifically inventive sadism, delivered in an even, unwavering tone.

Keith Richards

Little, brown & company, 2010.

In “Life,” the Rolling Stones guitarist writes with uncommon candor and immediacy — with the help of the veteran journalist James Fox — about drugs and his run-ins with the police; about the difficulties of getting and staying clean; and about the era when rock ’n’ roll came of age. He spares none of his thoughts, good and bad, about Mick Jagger. He also describes the spongelike love of music that he inherited from his grandfather, and his own sense of musical history — his reverence for the blues and R&B masters he has studied his entire life.

A Life in the Twentieth Century

Arthur schlesinger jr., houghton mifflin company, 2000.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a prizewinning historian who served in John F. Kennedy’s White House, here writes about the first 33 years of his life, from his birth in 1917 — the year the United States entered World War I — to 1950 and the beginnings of the Cold War. The son of an acclaimed historian, Schlesinger was born into great privilege. He went on a yearlong trip around the world between graduating from prep school and attending Harvard. This book has incisive things to say about the large themes of world history, including isolationism and interventionism, and about many other subjects besides, including the films of the 1930s.

Edmund White

Ecco/harpercollins publishers, 2006.

“My Lives” is broken into chapters whose headings follow a clever formula: “My Shrinks,” “My Mother,” “My Father,” “My Hustlers” ... But these seemingly narrow-focus, time-hopping slices add up to a robust autobiography. Edmund White’s portraits of his parents and their lives before him are novelistic; his writing about his own sexual experiences is exceedingly candid. Reviewing the book for The Guardian, the novelist Alan Hollinghurst said that “no other writer of White’s eminence has described his sexual life with such purposeful clarity.”

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Jeanette winterson, grove press, 2012.

This memoir’s title is the question Jeanette Winterson’s adoptive mother asked after discovering her daughter was a lesbian. Winterson’s mother loomed over her life, as she looms over this book. In a quiet way she is one of the great horror mothers of English-language literature. When she was angry with her daughter, she would say, “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.” This memoir’s narrative includes Winterson’s search for her birth mother and the author’s self-invention, her intellectual development. The device of the trapped young person saved by books is a hoary one, but Winterson makes it seem new, and sulfurous.

Close to the Knives

David wojnarowicz, vintage, 1991.

David Wojnarowicz, who died at 37 in 1992, was a vital part of the East Village art scene of the 1980s that also produced Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, Jean-Michel Basquiat and others. He was a painter, photographer, performance artist, AIDS activist and more — including writer. This work of hard-living autobiography is written in a flood of run-on sentences, and in a tone of almost hallucinatory incandescence. A typical sentence begins: “I remember when I was 8 years old I would crawl out the window of my apartment seven stories above the ground and hold on to the ledge with 10 scrawny fingers and lower myself out above the sea of cars burning up Eighth Avenue ...”

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The 20 Best Memoirs Everyone Should Read

These autobiographies deliver poignant self-reflection, humor, and even some recipes.

men we reaped, i know why the caged bird sings, year of magical thinking, kitchen confidential, heavy, party of one, memoirs

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As a genre, memoir can be hard to define. It’s meant to be intensely personal and offer some kind of perspective on, or lessons learned from, the past. But by picking up a memoir, you’re guaranteed to learn about someone’s story in their own words.

More Books: The Best Books from Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club • 19 Books About the Royal Family • The Juiciest Celebrity Memoirs

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)

An American classic, Maya Angelou ’s debut memoir recounts the acclaimed author ’s childhood and adolescence from Arkansas to Missouri to California. She touches on themes of identity and self-acceptance and recounts the abhorrent racism she and her family experienced, as well as the sexual violence she suffered at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. But there’s great joy here, too, especially when young Angelou learns to come out of her shell through her love of literature.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Kitchen Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (2000)

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Kitchen Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain (2000)

You’ve probably seen this book on several similar lists, but that’s because it’s endlessly interesting. Bourdain dishes on such a niche culture—that of high-octane kitchens in some of the world’s best restaurants—and doesn’t shy away from some of its ugliest qualities. He gets personal, too, with anecdotes both amusing and somber.

Read More about Anthony Bourdain

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (2013)

Sri Lankan writer and economist Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, her husband, and her two young sons in the 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India. In this relentless memoir, she explores the seemingly bottomless depths of grief and how our power to remember the past can be healing. Readers who love a resolution might look elsewhere, but they’d be missing out on some unflinching, courageous writing.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)

From acclaimed writer Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking recounts the sudden death of her husband and the hospitalization of their daughter within days of each other. (Her daughter eventually died at 39, which Didion writes about in Blue Nights .) It’s an engrossing and vulnerable look into a year of experiencing and coping with tragedy—filled, of course, with the writer’s famously incisive prose.

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher (2016)

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher (2016)

In her final book, actress and writer Carrie Fisher gives fans a peek behind the curtain of her time on set of the first Star Wars movie . She hilariously commentates on excerpts from her diary during that time, recalls her crush on Harrison Ford , and delves into how complicated it can be to navigate the world of celebrity—especially as the face of such an iconic character.

Read More about Carrie Fisher

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (2017)

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (2017)

Widely recommended as one of the best books of 2017, Hunger is Roxane Gay’s raw and powerful memoir about her own self-image and our society’s obsession with appearance. There’s a reason Gay is such a prolific writer today, whether you follow her musings on Twitter or her New York Times column; she is incredibly inquisitive and can make any reader question the status quo. Hunger is no exception.

Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs by Dave Holmes (2016)

Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs by Dave Holmes (2016)

We all have songs that can conjure specific memories. Writer, comedian, and TV personality Dave Holmes takes that notion to heart in his memoir, where he writes about growing up Catholic and closeted in Missouri and how he “accidentally” became an MTV VJ. There’s a plethora of references to ʼ80s and ʼ90s music and self-deprecating humor that strikes the perfect balance.

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (2020)

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong (2020)

There’s no shortage of powerful writing in this book by writer and poet Cathy Park Hong. Throughout the work—about America’s racialized consciousness—she expertly weaves many personal details of her life as the daughter of Korean immigrants with topics like intersectionality and artistic expression. There’s plenty of enlightening history, too, including on activist Yuri Kochiyama . Her writing demonstrates her self-awareness; she even challenges many of her own thoughts. It’s a fascinating, essential read.

How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones (2019)

How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones (2019)

Saeed Jones, an award-winning poet, writes with such a distinct style in this searing memoir about coming of age as a young, black, gay man from the South. He writes about grief, about identity in a world that makes it hard to find one, and about acceptance. It’s a short read in length (at 192 pages) but leaves a memorable impression.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer (1997)

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer (1997)

Writer Jon Krakauer’s infamous retelling of the 1996 Mount Everest expedition that left eight climbers in his party dead is a harrowing read. For those with zero mountaineering experience (like this writer), he makes it easy to visualize what conquering this mountain looks like. There’s also some fascinating insights on the commercialization of Everest. If you’re reading a recently printed version, there’s an interesting postscript that responds to the fairness of his account of events (which was questioned in fellow survivor Anatoli Boukreev’s book The Climb ).

Heavy by Kiese Laymon (2018)

Heavy by Kiese Laymon (2018)

With the deeply moving Heavy , Kiese Laymon shares the trials of his upbringing in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s written in the second person, addressing his mother, and it touches on his relationship to his body and how racism permeated his views of himself and the world around him. This modern memoir should be on every reading list.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (2019)

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (2019)

If you want to read a book that turns the concept of a memoir on its head, pick up Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House . While playing with traditional form, Machado delves into the abuse she suffered in a same-sex relationship. She references horror tropes and fairy tales and gives readers a completely vulnerable (and often terrifying) look into a dark and traumatizing experience. We’ve heard the audio version is just as engrossing.

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy (2022)

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy (2022)

In what was arguably the most talked-about memoir of the past year, actor and writer/director Jennette McCurdy details what went on behind the scenes in her life before, during, and after making the hit Nickelodeon show iCarly . She bears it all—discussing her eating disorder and the toxic relationship she had with her mother—while using pitch perfect humor, in a memoir that’s hard to stomach at times. But it’s worth it to see how she ultimately takes back control of her life.

Know My Name by Chanel Miller (2019)

Know My Name by Chanel Miller (2019)

You might remember Chanel Miller as Emily Doe. After being sexually assaulted by Brock Turner on the Stanford University campus in 2015, she wrote a victim impact statement under this name that reverberated around the world. In this profound memoir, she reclaims her real name and reveals the frustrating truths surrounding victimhood and the criminal justice system. But her writing also divulges her incredible strength—it’s a powerful read that this writer finished in one sitting.

32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line by Eric Ripert (2016)

32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line by Eric Ripert (2016)

Two memoirs on this list from acclaimed chefs? We couldn’t resist. For those who might’ve already enjoyed Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential , might we suggest Eric Ripert’s 32 Yolks . Ripert is, as some will know, the famed French chef behind renowned New York City restaurant Le Bernardin. In this memoir, he chronicles his upbringing in a fractured family in the south of France and how food was always a great comfort. Equal parts fun, infuriating, and awe-inspiring, Ripert includes high-stakes stories from his days in culinary school and working the line at fine dining establishments in Paris.

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci (2021)

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci (2021)

Actor Stanley Tucci’s memoir about, well, his life through food is a light read filled with succinct writing, his dry humor, and (of course) hunger-inducing recipes that button each chapter. It’s also very touching and essentially a love letter to his Italian-American parents and how those early meals together around the table shaped the course of his life. Don’t read on an empty stomach.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (2013)

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (2013)

For anyone who loves Jesmyn Ward’s renowned novels like Sing, Unburied, Sing or Salvage the Bones , her memoir should be next on your TBR list. Here, she chronicles her upbringing in rural Mississippi and remembers the five men in her life that she lost in the space of four years to suicide, drugs, and sheer bad luck. The most deeply felt is her brother, who was hit by a drunk driver. With beautiful, introspective prose, Ward delves into masculinity, poverty, survivor’s guilt, and loneliness.

Educated by Tara Westover (2018)

Educated by Tara Westover (2018)

It can be hard at times to read Tara Westover’s bestselling memoir, Educated . Along with her incredible journey to becoming a scholar at Harvard and Cambridge without receiving any kind of formal education, she recounts the psychological and physical abuse she suffered while growing up with her survivalist family in the mountains of Idaho. But it’s an unforgettable story about her will to change the course of her life.

The Wreckage of My Presence by Casey Wilson (2021)

The Wreckage of My Presence by Casey Wilson (2021)

Reading actress and comedian Casey Wilson’s memoir is like sinking into a comfy couch with your favorite beverage, ready to hear all of your best friend’s exploits. You’ll be laughing out loud during some chapters—whether they’re about her affinity for the Real Housewives franchise or behind-the-scenes moments from the (cut much too short) ABC comedy Happy Endings —then shedding tears the next, as she mourns the death of her mother. This is a quippy, heartwarming addition to any bookshelf.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (2021)

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (2021)

Maybe you know Michelle Zauner best as the lead singer of renowned alt-pop group Japanese Breakfast. But here, in this recently penned memoir, she recounts taking care of—and ultimately losing—her mother, who was given a terminal cancer diagnosis when Zauner was 25. It’s a complicated, very moving account of the experience that poetically touches on identity and grief. Interspersed within these memories are mouth-watering descriptions of Korean foods that only make readers more greatly feel both the love and the loss.

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Home » Writing » Autobiography vs. Biography vs. Memoir

biography memoir writing

What is a Biography?

A biography, also called a bio, is a non-fiction piece of work giving an objective account of a person’s life. The main difference between a biography vs. an autobiography is that the author of a biography is not the subject. A biography could be someone still living today, or it could be the subject of a person who lived years ago.

Biographies include details of key events that shaped the subject’s life, and information about their birthplace, education, work, and relationships. Biographers use a number of research sources, including interviews, letters, diaries, photographs, essays, reference books, and newspapers. While a biography is usually in the written form, it can be produced in other formats such as music composition or film.

If the target person of the biography is not alive, then the storytelling requires an immense amount of research. Interviews might be required to collect information from historical experts, people who knew the person (e.g., friends and family), or reading other older accounts from other people who wrote about the person in previous years. In biographies where the person is still alive, the writer can conduct several interviews with the target person to gain insight on their life.

The goal of a biography is to take the reader through the life story of the person, including their childhood into adolescence and teenage years, and then their early adult life into the rest of their years. The biography tells a story of how the person learned life’s lessons and the ways the person navigated the world. It should give the reader a clear picture of the person’s personality, traits, and their interaction in the world.

Biographies can also be focused on groups of people and not just one person. For example, a biography can be a historical account of a group of people from hundreds of years ago. This group could have the main person who was a part of the group, and the author writes about the group to tell a story of how they shaped the world.

Fictional biographies mix some true historical accounts with events to help improve the story. Think of fictional biographies as movies that display a warning that the story is made of real characters, but some events are fictional to add to the storyline and entertainment value. A lot of research still goes into a fictional biography, but the author has more room to create a storyline instead of sticking to factual events.

Examples of famous biographies include:

  • His Excellency: George Washington  by Joseph J. Ellis
  • Einstein: The Life and Times  by Ronald William Clark
  • Princess Diana – A Biography of The Princess of Wales  by Drew L. Crichton

Include photos in your autobiography

What is an Autobiography?

An autobiography is the story of a person’s life written by that person. Because the author is also the main character of the story, autobiographies are written in the first person. Usually, an autobiography is written by the person who is the subject of the book, but sometimes the autobiography is written by another person. Because an autobiography is usually a life story for the author, the theme can be anything from religious to a personal account to pass on to children.

The purpose of an autobiography is to portray the life experiences and achievements of the author. Therefore, most autobiographies are typically written later in the subject’s life. It’s written from the point of view of the author, so it typically uses first person accounts to describe the story.

An autobiography often begins during early childhood and chronologically details key events throughout the author’s life. Autobiographies usually include information about where a person was born and brought up, their education, career, life experiences, the challenges they faced, and their key achievements.

On rare occasions, an autobiography is created from a person’s diary or memoirs. When diaries are used, the author must organize them to create a chronological and cohesive story. The story might have flashbacks or flashforwards to describe a specific event, but the main storyline should follow chronological order from the author’s early life to their current events.

One of the main differences between an autobiography vs. a biography is that autobiographies tend to be more subjective. That’s because they are written by the subject, and present the facts based on their own memories of a specific situation, which can be biased. The story covers the author’s opinions on specific subjects and provides an account of their feelings as they navigate certain situations. These stories are also very personal because it’s a personal account of the author’s life rather than a biography where a third party writes about a specific person.

Examples of famous autobiographies include:

  • The Story of My Life  by Helen Keller
  • The Diary of a Young Girl  by Anne Frank
  • Losing My Virginity  by Richard Branson

A collection of letters and postcards

What is a Memoir?

Memoir comes from the French word  mémoire , meaning memory or reminiscence. Similar to an autobiography, a memoir is the story of a person’s life written by that person. These life stories are often from diary entries either from a first-person account or from a close family member or friend with access to personal diaries.

The difference between a memoir vs. an autobiography is that a memoir focuses on reflection and establishing an emotional connection, rather than simply presenting the facts about their life. The author uses their personal knowledge to tell an intimate and emotional story about the private or public happenings in their life. The author could be the person in the story, or it can be written by a close family member or friend who knew the subject person intimately. The topic is intentionally focused and does not include biographical or chronological aspects of the author’s life unless they are meaningful and relevant to the story.

Memoirs come in several types, all of which are written as an emotional account of the target person. They usually tell a story of a person who went through great struggles or faced challenges in a unique way. They can also cover confessionals where the memoir tells the story of the author’s account that contradicts another’s account.

This genre of writing is often stories covering famous people’s lives, such as celebrities. In many memoir projects, the celebrity or person of interest needs help with organization, writing the story, and fleshing out ideas from the person’s diaries. It might take several interviews before the story can be fully outlined and written, so it’s not uncommon for a memoir project to last several months.

Memoirs do not usually require as much research as biographies and autobiographies, because you have the personal accounts in diary entries and documents with the person’s thoughts. It might require several interviews, however, before the diary entries can be organized to give an accurate account on the person’s thoughts and emotions. The story does not necessarily need to be in chronological order compared to an autobiography, but it might be to tell a better story.

Examples of famous memoirs include:

  • Angela’s Ashes  by Frank McCourt
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings  by Maya Angelou
  • Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S.  Grant by Ulysses S. Grant

Autobiography vs. Biography vs. Memoir Comparison Chart

Check out some of our blogs to learn more about memoirs:

  • What is a memoir?
  • 5 tips for writing a memoir
  • Your memoir is your legacy

Ready to get started on your own memoir, autobiography, or biography? Download our free desktop book-making software, BookWright .

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Article contents

Life writing.

  • Craig Howes Craig Howes Department of English and Center for Biographical Research, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.1146
  • Published online: 27 October 2020

Since 1990, “life writing” has become a frequently used covering term for the familiar genres of biography, autobiography, memoir, diaries, letters, and many other forms of life narrative. Initially adopted as a critical intervention informed by post-structuralist, postmodernist, postcolonial, and especially feminist theory of the 1970s and 1980s, the term also refers to the study of life representation beyond the traditional literary and historical focus on verbal texts, encompassing not only other media—film, graphic narratives, online technologies, performance—but also research in other disciplines—psychology, anthropology, ethnic and Indigenous studies, political science, sociology, education, medicine, and any other field that records, observes, or evaluates lives.

While many critics and theorists still place their work within the realms of autobiography or biography, and others find life writing as a discipline either too ideologically driven, or still too confining conceptually, there is no question that life representation, primarily through narrative, is an important consideration for scholars engaged in virtually any field dealing with the nature and actions of human beings, or anything that lives.

  • autobiography
  • autofiction
  • life narrative

As Julie Rak noted in 2018 , Marlene Kadar’s essay “Coming to Terms: Life Writing—from Genre to Critical Practice,” although written in 1992 , still offers a useful account of life writing’s history as a term, and is still a timely reminder to examine constantly the often-buried theoretical assumptions defining and confining it. After noting that because “life writing” was in use before “biography” or “autobiography,” it “has always been the more inclusive term,” Kadar supplies a taxonomy in the form of a progressive history. Until the 1970s, “life writing” referred to “a particular branch of textual criticism” that subjected some biographies and autobiographies, and a scattering of letters and diaries, to the same literary-critical scrutiny commonly focused upon poetry, drama, or fiction. Kadar cites Donald J. Winslow’s Life-Writing as a locus for this understanding. 1 The problem lurking here is what Kadar elsewhere refers to as “the New Critical wolf”: theoretical assumptions that are “androcentric” and privilege notions of “objective truth and narrative regularity.” Clearly wanting to label this as residual, she turns to the then-current “more broadened version” of life writing. Its champions are primarily, though not exclusively, feminist literary critics devoted to “the proliferation, authorization, and recuperation” of autobiographical texts written by “literary,” but also “ordinary,” men and women. While the “ordinary” allows “personal narratives, oral narratives and life testimonies” and even “anthropological life histories” to enter the realm of life writing, this now-dominant understanding is nevertheless problematic, because it still tends to uncritically draw such binary distinctions as fiction/autobiography, literary/non-literary non-fiction, and even male/female. Heavily influenced by postmoderism, Kadar proposes a third, emergent vision of life writing that moves beyond a desire for fixity and canonization—“with laws and law-making”—by embracing a dynamic, constantly questioning methodology: “From Genre to Critical Practice.” 2

This approach gestures toward a focus upon intersectionality in “unofficial” writing—Kadar’s example is Frederick Douglass—and toward an expansive yet politically engaged life-writing practice that can “appreciate the canon, revise it where it sees fit, and forget it where it also sees fit.” 3 The same approach should be adopted toward such terms as “the autobiographical” or “life writing itself.” After describing life writing “as a continuum that spreads unevenly and in combined forms from the so-called least fictive narration to the most fictive,” she offers her own “working definition.” Life-writing texts “are written by an author who does not continuously write about someone else”—note how biography has at best been relegated to the fringes of the realm—and “who also does not pretend to be absent from the [black, brown, or white] text himself/herself.” Neither an archive nor a taxonomy of texts, life writing employs “an imperfect and always evolving hermeneutic,” where “classical, traditional, or postmodern” approaches coexist, rather than always being set against each other. 4

Kadar’s early-1990s assessment and prophecy will serve here as loose organizational principles for describing how the move “from Genre to Critical Practice” in the ensuing years has proved to be an astonishing, though contested, unfolding of life writing as a term encompassing more initiatives by diverse communities in many locations and media that even the far-sighted Marlene Kadar could have anticipated. Even so, her insistence that life-writing critics and theorists must continue to “resist and reverse the literary and political consequences” produced by impulses toward “ʻdepersonalization’ and unrelenting ʻabstraction’” still stands. 5

From Biography to Autobiography to Life Writing

Kadar’s support for life writing as the umbrella term came in the wake of an energetic focus on autobiography as the most critically and theoretically stimulating life-narrative genre. The academic journal Biography had begun appearing in 1978 , but for all its claims to be An Interdisciplinary Quarterly , it was assumed to be largely devoted to traditional biography criticism and theory. In 1980 , James Olney noted the “shift of attention from bios to autos —from the life to the self,” which he credited with “opening things up and turning them in a philosophical, psychological and literary direction.” 6 Biography scholars would have begged to differ. Discussions of psychology, with an emphasis on psychoanalysis, and of the aesthetics of literary biography, with special attention paid to affinities with the novel, had been part of biography’s critical and theoretical environment for a century. 7 Olney however was not just arguing for autobiography’s legitimacy, but for the primacy of autos within literature itself—a key claim of his landmark monograph Metaphors of Self . 8 Olney was a convener as well as a critic and theorist. Ricia Chansky identifies the “International Symposium on Autobiography and Autobiography Studies” Olney held in 1985 as “the moment when contemporary auto/biography studies emerged as a formal discipline within the academy”—not least because it led to the creation of a newsletter that soon became the journal a/b: Auto/Biography Studies . Although the slashes in the title—credited to Timothy Dow Adams—suggested that a/b would not privilege “self-life writing over life writing,” the variety and sheer number of critical and theoretical works devoted to autobiography in the ensuing years made it clear that for many, it was the more interesting genre. 9

Institutionalization and professional assertion soon followed. Sidonie Smith recalls “those heady days” of creating archives and bibliographies, but also of “writing against the grain, writing counterhistories, writing beyond conventional plots and tropes.” 10 As Olney had predicted, autobiography became a flash point for critical and theoretical writing in women’s studies—a trend heavily influencing Kadar’s thoughts on life writing, and canonized in Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader , whose introduction is still the most detailed account of how women critics and theorists from the 1970s to the late 1990s drew upon the most compelling feminist, post-structuralist, cultural, and political writing in their encounters with autobiographical texts. 11

This interest in autobiography—with or without the slash—produced an entire generation of influential writers. Because of their general eminence, Paul de Man’s and Roland Barthes’s comments on and experiments with autobiography were closely examined, but other theorists made autobiography their central attention. 12 Philippe Lejeune’s profoundly influential essay “The Autobiographical Pact” complemented Olney’s book on metaphors of self, and so did Paul John Eakin’s volumes Fictions of Autobiography and Touching the World as arguments for the genre’s legitimacy within literary studies. 13 A host of important books, collections, and anthologies soon followed, many with a strongly feminist approach. Sidonie Smith’s A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography was an important intervention into literary aesthetics, and Smith and Watson’s edited collection De/Colonizing the Subject forged important links between autobiography and feminist and postcolonial theory. 14 Many other feminist critics and theorists in Europe and North America in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s directed their attention as writers and editors to autobiography, among them collection editors Shari Benstock and Bella Brodsky and Celeste Schenk; monograph writers Elizabeth Bruss, Leigh Gilmore, Caroline Heilbrun, Françoise Lionnet, Nancy K. Miller, and Liz Stanley; and essayists Susan Stanford Friedman and Mary G. Mason. Following in the tradition of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own , other feminist literary and cultural historians sought out forgotten or yet-to-be-discovered women autobiographers—Patricia Meyer Spacks for the 18th century ; Mary Jean Corbett, Regenia Gagnier, Linda H. Peterson, and Valerie Sanders for the long 19th century ; Estelle C. Jelinek from the time of antiquity; and collection editor Domna C. Stanton from the medieval period to the 20th century . 15

Often viewed through the lens of literary and cultural theory, autobiography therefore became the most-discussed life-writing genre in the 1980s, and has largely remained so ever since. But from the time of Kadar’s Essays on Life Writing , the term “life writing” became increasingly employed as the umbrella term for representing the lives of others, or of one’s self. The key intervention here was Margaretta Jolly’s landmark two-volume Encyclopedia of Life Writing . Published in 2001 , the title term encompasses Autobiographical and Biographical Forms , and through her contributors, Jolly accounts in 1,090 large double-column pages not just for the genres that could be considered life writing, but for life-writing practices in a host of world regions and historical periods. She emphasizes her subject’s interdisciplinary nature. Although the “writing of lives is an ancient and ubiquitous practice,” and the term “life writing” can in England be traced back to the late 17th or early 18th century , it has only gained “wide academic acceptance since the 1980s.” While noting that “the study of autobiography is the most-long-standing and sophisticated branch of analysis in the field”—a claim that biography scholars would dispute, at least with regard to duration—Jolly grants Kadar’s wish to expand beyond the literary by including entries grounded in “anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, theology, cultural studies, and even the biological sciences,” and in forms of life narrative “outside of the written form, including testimony, artifacts, reminiscence, personal narrative, visual arts, photography, film, oral history, and so forth.” 16

The Encyclopedia also provides “international and historical perspective through accounts of life writing traditions and trends from around the world, from Classical times to the present,” and covers “popular and everyday genres and contexts—from celebrity and royal biography to working-class autobiography, letter writing, interviews, and gossip”—a continuation of work, epitomized by Smith and Watson’s Getting a Life , that pays close attention to how “ordinary” lives are produced in a variety of public and institutional settings. 17 Like Kadar, Jolly notes the “crucial influence” of “Women’s Studies, Cultural Studies, African-American, and Post-Colonial Studies” upon autobiography studies’ emergence in the 1980s, and she also observes that many contributors use the term “auto/biography” to point toward a more capacious sense of the field. But also like Kadar, in an “effort to balance the emphasis on autobiography,” Jolly chooses “life writing” as her preferred term, because it can more easily accommodate “many aspects of this wide-ranging field, not to mention regions of the world, where life-writing scholarship remains in its infancy, or has yet to emerge.” 18 This ambitious and expansive reference work anticipates most of the ensuing developments in life writing.

In the same year appeared the first edition of Smith and Watson’s Reading Autobiography . Although retaining autobiography as the covering term—describing it as “a particular generic practice” that “became definitive for life writing in the West”—they share Jolly’s commitment to generic, historic, and geographical inclusivity, and take a highly detailed approach to clarifying terminology. 19 Echoing Kadar, they note that autobiography “has been vigorously challenged in the wake of postmodern and postcolonial critiques of the Enlightenment subject”—an entity whose “politics is one of exclusion.” In response, they grant that “life writing” is a more expansive term, because it can refer to “writing that takes a life, one’s own or another’s, as its subject,” whether “biographical, novelistic, historical, or explicitly self-referential.” But, always sensitive to new developments and dimensions, Smith and Watson suggest that “life narrative” is even more capacious, because it refers to “autobiographical [and presumably biographical] acts of any sort.” 20 With the added perspective of nine years, and then eighteen years for their second edition, Smith and Watson update Kadar’s 1992 account of the profound impact that feminist, postmodernist, and postcolonial theory have had upon life writing—although they still direct readers to their own Women, Autobiography, Theory for a more detailed “overview of representative theories and work up to the late 1990s.” 21 Their main point is that the theoretical work Kadar called for has been taking place: “the challenges posed by postmodernism’s deconstruction of any solid ground of selfhood and truth outside of discourse,” when coupled with “postcolonial theory’s troubling of established hierarchies of authority, tradition, and influence,” led life-writing critics and theorists to examine “generic instability, regimes of truth telling, referentiality, relationality, and embodiment,” which not only undermined “the earlier critical period’s understanding of canonical autobiography” but also “expanded the range of life writing and the kinds of stories critics may engage in rethinking the field of life narrative.” 22

An efficient two-page synopsis identifies the specific theoretical stimuli for this critical scrutiny. Lacanian psychoanalysis undercut the notion of the autonomous self, replacing it with a “split subject always constituted in language.” Derridean différance offers the insight that in life writing, as in all writing, “meaning is always in process, continuously put off, or deferred.” With Jean François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida also deconstructs the supposed boundaries between Truth and fiction, actually set by supposed “ʻmaster’” narratives. Louis Althusser’s linking of socioeconomic relations to subjectivity offers life-writing scholars interpolation as a concept for understanding life-narrative construction. Michel Foucault’s claim that discourse is an exercise of power tied to the construction of identity is also formative, and so is Bakhtinian heteroglossia as the counter to the fantasy of the unitary “I.” Feminist theory directs life-writing scholars’ attention to the relationship between the political and the personal, to the “cultural inscription and practices of embodiment,” and to the dangers inherent in universalized notions of “woman.” Frantz Fanon’s work on the colonial gaze foregrounds domination’s and subordination’s roles in the constitution of subjectivity, which postcolonial, ethnic, and feminist theorists all see as crucial for recognizing the minoritizing of subjectivity, and then decolonizing such constructions. Gay and queer studies reveal the performative nature of subjectivity, and undermine binary models of gender and sexuality. Cultural studies’ interest in “popular, public, and everyday forms of textuality, including everyday practices of self-narrating in verbal, visual, and mixed modes,” extends the range of life narratives that can be examined, and neurological studies offer insight into the brain’s material effects on memory, and into trauma’s impact on perceived identity. 23

In “Expanding Autobiography Studies,” the final chapter of their two-part critical history of the field, Smith and Watson list the important critical and theoretical initiatives of previous decades. Performativity, positionality, and relationality are presented as “Useful Theoretical Concepts.” Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter and Smith’s own Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body are cited as formative texts for recognizing that the self customarily thought of as “prior to the autobiographical expression or reflection is an effect of autobiographical storytelling.” 24 Paul John Eakin and Nancy K. Miller are credited with expanding the applicability of relationality beyond feminist theory and women’s autobiography and arriving at a virtually universal applicability for life writing. 25 The most important concept for contemporary life writing, however, is arguably positionality, because it helps critics and theorists evaluate how “culturally salient” subject positions, “always multiple and often contradictory,” find ways to tell their stories “at a particular historical moment.” Formed “at the intersections of multiple discursive trajectories,” certain life narratives insist on the significance of subjects who are dealing with “de/colonization, immigration, displacement, and exile.” Such narratives demand the critical use of such terms as “ hybrid, border, diasporic, mestiza, nomadic, migratory, minoritized ”; they also force theorists to consider the natures and purposes of Indigenous life writing. 26

Despite this emphasis on life writing as referential, registering changes in practice still tends to involve identifying and tracking what Smith and Watson call “Emergent Genres of Life Narrative.” 27 Their second edition ( 2010 ) foregrounds trauma narratives, disability life writing, and human rights narratives and testimonio ; life writing appearing from a much wider range of locations, organized under the title “Critical Geographies”; narratives that foreground developments in neuroscience, memory, and genetics; the myriad of life representations arising out of the turbulent realm of “Digitalized Forms and Identities”; the templates or familiar genres deployed for recording “Everyday Lives”; and, more generally, autocritical scholarship, which requires critics or theorists to position themselves in relation to the narratives they choose to record or study and, in some cases, to recognize the necessity of being a part or a member of the group or population whose life stories are at issue.

Smith and Watson end their anatomy and history of autobiography by noting that the many “contesting approaches” to life writing are also adding many formerly “marginal” forms to “the canon of autobiography.” In the 2010 edition, Appendix A offers definitions for “Sixty Genres of Life Narrative,” up from the fifty-two provided in the first edition. But Smith and Watson “conclude” that increases in the number of relevant texts and presenting media will lead to major shifts in critical and theoretical debates, even though at bottom, a life narrative is always “a rhetorical act embedded in the history of specific communities.” 28

Backlash, Boomlash, and Boom Echo

Raymond Williams and Marlene Kadar would both acknowledge that treating ideologies or forms of life writing as residual, dominant, or emergent, and therefore capable of being mapped onto a historical or progressive continuum, can neither assume the disappearance of earlier stages, nor prevent resurgences and unpredictable alliances. 29 Take for example the history of critical debates since the late 20th century about the relationship between biography and life writing. The focus on autobiography as the central concern for critics has often been explicit: Marlene Kadar’s 1992 provisional definition of life writing ruled out authors who “continuously write about someone else.” 30 In response, many biographers and some theorists have insisted on biography’s continuing significance, and even centrality. Everyone involved tends to agree that biography was once dominant, but is now either residual, or treated as such. But in the 21st century highly unlikely allies have been calling for a “Biographical Turn,” which for some means re-evaluating what it means to tell another’s life in different historical and cultural contexts, and for others actually means a “Return” to pre-eminence—emergent and residual, yet united in asserting biography’s value. 31

Insisting that biography’s strongest affinities lie with history, and not literature or cultural studies, Hans Renders has arguably been the most visible defender of biography against the onslaught of life writing, which he considers a “shift” into an “ideology” emerging from “comparative literature and gender and cultural studies.” According to Renders, life-writing critics and theorists present autobiographers, and sometimes themselves, as “victimized by social context” and therefore, in Michael Holroyd’s words, seeking “retrospective justice.” 32 The biographer or biography theorist respects the “scholarly imperative to analyze the world (including the past) as objectively as possible”—not “to correct injustice,” but to “understand it better.” Conversely, those who study life writing seem preoccupied with “battered and raped women,” “Mothering Narratives,” “ʻJewish Women and Comics,’” “homosexuals,” and self-proclaimed victims of “climate change” or “racism, and social exclusion.” 33 The emphasis on gender here can be read as a response to the profound impact of feminist theory on autobiography and life-writing studies, and the gestures to race and class as resistance to the tenor of emergent life-narrative scholarship.

What must also be accounted for is the sustained production of biography by trade and university publishers. Throughout the memoir boom that so many theorists, critics, and reviewers have declared, highly conventional single-volume biographies have appeared regularly, speaking to the continued public interest in what Hans Renders calls “the biographical tradition, based on individuals like Hitler or Einstein, but also less famous persons.” 34 The indisputable success of The Biographer’s Craft newsletter ( 2008 –) and the creation of the Biographers International Organization (BIO; 2010 –), with its hugely popular annual conferences, counter biography’s residual status in much life-writing criticism and theory with its continued prominence in the public sphere. And arguably, most BIO members prefer it that way. Like many poets, playwrights, and novelists, biographers are often wary of critics and theorists of literature, preferring at their conferences to discuss publishing possibilities, or to receive advice on research and writing, rather than engage in theoretical or critical analysis of biography as a genre. 35

But of course, life-writing scholars are also interested in production, with Julie Rak as the most prominent cultural historian and theorist who insists that publication and distribution are salient, and even essential, subjects of study. Although primarily concerned with autobiography, her 2013 book Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market focuses on books “written, published, sold in bookstores and circulated by public libraries for people like my grandmother.” Rak presents non-fiction “as part of a production cycle” of “commodities that are manufactured for a market by an industry,” paying close attention to the mechanics of publication, distribution, classification for purposes of sales, and advertising for books “produced by mainstream presses for large audiences”—a critical interest that she paved the way for by editing a special issue on popular auto/biography for the Canadian Review of American Studies . 36 The affordances and filters that particular models of production impose upon life narratives are technological correlatives to the ideologically informed reception that certain kinds of life writing and testimony encounter when they venture into the world. Most notably, in Tainted Witness , Leigh Gilmore evaluates how women’s life narratives arouse powerful, at times hysterical, and even violent constraints upon what they are allowed to say about life conditions, or about the actions of others—and especially powerful men. 37 Though genres and chosen media may range from published memoirs or testimonio , to congressional hearings, to court trials, to social media venues and campaigns, the dynamics are the same. Women’s life-writing narratives threaten to disrupt or damage a man’s supposed life script by adding to it details of abuse, or cruelty, or criminality. It would be hard to imagine a more vivid example of what Hans Renders objects to in life writing, but the social and political significance of such narratives also explains why they could never easily be relegated to a marginal subgenre of biography. In fact, the power dynamics in Renders’s paradigm between male-centered “objective” biography and female-produced “victim” life writing mirror those in the scenarios that Gilmore evaluates.

The rest of this article maps out the most notable developments in life-narrative scholarship since the late 20th century , drawing principally on the “Annual Bibliography of Works about Life Writing,” an annotated list of books, edited collections and special issues, individual articles, and dissertations that appears in Biography : An Interdisciplinary Quarterly . The sample contains roughly 21,000 entries; the discussion here will concentrate on books, edited collections, and special issues because they represent formidable and sustained studies of some aspect of the field, or point to a community of scholars engaged in similar work. While essentially tracing out Kadar’s three-stage progressive account of life writing, this article will also provide examples of critical and theoretical practice to elaborate on the expansions, revisions, departures, and interventions that the practice of life-writing and life-narrative scholarship has produced. The discussion concludes by identifying a few ideas that might offer new directions or understandings for those interested in how lives are represented.

Biography Studies Sustained—Residual as Dominant and Emergent

For a genre supposedly lapsing into subordinate status or irrelevance, biography continues to attract a great deal of critical and theoretical attention. Though usually retracing that familiar Western trajectory running from Rome through to contemporary trade publications, historical or thematic overviews, often written by well-known biographers, appear regularly. Some are reader-friendly primers, such as Nigel Hamilton’s Brief History , Hermione Lee’s Very Short Introduction , and Andrew Brown’s Brief History of Biography: From Plutarch to Celebs , all of which appeared in the early 21st century . More “weighty” accounts include Catherine N. Parke’s Biography: Writing Lives and Paula R. Backscheider’s Reflections , both published in the 1990s. 38 Before any of these histories, however, came Carl Rollyson’s Biography: An Annotated Bibliography ( 1992 ), which organized and annotated the critical literature in English. Arguably the most prolific writer on biography theory and criticism, Rollyson has published many biographies—political, literary, and cinematic—and several guides and essay collections about theory and practice. 39 Biography: A User’s Guide , for instance, discusses keywords alphabetically; Hans Renders and Nigel Hamilton adopt a similar format for The ABC of Modern Biography . 40 A popular sub-genre comprises books for would-be biographers written by famous practitioners. Extending back to Leon Edel, more recent examples include Michael Holroyd’s Works on Paper , Carl Rollyson’s Confessions of a Serial Biographer , and Nigel Hamilton’s How to Do Biography —a companion volume to his Brief History . 41

Literary lives appear prominently in all of these works, and many texts take them as their subject. John Batchelor’s The Art of Literary Biography and Warwick Gould and Thomas F. Staley’s Writing the Lives of Writers are edited collections arising out of conferences in the 1990s; more recently, Robert Dion and Frédéric Regard have edited Les nouvelles écritures biographiques , and Richard Bradford has overseen a substantial Companion to Literary Biography . 42 Individual monographs include Michael Benton’s Towards a Poetics of Literary Biography , and Rana Tekcan’s Too Far for Comfort . And even though she has reservations about focusing on female writers, Alison Booth’s How to Make It as a Woman is a detailed and insightful study of literary biography in the 19th and 20th centuries . 43

Despite literary biography’s apparently privileged status, historians have also explored biography’s significance to their field. Barbara Caine’s Biography and History was followed by two edited collections from the Netherlands: Hans Renders and Binne de Haan’s Theoretical Discussions of Biography ; and Renders, de Haan, and Jonne Harmsma’s The Biographical Turn . Both volumes argue for biography as a historical genre that does not share life writing’s preoccupations with race, class, and gender. That the distinction is significant is also suggested by the title of Tanya Evans and Robert Reynolds’s “Introduction to this Special Issue on Biography and Life-Writing” for disclosure . 44 German historians have also displayed a strong interest in biography, in edited clusters such as Atiba Pertilla’s and Uwe Spiekermann’s “The Challenge of Biography,” or Sarah Panter’s Mobility and Biography . 45

Monographs and collections have delineated specific periods and locations for study. Thomas Hägg’s The Art of Biography in Antiquity has some affinities with the Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography , edited by Stephanos Efthymiadis; with Sharpe and Zwicker’s edited collection on early modern England; and with Mombert and Rosellini’s edited volume Usages des vies . Juliette Atkinson’s Victorian Biography Reconsidered is an astute and suggestive study of England’s intense preoccupation with various forms of the genre. 46 And while such works tend to confine themselves to Western Europe—Great Britain, France, and Germany/Austria—or the United States, collections have focused on other regions, among them Eastern Europe and the Nordic countries. 47

Despite the longstanding suspicion of considering biography through the lens of contemporary theory, a substantial number of such works have appeared since c. 2005 , many from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for the History and Theory of Biography in Vienna. Wilhelm Hemecker, its director, has edited or co-edited several volumes; among them is the remarkable Theorie der Biographie , co-edited with Bernhard Fetz, which contains excerpts from famous authors and theorists with special relevance for biography—Samuel Johnson, Thomas Carlyle, William Dilthey, Sigfried Kracauer, Michel Foucault, the Vienna psychoanalysts—paired with commentaries by contemporary biography scholars. Fetz also edited Die Biographie—Zur Grundlegung ihrer Theorie , which appeared in 2009 . 48 More than a decade earlier, a similar overview was provided by Biographical Creation / La création biographique , an English/French volume edited by Marta Dvorak. 49 Monographs taking a sustained theoretical approach to biography are relatively rare. Two of the most notable are Susan Tridgell’s Understanding Our Selves and Caitríona Ní Dhúill’s Metabiography , an impressive overview by a scholar formerly at the Boltzmann Institute. 50

The subtitle of the journal Biography promises interdisciplinary scholarship. Thanks largely to Freud, psychoanalytic and psychological approaches to life narrative have appeared for over a century, with psychobiography emerging as a clearly delineated discipline. Alan C. Elms’s Uncovering Lives led the way, with William Todd Schultz’s Handbook of Psychobiography offering a synthesis of scholarly activity by such researchers as psychologist Dan P. McAdams, author of The Redemptive Self and many other studies of personality. 51 Other social sciences at times have taken their own biographical turn, among them both archaeology and anthropology. 52

Indigenous studies scholarship represents a significant emerging engagement. A special issue of Biography entitled “Indigenous Conversations about Biography” explores the genre’s value and dangers for researchers recovering or creating archives, histories, and life records. In The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen , Noenoe K. Silva refers to her method of establishing critical and publishing genealogies for Hawaiians writing in Hawaiian in the 19th and early 20th centuries as bio-bibliography. Fine arts scholars are also assessing what biography contributes to their disciplines. Melanie Unseld’s Biographie und Musikgeschichte examines the genre’s usefulness for those interested in musical culture and historiography, and a Biography special issue entitled “Verse Biography” should not be immediately conflated with literary biography. Though the lives discussed are in verse, the subjects are not necessarily writers. 53

In their introduction to “Indigenous Conversations about Biography,” Alice Te Punga Somerville and Daniel Heath Justice note that even though the term “life writing” is common in academic circles, and even though the plan for the seminar for contributors held in Honolulu was to “unpack, repack, and throw out terms once we’re at the table,” they chose to stay with biography because it “is well-known in Indigenous circles,” concluding that “there is still life in this old term ʻbiography’ yet.” 54 The same can be said for the publishing world; in fact, “biographies” are regularly appearing for non-human subjects. Noted biographer and novelist Peter Ackroyd published London: The Biography in 2000 ; the “concise” version followed in 2012 . In Britain, biographies of the Ordnance Survey and the English Breakfast have also appeared. 55 Resisting relegation, biography can still raise and fulfill expectations of a chronological, substantial, and interesting narrative that deals with real subjects, human or otherwise—a good story, with the added virtue of being true.

Autobiography and Auto/Biography—Mapping Self-Representation

If autobiography studies began in the late 1970s, its institutionalization occurred in the mid- and late 1980s, and its later codification came with the journal a/b: Auto/Biography Studies and works such as Smith and Watson’s Reading Autobiography , the years since 1990 have also seen sustained efforts to define and further theorize the genre in ways that expand its range and history. Handbooks such as the two editions of Linda Anderson’s Autobiography and Laura Marcus’s Autobiography: A Very Short Introduction offer brief, engaging entries into the genre’s past and present. Other efforts to map out auto/biography as a generic marker and critical practice include The Routledge Auto/Biography Studies Reader , edited by Ricia Anne Chansky and Emily Hipchen. Much of the content first appeared in the pages of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies , which they co-edit. Ashley Barnwell and Kate Douglas’s co-edited Research Methodologies for Auto/Biography Studies provides an overview of work being conducted in the field as the 21st century enters its third decade, often with suggestions for future directions. 56

Volumes devoted to theory include Carole Allamand’s book about Philippe Lejeune’s great influence on “ l’autobiographie en théorie ” or Lia Nicole Brozgal’s Against Autobiography . Marlene Kadar’s emphasis on the postmodern is mirrored in edited collections by Ashley et al. and Couser and Fichtelberg, and in Gunnthórunn Gudmundsdóttir’s monograph Borderlines . 57 Other scholars turned their attention to the field’s historical and geographical reach. 58 In the United States, slave narratives have been a major subject for research. William L. Andrews’s To Tell a Free Story and Slavery and Class in the American South have been major contributions to this field. 59 If we add Rachel McLennan’s American Autobiography , the result is an emphatic rejection of Georges Gusdorf’s highly influential claim that autobiography was an 18th-century product of the Western European Enlightenment. 60

Over the course of his career, Paul John Eakin, one of the early champions of autobiographies as literary texts, has shifted his attention to autobiographies as foundational, even neurological, imperatives in all people. As the titles of How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves and Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative suggest, his close readings of published autobiographies are gestures toward identifying the structures and narratives of consciousness that constitute humans as humans. More philosophical in emphasis, Richard Freadman’s Threads of Life shares Eakin’s conviction that autobiography offers valuable information about human nature. 61 Autobiography has however attracted most critical and theoretical interest in the realm of the political, often with feminism as the starting point. Liz Stanley’s The Auto/Biographical I and Laura Marcus’s Auto/Biographical Discourses were influential British monographs; and Broughton and Anderson’s edited collection, Women’s Lives/Women’s Times , turned the tables by suggesting that autobiography could contribute to feminist theory, as well as the other way around. Many of these monographs and collections were powerfully shaped by work on the distinctiveness of women’s writing, most notably the autobiographical/theoretical texts of Hélène Cixous such as Rootprints , which emerged from her famous writings in the 1970s on l’écriture féminine . Noted memoirists such as Jill Ker Conway, in her When Memory Speaks , also evaluate how differently men and women understand and write about their lives. 62

Other scholars have worked to establish traditions of women’s self-representation, whether Florence S. Boos in Memoirs of Victorian Working-Class Women ; Laura Beard’s Acts of Narrative Resistance , which focuses on autobiographical writing in the Americas; or Marilyn Booth’s Journal of Women’s History special issue, “Women’s Autobiography in South Asia and the Middle East.” Some of the most visible theoretical works address the challenges of speaking out through autobiography against political or social repression. A 2008 special issue of Women’s Studies Quarterly was simply entitled “Witness.” Two of the best-known monographs are Gillian Whitlock’s Soft Weapons , which investigates the strategies Middle Eastern women employ to attract Western audiences in order to inform them about life during a time of forced globalization, emigration, and wars on terror; and Leigh Gilmore’s previously mentioned Tainted Witness , which looks at high-profile witnesses such as Anita Hill and Rigoberta Menchú to analyze the relationship between gender and credibility within patriarchal cultures. 63

Though strongly influenced by feminist theory, other critics and theorists extend their discussions of testimony out to a wide range of locations and chosen media. Cynthia Franklin and Laura E. Lyons co-edited “Personal Effects: The Testimonial Uses of Life Writing” as a special issue of Biography . The essays in Tracing the Autobiographical , edited by Marlene Kadar and colleagues, explore the interplay between genre, location, national politics, ethics, and life narrative. Although Leigh Gilmore entitled her 2000 monograph The Limits of Autobiography , subtitled Trauma, Testimony, Theory— and although a 2008 Southern Review special issue explores “The Limits of Testimony”—developments such as the Me Too movement suggest that personal witnessing by the abused or persecuted will continue to attract the attention of autobiography scholars. 64

A similar impulse accounts for the close attention being paid to autobiographical sub-genres. Prominent among these is memoir, which some would argue should become the covering term. G. Thomas Couser’s Memoir: An Introduction offers a concise yet rich overview of the form, with an emphasis on American memoir, while Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History provides a detailed account of the form’s fortunes over time. Both Couser and Yagoda move smoothly between “literary” examples and more commercial texts, acknowledging that popular publications of the 21st century are primarily responsible for many critics and reviewers declaring that we are living during a memoir “boom.” As with autobiography, however, some critics are hesitant to let this form of life writing refer to almost any mode of self-representation. A 2018 edited collection describes its task as Mediating Memory: Tracing the Limits of Memoir . 65

Autobiography scholars have also directed their attention to the less prestigious, and even unpublished sub-genres of written self-representation. Philippe Lejeune’s longstanding interest in personal journals has resulted in articles and books drawing their subjects from over four centuries and a variety of media—from manuscripts to computer screens. On Diary , a collection of English translations on the subject, is similar in its distillation of stimulating thought to On Autobiography , Lejeune’s landmark 1989 collection. The sheer number, variety, and importance of his publications confirm his status as a pre-eminent scholar of self-representation since the 1980s. In French, his work on diary is complemented by such works as Françoise Simonet-Tenant’s Le journal intime . In English, decades before On Diary appeared, Lejeune made an important contribution to Inscribing the Daily , edited by Suzanne L. Bunkers and Cynthia A. Huff. In that same collection, Helen Buss’s “A Feminist Revision of New Historicism to Give Fuller Readings of Women’s Private Writing” offers another example of how contemporary feminist theory engaged with other theoretical movements, and often did so by drawing upon autobiography as a source for hidden or “sub-literary” women’s texts. 66

Since c. 1990 , the auto- in auto/biography studies has largely set the agenda for theoretical and critical approaches to life writing; indeed, for many scholars, autobiography is all but synonymous with life narrative. But as Marlene Kadar noted in 1992 , the term “life writing” offers possibilities for study that autobiography cannot accommodate, or will even distort, as a survey of what has been pursued under the life banner makes all too clear. 67

Life Writing and Life Narrative—Emergence and Pervasion

In the years since Margaretta Jolly’s Encyclopedia of Life Writing appeared, many substantial works have addressed aspects and practices of life writing as an interdiscipline. Zachary Leader’s On Life-Writing is one of his many publications as a critic, theorist, and editor, and although literary biography is Richard Bradford’s primary interest, in his edited collection Life Writing: Essays on Autobiography, Biography and Literature , the term serves as a container for the more familiar designations. The title of Life Writing in the Long Run: A Smith & Watson Autobiography Studies Reader , a compendium of the most influential essays by two of autobiography’s most prolific and prominent critics, theorists, and editors, does something similar, and in fact many prominent a/b theorists have made the shift, at least in their titles, to a “life” designation. Liz Stanley’s 2013 edited collection is called Documents of Life Revisited , and the title of her 2010 guest-edited special issue of Life Writing is “In Dialogue: Life Writing and Narrative Inquiry.” Perhaps most significantly, almost twenty years after his landmark discussion of metaphors of self, James Olney, the acknowledged founder of autobiography studies, published Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing . 68

The term increasingly appeared in publications about its fortunes in academia. When Miriam Fuchs and I edited a volume for the Modern Language Association’s Options for Teaching series, in the interests of full coverage, we entitled it Teaching Life Writing Texts . A decade later, Laurie McNeill and Kate Douglas’s a/b: Auto/Biography Studies special issue on pedagogy, and the resulting Routledge edited collection, were both called “Teaching Lives: Contemporary Pedagogies of Life Narratives.” For its two clusters on the subject, the European Journal of Life Writing took the same title as Fuchs and me, with the obvious addition “in Europe.” 69

As has been the case with both biography and autobiography, as part of its codification life writing has undergone a great deal of historical and regional analysis. Sometimes the results are interdisciplinary, such as Penny Summerfield’s Histories of the Self , but in the case of the multi-volume Oxford History of Life-Writing (Zachary Leader gen. ed.) the goal is to produce a comprehensive survey. The first two volumes, covering the Middle Ages and the early modern period respectively, appeared in 2018 . Other decidedly British, period-based publications include David Amigoni’s edited collection Life Writing and Victorian Culture , and Andrew Tate’s special issue of Nineteenth Century Contexts , “Victorian Life Writing.” 70 The historical focus extends to France and Germany in the Modern Language Studies special issue “Co-Constructed Selves: Nineteenth-Century Collaborative Life Writing.” Entirely European surveys include Écrire des vies: Espagne, France, Italie, XVIe–XVIIIe siècle, and German Life Writing in the Twentieth Century . 71

Continuing in the tradition of feminist critical interventions through autobiography, life writing has become a covering term for studies of women’s writing over the centuries and around the world. Some publications explicitly link theoretical positions to life writing; for instance, the Prose Studies special issue devoted to “Women’s Life Writing and Imagined Communities,” which puts Benedict Anderson’s brand of political science and cultural history into play. Other works employ life writing to map out genealogies of women authors and intellectuals. The edited collection Writing Medieval Women’s Lives reclaims a number of European subjects, and after writing Romancing the Self in Early Modern Englishwomen’s Life Writing , Julie Eckerle co-edited Women’s Life Writing and Early Modern Ireland with Naomi McAreavey. Reversing the pattern, Amy Culley followed up Women’s Life Writing, 1700–1850 , a collection co-edited with Daniel Cook, with a monograph entitled British Women’s Life Writing, 1760–1840 . 72 Susan Civale’s Romantic Women’s Life Writing covers much of the British nineteenth century , as does “Silence in the Archives: Censorship and Suppression in Women’s Life Writing,” a special issue of 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century . Another co-edited collection, Women’s Life Writing and the Practice of Reading , ranges from slave narratives to Virginia Woolf. Finally, in Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism , Margaretta Jolly argues for the enduring power of written correspondence, whether on paper or as e-mail. 73

Delineations of criticism and theory from specific regions have adopted life writing as an organizing principle. “African American Life Writing” is the title of an a/b: Auto/Biography Studies special issue; other volumes dealing with North American subjects include Viola Amato’s Shifts in the Representation of Intersex Lives in North American Literature and Popular Culture , and Katherine Adams’s monograph Owning Up . 74 Ongoing work on European life writing has resulted in several survey collections. Life Writing Matters in Europe , paradoxically published in the Winter-Verlag American Studies series, is one of the more expansive volumes, but the region examined can be more specific, as in Simona Mitroiu’s Life Writing and Politics of Memory in Eastern Europe , or the European Journal of Life Writing ’s cluster “Life Writing Trajectories in Post- 1989 Eastern Europe”—despite the fact that “Eastern Europe” is a highly contested term. 75 A life-narrative focus can also govern work on non-European and non-North American regions, whether Africa, Australia, the Pacific, or South East Asia. 76 As for India, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies has featured a cluster entitled “Narratives of Transformation: Religious Conversion and Indian Traditions of Life Writing,” and Biography ’s 2017 special issue, “Caste and Life Narratives,” has been republished in India as an edited collection. An especially ambitious effort at global reach is Locating Life Stories: Beyond East-West Binaries in (Auto)Biographical Studies , which features essays about Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa, Great Britain, Hawaiʻi, Iraq, Australia, India, and China as part of its effort to interrogate the dominance of Euro-American theoretical paradigms. 77

A number of prominent scholars have devoted books to decolonial, postcolonial, and diasporic life writing. Bart Moore-Gilbert’s Postcolonial Life-Writing presented itself as “the first critical assessment” of such texts in English. Philip Holden’s Autobiography and Decolonization casts a wide net in its analysis of life writing by Asian and African leaders of countries emerging from imperial occupation, and Gillian Whitlock’s Postcolonial Life Narratives surveys 18th- to 21st-century works by Indigenous and settler life writers on at least four continents. Edited collections include the 2013 special issue of Life Writing entitled “Women’s Life Writing and Diaspora,” and the books Ethnic Life Writing and Histories and Transculturing Auto/Biography . 78

Life writing has become a common component across disciplinary fields. “The Work of Life Writing,” an a/b: Auto/Biography Studies special issue, features articles grounded in family dynamics, working-class autobiography, ethnography, ecological studies, philosophy, medicine, political and social commentary, and institutional investigations. Paul John Eakin’s edited collection The Ethics of Life Writing foregrounds the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, but also explores testimonio , race, disclosure, and life writing as an agent of harm. David Parker’s The Self in Moral Space examines life writing as a site for ethical analysis. Life Writing has published a special issue entitled “Philosophy and Life Writing,” and Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies one called “Life Writing as Empathy.” On a more discursive note, Joan Ramon Resina’s edited collection Inscribed Identities focuses on language as constitutive of the subject. 79

Vulnerability and precarity are central concerns for many life-writing sub-genres. Since the late 20th century , G. Thomas Couser has been the most prominent scholar exploring the relationship between life narrative and disability in his monographs and edited and co-edited collections. 80 Trauma in its various forms has been an important concern for life-writing scholars. Suzette A. Henke’s Shattered Subjects was one of the first publications to address profound physical and psychological upheavals, experienced personally or collectively. Susanna Egan’s Mirror Talk examines how crisis leads to cultural expression in media ranging from film to hybrid literary forms, and from quilting to comics. Miriam Fuchs’s The Text Is Myself explores the different forms life writing can take in response to historical, political, and personal assault. Gillian Whitlock and Kate Douglas’s co-edited Trauma Texts began as a special issue of Life Writing entitled “Trauma in the Twenty-First Century”; another edited collection in this field is Haunted Narratives: Life Writing in an Age of Trauma . 81 Meg Jensen’s The Art and Science of Trauma and the Autobiographical discusses prison poems, testimonio , war memorials, and other sites of commemoration as “complex interrogative negotiations of trauma and its aftermath.” Life writing and medicine has been attracting increasing attention. Mita Banerjee’s Medical Humanities in American Studies is a representative example. 82

Trauma can also be collective and global, and life writing often proves to be a crucial factor in judgment and restitution. Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith’s Human Rights and Narrated Lives explores how personal narratives often serve as the chosen response to national violence and deliberate crimes against humanity. Meg Jensen and Margaretta Jolly’s edited collection We Shall Bear Witness , and Katja Kurz’s monograph Narrating Contested Lives , both of which appeared in 2014 , also discuss life writing in the context of human rights. Testimony against institutional abuse is the subject of Melissa Dearey’s Radicalization , and social movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter foreground life narrative as a strategy for opposing oppression and violence carried out by state agents and those invested in economic, political, or cultural dominance. Brittney Cooper and Treva B. Lindsey’s co-edited special issue of Biography , “M4BL and the Critical Matter of Black Lives,” combines theory and personal testimony in an innovative manner. 83

Are Life Narratives always Life Writing?

Many critical and theoretical works of the 21st century seem to leave the writing behind—a major reason life narrative is increasingly chosen as the covering term. While Marianne Hirsch’s Family Frames is one of the most important books on life writing for many reasons, her attention to the power of images on the understanding of the past, extending even to Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir Maus , has been profoundly influential. By calling attention to the frequent disjunctions between text and photographs, Timothy Dow Adams’s Light Writing & Life Writing is also a transitional text of sorts, anticipating the emergence of comics and other visual and verbal hybrids as major sites for examining life representation. 84 “Autographics,” a Biography special issue co-edited by Gillian Whitlock and Anna Poletti, is one of many collections and monographs that explore how life narratives are embodied in comic and other graphic forms. Hillary Chute, a prolific editor, interviewer, archivist, critic, and theorist of comics, has published two monographs that document the intersections of comics, life writing, feminism, and history: Graphic Women and Disaster Drawn . 85 Michael A. Chaney’s Reading Lessons in Seeing , and his edited collection Graphic Subjects , are substantial contributions to theorizing the interplay between life writing and comics. Elisabeth El Refaie’s Autobiographical Comics is another extended study, and Candida Rifkind and Linda Warley’s co-edited collection Canadian Graphic is devoted to a single country’s comics life-writing production. 86

Critical and theoretical work on other hybrid genres includes Anna Poletti’s Intimate Ephemera , Ellen Gruber Garvey’s Writing with Scissors , and Hertha D. Sweet Wong’s Picturing Identity , which discusses forms ranging from book art to comics to sketch illustrations to geographic installations. Almost any life-writing analysis must now engage with the pervasiveness of visual representation, which can be recognized as having been an important component for many centuries as well. For instance, the texts examined in Leigh Gilmore and Elizabeth Marshall’s Witnessing Girlhood , a study of testimonial traditions that draws together gender, youth, and race, range from slave narratives and testimonio to comics and picture books. 87

Responding to the proliferation of critical and theoretical engagements across genres, media, and disciplines, in a special issue of Life Writing , and a subsequent book, co-editors David McCooey and Maria Takolander ask what “the limits of life writing,” if any, might be. Gillian Whitlock and G. Thomas Couser implicitly ask the same question in their co-edited Biography special issue entitled “(Post)Human Lives”; and in another Biography special issue, “Life Writing and Corporate Personhood,” co-editors Purnima Bose and Laura E. Lyons's examine how analogies to human life narratives pervade institutional and business self-promotion. Grounding lives in natural environments is the organizing principle for Alfred Hornung and Zhao Baisheng’s co-edited collection Ecology and Life Writing . 88 Just as trade publishers are labeling engaging narratives about anything from God to salt as biographies, so the critical concept of life writing is being stretched to contain virtually anything that presents or mimics a human story.

In terms of critical and theoretical attention, however, no medium for life narratives has been more immediately recognized in its emergence, or more closely examined, than what a pair of Biography special issues have identified as “Online Lives” and “Online Lives 2.0.” Anna Poletti and Julie Rak address the same phenomenon in their edited collection Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online . 89 The prevalence, and even dominance, of life narratives in online environments has caused critics and theorists to recalibrate their work to account for this migration and mediation. This is especially true for studies of young life writers. The title of Emma Maguire’s book Girls, Autobiography, Media: Gender and Self-Mediation in Digital Economies takes for granted that the narratives to be discussed will be online, and Kate Douglas and Anna Poletti’s Life Narratives and Youth Culture ranges from more traditional memoirs, letters, and diaries to social media. 90

Moving beyond the exclusively written has also revivified a longstanding awareness of biography as performance. Popular from film’s earliest days, the biopic has attracted substantial critical and theoretical attention. George Custen’s pathbreaking volume Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History was published in 1992 , and a Biography special issue entitled “The Biopic,” edited by Glenn Man, appeared in 2000 . Originally a special issue of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies , William H. Epstein and R. Barton Palmer’s co-edited Invented Lives, Imagined Communities dwells on the history and the cultural shaping force of film biographies. While providing a historical overview, Dennis Bingham’s massive Whose Lives Are They Anyway? focuses on post-World War II films, with a particular emphasis on biopics with women subjects. Tom Brown and Belén Vidal’s co-edited collection The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture takes on a similar subject. 91 Biopic critics’ interest in actors and impersonation links their work to life-writing studies of performance. Ryan Claycomb’s Lives in Play argues that since the 1970s, life narratives have been central to the construction and performance of feminist theater. A special issue of LiNQ: Connected Writing and Scholarship entitled “Performing Lives” focuses upon the literal and metaphorical aspects of performance resulting from life writing’s migration “into other media including film, television, online, theatre, and the gallery.” Other scholars are studying those figures whose performance of their public identities led to great and enduring notoriety or acclaim. Clara Tuite’s Lord Byron and Scandalous Celebrity subordinates the events of Byron’s life to a study of the fascination he aroused, and continued to arouse, in the public. Daniel Herwitz discusses celebrity in The Star as Icon , and Katja Lee and Lorraine York tackle a similar subject in their co-edited collection Celebrity Cultures in Canada , though they restrict their stargazing to a single country. 92 Fan studies are an integral part of popular-culture scholarship, employing a vocabulary awash in terms such as idols, icons, influencers, and “reality” stars.

The quotation marks around “reality” point to a critical commonplace about life writing—that as acts of representation, such texts necessarily employ fictional materials and constructs. The veracity claims of life-writing texts, captured in a term like non-fiction, are always under scrutiny, and sometimes considered subordinate to concerns with aesthetics or craft—a belief expressed in the term “creative non-fiction.” Efforts to blur or eliminate the borders between fiction and non-fiction are often motivated by a desire to absorb life narratives back into the domain of literature, and principally prose fiction, where the commitment to art may require writers to remake historical fact or the contents of memory in response to the demands of form and aesthetics. Although Serge Doubrovsky is credited with coining the term “autofiction” in the 1970s to describe his own work, many critical and theoretical monographs treat this process as their principal concern, among them Max Saunders’s Self-Impression , and Gunnthórunn Gudmundsdóttir’s Representations of Forgetting in Life Writing and Fiction . Edited collections also address the significance of these generic boundaries. Chief among these is Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf’s three-volume Handbook of Autobiogography/Autofiction . In Life Writing and Literary Métissage as an Ethos of Our Times, Erika Hasebe-Ludt, Cynthia M. Chambers, and Carl Leggo suggest that the interplay between personal histories and aesthetics has a profound moral component, while the title Experiments in Life-Writing: Intersections of Auto/Biography and Fiction suggests where that volume’s editors consider the most interesting of those experiments to occur. A related juxtaposition appears in the title of Jean-Louis Jeannelle and Catherine Viollet’s co-edited volume Genèse et autofiction , and the title of Helena Grice’s Asian American Fiction, History, and Life Writing lays out a continuum of sorts. 93

The greatest champion for biofiction as a sub-discipline is critic and theorist Michael Lackey, who has written, edited, or co-edited numerous books and collections. 94 It is fair to say that those interested in biofiction are primarily concerned with how the historical is drawn into the literary, and that the resulting sub-genre’s appeal is not its historical veracity, but its enlistment of history and biography in the cause of literary aesthetics. One parallel but distinctly different area of interest regards the hoax life narrative. Susanna Egan’s Burdens of Proof evaluates a number of texts produced through literary imposture, and Nancy K. Miller’s “The Entangled Self” is an astute and suggestive discussion of the issue. 95

The discussion has travelled full circle—from a virtual abandonment of the desire to see life writing as literature, or even necessarily verbal, with a corresponding emphasis on the cultural, political, visual, or virtual, to a reassertion of literature, and more specifically prose fiction, as setting the highest and most appropriate standards for writers of historically and biographically informed creative prose. The journey itself, however, suggests just how capacious the term “life writing” has become.

Future Thoughts—Life, Biobits, and the Environment

Marlene Kadar argued in 1992 that life writing had to extend itself beyond genre to critical practice. 96 In the intervening years, the number of genres and sub-genres, the amount of critical and theoretical attention, and the variety of practices undertaken have increased at an accelerating rate. It seems appropriate to close with some observations about how rethinking certain components of life writing as understood, theorized, and practiced might lead to new directions and widened perspectives. Those components are the fundamental ones—“life” and “writing/narrative.” Lauren Berlant offers insights into the first, and Marlene Kadar the second. With Kadar again providing the enabling metaphor, the discussion will finally turn to what should be the next theoretical transition for life writing—from practice to environment.

After being invited to witness “Life Writing and Intimate Publics,” the 2010 International Auto/Biography Association conference held in Sussex, United Kingdom, Lauren Berlant was asked her opinion about how the participants had dealt not only with her famous term, but also with life writing, the organization’s reason for being. Berlant confessed she was “worried about the presumed self-evident value of bionarrative”:

I kept asking people to interrogate how the story of having a “life” itself coasts on a normative notion of human biocontinuity: what does it mean to have a life, is it always to add up to something? . . . To my ear, the genre of the “life” is a most destructive conventionalized form of normativity: when norms feel like laws, they constitute a sociology of the rules for belonging and intelligibility whose narrowness threatens people’s capacity to invent ways to attach to the world. 97

Berlant’s comment is very helpful, because it prompts us to look seriously at the “bio” of autobiography and biography, and at the “life” of life writing. She suggests locales where this interrogation is already underway:

Queer, socialist/anti-capitalist, and feminist work have all been about multiplying the ways we know that people have lived and can live, so that it would be possible to take up any number of positions during and in life in order to have “a life.” 98

Such work has expanded the range and value of life writing as a practice; an even stronger commitment to determining what is meant by “a life” can only lead to new possibilities for socially and politically engaged scholarship.

But Berlant is suspicious of “writing” as well, and not because the attention of so much scholarship has been redirected to graphic narratives, or online. Her concern about the “self-evident value of bionarrative” also suggests that replacing “life writing” with “life narrative” as the covering term might still set an uninterrogated limit on what we should be examining. Entertaining the possibility of “a biography of gesture, of interruption,” Berlant asks rhetorically “Shouldn’t life writing be a primary laboratory for theorizing ʻthe event’?” 99 Marlene Kadar argues that such theoretical practice is already happening. In her essay “The Devouring: Traces of Roma in the Holocaust,” she campaigns for including “the fragment and trace as member-genres in the taxonomy of auto/biographical practices” outlined in such theoretical works as her own “(flawed) 1992 definition of life-writing texts.” 100 Drawing upon Blanchot’s sense of the fragment as “an unfinished separation that is always reaching out for further interpretation,” Kadar suggests that when confronted with the near-erasure of all evidence that a life was ever lived, we can register affect even when lacking narrative. Any surviving evidence of a life can potentially express “more than what happened,” and anything that “helps us to understand what the particular event means to the subject, can be read as autobiographical.” Whether a song, a tattoo, an anecdote, or a name on a list, in its evocative yet resisting brevity, the fragment speaks of a life without providing even the outline of a realized narrative—“what it felt like, not exactly what it was like.” 101 Kadar therefore sets forth “the fragment and trace as genres that both contribute to our previous theorizations” of autobiography and life narrative, but “also as necessarily unfinished genres that call out to us to attempt to finish them”—often with important critical and political results. 102 One might add that, in discursive terms, the fragment or trace can be thought of as analogous to the morpheme—they are the smallest units recognizable as evidence of a life. With an embedded reference to virtual and online representation, these fragments and traces might be termed “biobits.”

The biobit would represent the micro limit of life writing theory; drawing upon but extending Kadar once more, one can suggest what the macro might be. In “Whose Life Is It Anyway? Out of the Bathtub and into the Narrative,” Kadar insists on the need to “theorize a new genre that still goes beyond and yet includes the old word [autobiography], the old gender, and the old style,” but will also “name what is now.” But this new genre must differ markedly from our common understanding, because “like water,” which “assumes the shape of the vessel” containing it, the nature of the contents of this new genre will not be determined or defined by the container. The “essence” of genre “can never really be captured.” 103 To elaborate on this thought, Kadar turns to a novel by Gail Scott. While most of the main character’s life takes place in a bathtub, we know that at some point she will have to leave it—a move that will carry her “Out of the Bathtub and into Narrative.” Life writing, then, is best thought of not as a container, a genre, or a practice, but to the greatest extent possible, as a component of uncontained water: an ocean, an environment in which micro biomass—biobits—coexists with the largest, most familiar, most coherent examples—the biographies and autobiographies, the autoethnographies and the biopics, the online presences and the comics. Though all are in some way engaged in and linked through bio-representation, only some are implicated in writing, or even in narrative.

If viewed in this way, all of life writing’s inherited genres and sub-genres remain useful and productive methods for describing, comparing, and acting. But it must always be remembered that neither genre nor practice is sufficient as a ground or container for theorizing what may still be called life writing or life narrative, but could perhaps be more accurately referred to as signs of life.

1. See Julie Rak, “Marlene Kadar’s Life Writing: Feminist Theory outside the Lines,” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 33, no. 3 (2018): 541–549 ; Marlene Kadar, “Coming to Terms: Life Writing—From Genre to Critical Practice,” in Essays on Life Writing , ed. Marlene Kadar (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992 ), 3–16, quotation at 4; and Donald J. Winslow, Life-Writing: A Glossary of Terms in Biography, Autobiography, and Related Forms , Biography Monographs (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 1980 ). Winslow’s book first appeared as Donald J. Winslow, “Glossary of Terms in Life Writing,” pts. 1 and 2, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 1, no. 1 (1978): 61–78; and 1, no. 2 (1978): 61–85.

2. For the phrase “the New Critical wolf,” see Marlene Kadar, “Whose Life Is It Anyway? Out of the Bathtub and into the Narrative,” in Kadar, Essays on Life Writing , 152–161, at 154. For the other quotations, see Kadar, “Coming to Terms,” 4–6.

3. Kadar, “Coming to Terms,” 9.

4. Kadar, “Coming to Terms,” 10.

5. Kadar “Coming to Terms,” 12. Kadar notes that her argument here is informed by pp. 162–165 of Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “To Write My Self: The Autobiographies of Afro-American Women,” in Feminist Issues in Literature Scholarship , ed. Shari Benstock (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987 ), 161–180.

6. James Olney, “Autobiography and the Cultural Moment: A Thematic, Historical, and Bibliographical Introduction,” in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical , ed. James Olney (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980 ), 3–27.

7. For a sampling of such texts, see Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians , reprinted ed. (London: Penguin, 1990 ; 1st ed. 1918); Harold Nicolson, The Development of English Biography (London: Hogarth Press, 1928 ); Leon Edel, Writing Lives: Principia Biographica (New York: Norton, 1987 ); and Ira Bruce Nadel, Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984 ). For a post-structuralist approach to biography, see William H. Epstein, ed., Contesting the Subject: Essays in the Postmodern Theory and Practice of Biography and Biographical Criticism (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1991 ).

8. James Olney, Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972 ).

9. Ricia Anne Chansky, “General Introduction,” in The Routledge Auto/Biography Studies Reader , eds. Ricia Anne Chansky and Emily Hipchen (London and New York: Routledge, 2016 ), xx–xxii, quotations at xx and xxi.

10. Sidonie Smith, “Foreword,” in Chansky and Hipchen, The Routledge Auto/Biography Studies Reader , xvii–xix, at xviii.

11. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998 ).

12. See, for example, Paul de Man, “Autobiography as De-Facement,” Modern Language Notes 94, no. 5 (1979) : 919–930; and Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes , trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977 ).

13. Philippe Lejeune, “The Autobiographical Pact,” in On Autobiography , by Philippe Lejeune, trans. Katherine Leary, with a foreword by Paul John Eakin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 3–30 (the essay was originally published in French in 1977); Paul John Eakin, Fictions of Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985) ; and Paul John Eakin, Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography (Ithaca, NY: Princeton University Press, 1992) .

14. Sidonie Smith, A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987) ; and Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, eds., De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992) .

15. For works by the authors and editors mentioned in this paragraph, see the “Further Reading” section.

16. Margaretta Jolly, ed., Encyclopedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms , 2 vols. (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001) , quotations at ix and x.

17. Jolly, Encyclopedia , ix, x; and Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, eds., Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) .

18. Jolly, Encyclopedia , ix, x.

19. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives , 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010) , 2. The first edition was published in 2001; for convenience this article quotes from the second edition.

20. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 3, 4.

21. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 211, citing Smith and Watson, Women, Autobiography, Theory .

22. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 211.

23. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 204–205.

24. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 214. The works they mention are: Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London and New York: Routledge, 1990) ; Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (London and New York: Routledge, 1993) ; and Sidonie Smith, Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body: Women’s Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) .

25. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 216. They cite John Paul Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999) ; and Nancy K. Miller, “Representing Others: Gender and the Subjects of Autobiography,” Differences 6, no. 1 (1994) : 1–27.

26. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 215.

27. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 218.

28. Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography , 234. Their Appendix A is at 253–286.

29. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977) , pp. 121–126. There isn’t a citation for Kadar—that’s me saying she would agree with Williams on this. The Williams distinction is a commonplace by now.

30. Kadar, “Coming to Terms,” 10.

31. I have written at some length about this in relation to Renders and De Haan and the Biographers International Organization, with particular attention paid to Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly , which I co-edit; the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Center for Biographical Research, which I direct; and the International Auto/Biography Association-Listserv, which I manage. See Craig Howes, “What Are We Turning From? Research and Ideology in Biography and Life Writing,” in The Biographical Turn: Lives in History , eds. Hans Renders, Binne de Haan, and Jonne Harmsma (London and New York: Routledge, 2016) , 165–175.

32. Hans Renders, “Biography in Academia and the Critical Frontier in Life Writing,” in Theoretical Discussions of Biography: Approaches from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing , eds. Hans Renders and Binne de Haan (Leiden: Brill, 2013) , 169–176, at 169. Michael Holroyd, “Changing fashions in biography,” The Guardian , 6 November 2009 .

33. Renders, “Biography in Academia,” 172.

34. Renders, “Biography in Academia,” 172.

35. For a more detailed account of this suspicion, see Craig Howes, “Ethics and Literary Biography,” in A Companion to Literary Biography , ed. Richard Bradford (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2018) , 123–142. It should be noted that while they may share an aversion to criticism and theory, if anything, literary artists often have a greater contempt for biographers.

36. Julie Rak, Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013) , quotations at 4 and 3; and Julie Rak, ed., “Pop Life,” special issue, Canadian Review of American Studies 38, no. 3 (2008) .

37. Leigh Gilmore, Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017) .

38. Nigel Hamilton, Biography: A Brief History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007) ; Hermione Lee, Biography: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) ; Andrew Brown, A Brief History of Biographies: From Plutarch to Celebs (London: Hesperus, 2011) ; Catherine N. Parke, Biography: Writing Lives; Themes and Genres . Twayne's Studies in Literary Themes and Genres (London and New York: Routledge, 1996) ; and Paula R. Backscheider, Reflections on Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) .

39. Carl Rollyson, Biography: An Annotated Bibliography (Pasadena, CA: Salem, 1992) . Among Rollyson’s many other works are: Carl Rollyson, Reading Biography (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2004) ; Carl Rollyson, A Higher Form of Cannibalism? Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2005) ; and Carl Rollyson, Confessions of a Serial Biographer (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2016) .

40. Carl Rollyson, Biography: A User’s Guide (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008) ; and Nigel Hamilton and Hans Renders, The ABC of Modern Biography (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018) .

41. Edel, Writing Lives ; Michael Holroyd, Works on Paper: The Craft of Biography and Autobiography (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002) ; Rollyson, Confessions ; Nigel Hamilton, How To Do Biography: A Primer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008) ; and Hamilton, Biography .

42. John Batchelor, ed., The Art of Literary Biography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995) ; Warwick Gould and Thomas F. Staley, eds., Writing the Lives of Writers (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998) ; Robert Dion and Frédéric Regard, eds., Les nouvelles écritures biographiques (Lyon: ENS Éditions, 2013) ; and Richard Bradford, ed., A Companion to Literary Biography (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2019) . My essay “Ethics and Literary Biography” appears in Bradford’s collection.

43. Michael Benton, Towards a Poetics of Literary Biography (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) ; Rana Tekcan, Too Far for Comfort: A Study on Biographical Distance (Stuttgart: Ibidem, 2015) ; and Alison Booth, How to Make It as a Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004) . She mentions her reservations at 130.

44. Barbara Caine, Biography and History (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) ; Hans Renders and Binne de Haan, eds., Theoretical Discussions of Biography: Approaches from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing (Leiden: Brill, 2013) ; Renders, de Haan, and Harmsma, The Biographical Turn ; and Tanya Evans and Robert Reynolds, “Introduction to this Special Issue on Biography and Life-Writing,” disclosure 21 (2012) : 1–8.

45. Atiba Pertilla and Uwe Spiekermann, eds., “Forum: The Challenge of Biography,” special section, Bulletin of the German Historical Institute 55 (2014) ; and Sarah Panter, ed., Mobility and Biography , Jahrbuch für Europäische Geschichte / European History Yearbook 16 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015) .

46. Tomas Hägg, The Art of Biography in Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) ; Stephanos Efthymiadis, ed., The Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography , vol. 2, Genres and Contexts (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014) ; Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker, eds., Writing Lives: Biography and Textuality, Identity and Representation in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) ; Sarah Mombert and Michèle Rosellini, eds., Usages des vies: Le biographique hier et aujourd’hui (XVIIe–XXIe siècle) (Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2012) ; and Juliette Atkinson, Victorian Biography Reconsidered: A Study of Nineteenth-Century “Hidden” Lives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) .

47. Examples of such work include: Robin Humphrey, Robert Miller, and Elena Zdravomyslova, eds., Biographical Research in Eastern Europe: Altered Lives and Broken Biographies (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2003) ; Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir et al., eds., Biography, Gender and History: Nordic Perspectives (Turku: K&H, 2017) ; and Maarit Leskelä-Kärki, Toisten elämät: Kirjoituksia elämäkerroista (Avain, 2017) .

48. Wilhelm Hemecker, ed., Die Biographie—Beiträge zu ihrer Geschichte (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009) ; Wilhelm Hemecker and Edward Saunders, eds., with Gregor Schima, Biography in Theory: Key Texts with Commentaries (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018) ; Bernhard Fetz and Wilhelm Hemecker, eds., Theorie der Biographie: Grundlagentexte und Kommentar (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011) ; and Bernhard Fetz, ed., Die Biographie—Zur Grundlegung ihrer Theorie (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009) . All these except the Hemecker and Saunders volume were published by De Gruyter on behalf of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute.

49. Marta Dvorak, ed., Biographical Creation / La création biographique (Rennes: Presses Universitaires Rennes, 1997) .

50. Susan Tridgell, Understanding Our Selves: The Dangerous Art of Biography (New York: Peter Lang, 2004) ; and Caitríona Ní Dhúill, Metabiography: Reflecting on Biography , Palgrave Studies in Life Writing (London: Palgrave, 2020) .

51. Alan C. Elms, Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) ; William Todd Schultz, ed., Handbook of Psychobiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) ; and Dan P. McAdams, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) .

52. See, for example, Carolyn L. White, ed., The Materiality of Individuality: Archaeological Studies of Individual Lives (New York: Springer, 2009) ; Ann L. W. Stodder and Ann M. Palkovich, eds., The Bioarchaeology of Individuals (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012) ; Michaela Köttig et al., eds., “Biography and Ethnicity,” special issue, Forum: Qualitative Social Research 10, no. 3 (2009) ; and Sophie Day Carsten and Charles Stafford, eds., “Reason and Passion: The Parallel Worlds of Ethnography and Biography,” special issue, Social Anthropology 26, no. 1 (2018) : 5–14.

53. Alice Te Punga Somerville, Daniel Heath Justice, and Noelani Arista, eds., “Indigenous Conversations about Biography,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 39, no. 3 (2016) : 239–247; Noenoe K. Silva, The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen: Reconstructing Native Hawaiian Intellectual History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017) ; Melanie Unseld, Biographie und Musikgeschichte: Wandlungen biographischer Konzepte in Musikkultur und Musikhistoriographie (Cologne: Böhlau, 2014) ; and Anna Jackson, ed., “The Verse Biography,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 39, no. 1 (Winter 2016) .

54. Alice Te Punga Somerville and Daniel Heath Justice, “Introduction: Indigenous Conversations about Biography,” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 39, no. 3 (2016) : 239–247, at 243.

55. Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (London: Chatto and Windus, 2000) ; Peter Ackroyd, London: The Concise Biography (London: Vintage, 2012) ; Rachel Hewitt, Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey (London: Granta, 2011) ; and Kaori O’Connor, The English Breakfast: The Biography of a National Meal, with Recipes , rev. ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) .

56. Linda Anderson, Autobiography , 2nd ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 2010 ; 1st ed. 2001); Laura Marcus, Autobiography: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) ; Chansky and Hipchen, The Routledge Auto/Biography Studies Reader ; and Kate Douglas and Ashley Barnwell, eds., Research Methodologies for Auto/Biography Studies (London: Routledge, 2019) .

57. Carole Allamand, Le “Pacte” de Philippe Lejeune; ou, L’autobiographie en théorie (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2018) ; Lia Nicole Brozgal, Against Autobiography: Albert Memmi and the Production of Theory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018) ; Kathleen Ashley, et al., eds., Autobiography and Postmodernism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995) ; G. Thomas Couser and Joseph Fichtelberg, eds., True Relations: Essays on Autobiography and the Postmodern (Westport, CN: Greenwood, 1998) ; and Gunnthórunn Gudmundsdóttir, Borderlines: Autobiography and Fiction in Postmodern Life Writing (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003) .

58. For examples of such historical and geographical investigations, see Carsten Heinze and Alfred Hornung, eds., Medialisierungsformen des (Auto-) Biografischen (Konstanz: UVK, 2013) ; Ronald Bedford, Lloyd Davis, and Philippa Kelly, eds., Early Modern Autobiography: Theories, Genres, Practices (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006) ; Ronald Bedford, Lloyd Davis, and Philippa Kelly, Early Modern English Lives: Autobiography and Self-Representation, 1500–1660 (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2007) ; and Arianne Baggerman, Rudolf Dekker, and Michael Mascuch, eds., Controlling Time and Shaping the Self: Developments in Autobiographical Writing since the Sixteenth Century (Leiden: Brill, 2011) .

59. William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of African-American Autobiography, 1760–1865 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986); and William L. Andrews, Slavery and Class in the American South: A Generation of Slave Narrative Testimony , 1840–1865 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019) .

60. Rachel McLennan, American Autobiography (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012) . Georges Gusdorf “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography,” pp. 28–48.

61. Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories ; Paul John Eakin, Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008) ; and Richard Freadman, Threads of Life: Autobiography and the Will (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001) .

62. Liz Stanley, The Auto/Biographical I: The Theory and Practice of Feminist Auto/Biography (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992) ; Laura Marcus, Auto/Biographical Discourses: Theory, Criticism, Practice (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994) ; Trev Broughton and Linda Anderson, eds., Women’s Lives/Women’s Times: New Essays on Auto/Biography (New York: SUNY Press, 1997) ; Hélène Cixous and Mireille Calle-Gruber, Rootprints: Memory and Life-Writing , trans. Eric Prenowitz (London and New York: Routledge, 1997) ; and Jill Ker Conway, When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography (New York: Knopf, 1998) .

63. Florence S. Boos, Memoirs of Victorian Working-Class Women: The Hard Way Up , Palgrave Studies in Life Writing (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) ; Laura J. Beard, Acts of Narrative Resistance: Women’s Autobiographical Writings in the Americas (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009) ; Marilyn Booth, ed., “Women’s Autobiography in South Asia and the Middle East,” special issue, Journal of Women’s History 25, no. 2 (2013) ; Kathryn Abrams and Irene Kacandes, eds., “Witness,” special issue, Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, nos. 1–2 (2008) : 13–27; Gillian Whitlock, Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007) ; and Gilmore, Tainted Witness .

64. Cynthia Franklin and Laura E. Lyons, eds., “Personal Effects: The Testimonial Uses of Life Writing,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 27, no. 1 (2004) ; Marlene Kadar et al., eds., Tracing the Autobiographical (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005) ; Leigh Gilmore, The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma, Testimony, Theory (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000) ; and Paul Atkinson and Anna Poletti, eds., “The Limits of Testimony,” special issue, Southern Review: Communication, Politics & Culture 40, no. 3 (2008) .

65. G. Thomas Couser, Memoir: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) ; Ben Yagoda, Memoir: A History (New York: Riverhead Penguin, 2009) ; and Bunty Avieson, Fiona Giles, and Sue Joseph, eds., Mediating Memory: Tracing the Limits of Memoir (London and New York: Routledge, 2018) .

66. Philippe Lejeune, On Diary , trans. Kathy Durnin, ed. Jeremy D. Popkin and Julie Rak (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009) ; Lejeune, On Autobiography ; Françoise Simonet-Tenant, Le journal intime: Genre littéraire et écriture ordinaire (Paris: Téraèdre, 2004) ; and Suzanne L. Bunkers and Cynthia A. Huff, eds., Inscribing the Daily: Critical Essays on Women’s Diaries (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996) .

67. Kadar, “Coming to Terms.”

68. Zachary Leader, ed., On Life-Writing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) ; Richard Bradford, ed., Life Writing: Essays on Autobiography, Biography and Literature (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) ; Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Life Writing in the Long Run: A Smith & Watson Autobiography Studies Reader (Ann Arbor: Maize Books, 2017) ; Liz Stanley, ed., Documents of Life Revisited: Narrative and Biographical Methodology for a 21st Century Critical Humanism (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013) ; Liz Stanley, ed., “In Dialogue: Life Writing and Narrative Inquiry,” special issue, Life Writing 7, no. 1 (2010) : 1–3; and James Olney, Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) .

69. Miriam Fuchs and Craig Howes, eds., Teaching Life Writing Texts , Options for Teaching (New York: Modern Language Association, 2008) ; Laurie McNeill and Kate Douglas, eds., “Teaching Lives: Contemporary Pedagogies of Life Narratives,” special issue, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 32, no. 1 (2016) ; Laurie McNeill and Kate Douglas, eds., Teaching Lives: Contemporary Pedagogies of Life Narratives (London and New York: Routledge, 2018 ); Dennis Kersten and Anne Marie Mreijen, eds., “Teaching Life Writing Texts in Europe,” special section, European Journal of Life Writing 4 (2015) ; and Dennis Kersten, Anne Marie Mreijen, and Yvonne Delhey, eds., “Teaching Life Writing Texts in Europe, Part II,” special section, European Journal of Life Writing 7 (2018) .

70. Penny Summerfield, Histories of the Self: Personal Narratives and Historical Practice (London and New York: Routledge, 2018) ; Karen A. Winstead, The Oxford History of Life-Writing , vol. 1, The Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) ; Alan Stewart, The Oxford History of Life-Writing , vol. 2, Early Modern (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018) ; David Amigoni, ed., Life Writing and Victorian Culture (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2006) ; Andrew Tate, ed., “Victorian Life Writing,” special issue, Nineteenth-Century Contexts 28, no. 1 (2006) : 1–3; and Lynn M. Linder, ed., “Co-Constructed Selves: Nineteenth-Century Collaborative Life Writing,” special issue, Modern Language Studies 52, no. 2 (2016) : 121–129.

71. Danielle Boillet, Marie-Madeleine Fragonard, and Hélène Tropé, eds., Écrire des vies: Espagne, France, Italie, XVIe–XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2012) ; and Birgit Dahlke, Dennis Tate, and Roger Woods, eds., German Life Writing in the Twentieth Century (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010) .

72. Cynthia Huff, ed., “Women’s Life Writing and Imagined Communities,” special issue, Prose Studies 26, nos. 1–2 (2003) ; Charlotte Newman Goldy and Amy Livingstone, eds., Writing Medieval Women’s Lives (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012 ); Julie A. Eckerle, Romancing the Self in Early Modern Englishwomen’s Life Writing (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013) ; Julie A. Eckerle and Naomi McAreavey, eds., Women’s Life Writing and Early Modern Ireland , Women and Gender in the Early Modern World (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2019) ; Daniel Cook and Amy Culley, eds., Women’s Life Writing , 1700–1850: Gender, Genre and Authorship (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) ; and Amy Culley, British Women’s Life Writing , 1760–1840: Friendship, Community, and Collaboration (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) .

73. Susan Civale, Romantic Women’s Life Writing: Reputation and Afterlife (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019) ; Alexis Wolf, “Introduction: Reading Silence in the Long Nineteenth-Century Women’s Life Writing Archive,” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 27 (2018) : unpaginated; Valérie Baisnée-Keay et al., eds., Women’s Life Writing and the Practice of Reading: She Reads to Write Herself , Palgrave Studies in Life Writing (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) ; and Margaretta Jolly, In Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008) .

74. Eric D. Lamore, ed., “African American Life Writing,” special issue, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 27, no. 1 (2012) ; Viola Amato, Intersex Narratives: Shifts in the Representation of Intersex Lives in North American Literature and Popular Culture (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2016) ; and Katherine Adams, Owning Up: Privacy, Property, and Belonging in U.S. Women’s Life Writing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) .

75. Marijke Huisman et al., eds., Life Writing Matters in Europe , American Studies Monograph 217 (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2012) ; Simona Mitroiu, ed., Life Writing and Politics of Memory in Eastern Europe (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) ; and Iona Luca and Leena Kurvet-Käosaar, eds., “Life Writing Trajectories in Post-1989 Eastern Europe,” special section, European Journal of Life Writing 2 (2013) : T1–9.

76. Oliver Nyambi, Life-Writing from the Margins in Zimbabwe: Versions and Subversions of Crisis (London and New York: Routledge, 2019) ; David McCooey, Artful Histories: Modern Australian Autobiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) ; Jack Bowers, Strangers at Home: Place, Belonging, and Australian Life Writing (Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2016) ; Brij V. Lal and Peter Hempenstall, eds., Pacific Lives, Pacific Places: Bursting Boundaries in Pacific History (Canberra: Journal of Pacific History, 2001) ; Jack Corbett and Brij V. Lal, eds., Political Life Writing in the Pacific: Reflections on Practice (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2015) ; and Roxanna Waterson, ed., Southeast Asian Lives: Personal Narratives and Historical Experience (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007) .

77. Hephzibah Israel and John Zavos, “Narratives of Transformation: Religious Conversion and Indian Traditions of ‘Life Writing,’” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 41, no. 2 (2018) : 352–365; S. Shankar and Charu Gupta, “Caste and Life Narratives,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 40, no. 1 (2017) ; and Maureen Perkins, ed., Locating Life Stories: Beyond East-West Binaries in (Auto)Biographical Studies (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2012) . My own essay on Martin Amis appears in this last collection.

78. Bart Moore-Gilbert, Postcolonial Life-Writing: Culture, Politics, and Self-Representation (London and New York: Routledge, 2009) ; Philip Holden, Autobiography and Decolonization: Modernity, Masculinity, and the Nation-State (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) ; Gillian Whitlock, Postcolonial Life Narratives: Testimonial Transactions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) ; Suzanne Scafe and Jenni Ramone, eds., “Women’s Life Writing and Diaspora,” special issue, Life Writing 10, no. 1 (2013) : 1–3; Rocío G. Davis, Jaume Aurell, and Ana Beatriz Delgado, eds., Ethnic Life Writing and Histories: Genres, Performance, and Culture (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2007) ; and Rosalia Baena, ed., Transculturing Auto/Biography: Forms of Life Writing (London and New York: Routledge, 2007) .

79. Clare Brant and Max Saunders, eds., “The Work of Life Writing,” special issue, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 25, no. 2 (2010) ; Paul John Eakin, ed., The Ethics of Life Writing (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004) ; David Parker, The Self in Moral Space: Life Narrative and the Good (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007) ; D. L. LeMahieu and Christopher Cowley, eds., “Philosophy and Life Writing,” special issue, Life Writing 15, no. 3 (2018) : 301–303; Rocío G. Davis, ed., “Life Writing as Empathy,” special issue, Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 42, no. 2 (2016) ; and Joan Ramon Resina, ed., Inscribed Identities: Life Writing as Self-Realization (London and New York: Routledge, 2019) .

80. G. Thomas Couser, Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997) ; G. Thomas Couser, Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003) ; G. Thomas Couser, Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009) ; G. Thomas Couser, ed., “Disability and Life Writing,” special issue, Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 5, no. 3 (2011) ; G. Thomas Couser, ed., Body Language: Narrating Illness and Disability (London and New York: Routledge, 2019) ; and G. Thomas Couser and Susannah Mintz, eds., Disability Experiences: Memoirs, Autobiographies, and Other Personal Narratives , 2 vols. (Detroit: St. James Press, 2019) .

81. Suzette A. Henke, Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women’s Life-Writing (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998) ; Susanna Egan, Mirror Talk: Genres of Crisis in Contemporary Autobiography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999) ; Miriam Fuchs, The Text is Myself: Women’s Life Writing and Catastrophe (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004) ; Gilian Whitlock and Kate Douglas, eds., Trauma Texts (London and New York: Routledge, 2015) , first published as “Trauma in the Twenty-First Century,” Life Writing 5, no. 1 (2008); and Gabriele Rippl et al., eds., Haunted Narratives: Life Writing in an Age of Trauma (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013) .

82. Meg Jensen, The Art and Science of Trauma and the Autobiographical: Negotiated Truths , Palgrave Studies in Life Writing (London: Palgrave, 2019) , quotation at 8; and Mita Banerjee, Medical Humanities in American Studies: Life Writing, Narrative Medicine, and the Power of Autobiography , American Studies Series 292 (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2018) .

83. Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith, Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition (London: Palgrave, 2004) ; Meg Jensen and Margaretta Jolly, eds., We Shall Bear Witness: Life Narratives and Human Rights (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014) ; Katja Kurz, Narrating Contested Lives: The Aesthetics of Life Writing in Human Rights Campaigns (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2014) ; Melissa Dearey, Radicalization: The Life Writings of Political Prisoners (London and New York: Routledge, 2010) ; and Brittney Cooper and Treva B. Lindsey, eds., “M4BL and the Critical Matter of Black Lives,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 41, no. 4 (2018) : 731–740.

84. Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, and Postmemory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997) ; and Timonthy Dow Adams, Light Writing & Life Writing: Photography in Autobiography (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999) .

85. Gillian Whitlock and Anna Poletti, eds., “Autographics,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 31, no. 1 (2008) ; Hillary L. Chute, Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010) ; and Hillary L. Chute, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form (Cambridge MA.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016) .

86. Michael A. Chaney, Reading Lessons in Seeing: Mirrors, Masks, and Mazes in the Autobiographical Graphic Novel (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2017) ; Michael A. Chaney, ed., Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011) ; Elisabeth El Refaie, Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012) ; and Candida Rifkind and Linda Warley, eds., Canadian Graphic: Picturing Life Narratives (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016) .

87. Anna Poletti, Intimate Ephemera: Reading Young Lives in Australian Zine Culture (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008) ; Ellen Gruber Garvey, Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) ; Hertha D. Sweet Wong, Picturing Identity: Contemporary American Autobiography in Image and Text (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018) ; and Leigh Gilmore and Elizabeth Marshall, Witnessing Girlhood: Toward an Intersectional Tradition of Life Writing (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019) .

88. David McCooey and Maria Takolander, eds., “The Limits of Life Writing,” special issue, Life Writing 14, no. 3 (2017) ; David McCooey and Maria Takolander, eds., The Limits of Life Writing (London and New York: Routledge, 2018) ; Gillian Whitlock and G. Thomas Couser, eds., “(Post)Human Lives,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 35, no. 1 (2012) ; Purnima Bose and Laura E. Lyons, eds., “Life Writing and Corporate Personhood,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 37, no. 1 (2014) ; and Alfred Hornung and Zhao Baisheng, eds., Ecology and Life Writing (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2013) .

89. John Zuern, ed., “Online Lives,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 26, no. 1 (2003) ; Laurie McNeill and John Zuern, eds., “Online Lives 2.0,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 38, no. 2 (2015) ; and Anna Poletti and Julie Rak, eds., Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online (Madison: University of Wisonsin Press, 2014) .

90. Emma Maguire, Girls, Autobiography, Media: Gender and Self-Mediation in Digital Economies , Palgrave Studies in Life Writing (London: Palgrave, 2018) ; and Kate Douglas and Anna Poletti, Life Narratives and Youth Culture: Representation, Agency and Participation (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) .

91. George F. Custen, Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992) ; Glenn Man, ed., “The Biopic,” special issue, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 23, no. 1 (2000) ; William H. Epstein and R. Barton Palmer, eds., Invented Lives, Imagined Communities: The Biopic and American National Identity (New York: SUNY Press, 2016) ; Dennis Bingham, Whose Lives Are They Anyway? The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010) ; and Tom Brown and Belén Vidal, eds., The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture , AFI Film Readers (London and New York: Routledge, 2014) .

92. Ryan Claycomb, Lives in Play: Autobiography and Biography on the Feminist Stage (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012) ; Victoria Kuttainen and Lindsay Simpson, eds., “Performing Lives,” special issue, LiNQ: Connected Writing and Scholarship 39, no. 1 (2012) , quotation from the editors’ “Introduction: Performing Lives,” 11–14, at 11; Clara Tuite, Lord Byron and Scandalous Celebrity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014) ; Daniel Herwitz, The Star as Icon: Celebrity in the Age of Mass Consumption (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016) ; and Katja Lee and Lorraine York, eds., Celebrity Cultures in Canada (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016) .

93. Max Saunders, Self-Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) ; Gunnthórunn Gudmundsdóttir, Representations of Forgetting in Life Writing and Fiction (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) ; Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf, Handbook of Autobiography/Autofiction , 3 vols. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019) ; Erika Hasebe-Ludt, Cynthia M. Chambers, and Carl Leggo, Life Writing and Literary Métissage as an Ethos of Our Times (New York: Peter Lang, 2009) ; Lucia Boldrini and Julia Novak, eds., Experiments in Life-Writing: Intersections of Auto/Biography and Fiction , Palgrave Studies in Life Writing (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) ; Jean-Louis Jeannelle and Catherine Viollet, eds., Genèse et autofiction (Paris: Academia-Bruylant, 2007) ; and Helena Grice, Asian American Fiction, History, and Life Writing: International Encounters (London and New York: Routledge, 2009) .

94. Michael Lackey, The American Biographical Novel (London: Bloomsbury, 2016) ; Michael Lackey, Truthful Fictions: Conversations with American Biographical Novelists (London: Bloomsbury, 2015) ; Michael Lackey, Conversations with Biographical Novelists: Truthful Fictions across the Globe (London: Bloomsbury, 2018) ; Michael Lackey, Biographical Fiction: A Reader (London: Bloomsbury, 2017) ; Michael Lackey, Biofictional Histories, Mutations, and Forms (London and New York: Routledge, 2016) ; and Michael Lackey, ed., “Biofictions,” special issue, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 31, no. 1 (2016) .

95. Susanna Egan, Burdens of Proof: Faith, Doubt, and Identity (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011) ; and Nancy K. Miller, “The Entangled Self: Genre Bondage in the Age of the Memoir,” PMLA 122, no. 2 (2007) : 537–548.

96. Kadar, “Coming to Terms.”

97. Lauren Berlant and Jay Prosser, “Life Writing and Intimate Publics: A Conversation with Lauren Berlant,” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 34, no. 1 (2011) : 180–187, at 183.

98. Berlant and Prosser, “Life Writing and Intimate Publics,” 182.

99. Berlant and Prosser, “Life Writing and Intimate Publics,” 181.

100. Marlen Kadar, “The Devouring: Traces of Roma in the Holocaust; No Tattoo, Sterilized Body, Gypsy Girl,” in Kadar et al., Tracing the Autobiographical , 223–246, at 223–224.

101. Kadar, “The Devouring,” 243. On the fragment as “an unfinished separation” Kadar is citing Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster , trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986) .

102. Kadar, “The Devouring,” 226.

103. Kadar, “Whose Life Is It Anyway?,” quotations at 153.

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All writers are works in progress. Each episode, Sarah reads an author’s biography, autobiography, or memoir and picks through it to pinpoint the details of how each author actually does what they do. From John Steinbeck’s preferred pencils to Stephen King’s well-documented feelings on adverbs to Agatha Christie’s tricks for transforming the domestic. Dive into the rituals, practices, quirks, tips, and oddities of how writers write.

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  • 30. APR. 2024

Episode 3: Margaret Wise Brown — In the Great Green Room by Amy Gary

Revel in Amy Gary’s 2016 book, “In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown.” We dive into how the author of classics like “Goodnight Moon,” “The Noisy Book,” and “The Runaway Bunny” captured the power of patterns, brought research to children’s literature, and always thought she should be doing something more “serious.” And, using ski receipts as writing materials In the Great Green Room: Bookshop.org | Amazon Find Sarah:  X: @sarahbethgdub Instagram: @sarahgeorgewaterfield More Mangum Talks: https://www.mangumtalks.com/

  • 13. MÄRZ 2024

Episode 2: Stephen King — On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Deep dive into Stephen King’s classic memoir disguised as writing guide (or how-to manual dressed up as autobiography?), “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.” We peek into King’s handling of rejection, shame, and thinly veiled checklist. Plus, deciding what to put on the spike you drive into your own wall. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: Bookshop.org | Amazon Find Sarah:  X: @sarahbethgdub Instagram: @sarahgeorgewaterfield

  • 21. FEB. 2024

Episode 1: Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman Bookshop.org | Amazon Get your own Cabinet of Daily Curiosities Template https://drive.google.com/file/d/1HtmA5QpXy6kHNk12jKY12hLIyxCpBh5H/view?usp=sharing

  • © Copyright 2024 Sarah George-Waterfield

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biography memoir writing

Memoirs – WRIT 307

CG • Section 8WK • 07/01/2018 to 12/31/2199 • Modified 02/01/2024

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Course Description

An exploration of the conventions for writing memoir, biography, autobiography, and other related genres.


There is a particular method for writing in the genre of memoir. Here students will explore these methods and this field as a subset of their writing program. Particular focus will examine the types of memoirs and the best practices for writing and publishing within this discipline.

Course Assignment

Textbook readings and lecture presentations/notes

After reading the Course Syllabus and  Student Expectations , the student will complete the related checklist found in the Course Overview.

Discussions are collaborative learning experiences. Therefore, the student will complete one thread o f at least 900 words (3 unique sections, 300 words each) and respond to 3 peer threads in a minimum of 300 words.

The student will conduct 3 interviews and submit either a 5–7-minute YouTube video or a 750–800-word paper detailing their interviews covering questions asked and responses. If sources are used, they must be cited using MLA formatting.

The student will select an autobiography to use for their Artificial Intelligence Assignment and submit their selection along with a 100 – 200-word essay detailing why they made their selection. The chosen autobiography must be cited using MLA formatting. 

The student will complete a multi-step project with their previously selected autobiography, generating an AI memoir, writing their own 500-word memoir for their selected figure, and then completing a brief 300-word essay to compare/contrast the two memoirs.

The student will create two 500–600-word reviews for assigned memoirs. Sources must be cited using MLA formatting. 

Memoir Draft: Option Assignments (2)

The student will select two different life events to draft for their final memoir. Drafts must be 1,000 – 1,500 words. No sources are required, but if used, they should be cited in MLA formatting.

Memoir: Final Draft Assignment

The student will select one of their drafts and create a final memoir piece of 3,000 words. No sources are required, but if used, they should be cited in MLA formatting.

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biography memoir writing

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Salman Rushdie's memoir 'Knife' recounts his attack and recovery

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In 2022, the author Salman Rushdie was onstage at a public event when a man ran up and stabbed him. His new memoir, Knife , delves into that moment when Rushdie thought he was going to die — and everything that's come after, as he's healed from the attack. In today's episode, he speaks at length with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly about how the miracles found in his fiction might've manifested themselves in his real life, how his wife – poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths – has helped him move forward, and how writing about that experience became a way for him to fight back. To listen to Book of the Day sponsor-free and support NPR's book coverage, sign up for Book of the Day+ at plus.npr.org/bookoftheday

Author Interviews

Author salman rushdie on surviving attack and the value of every day of life, salman rushdie tells of the violent attack that nearly killed him in memoir 'knife'.


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  1. How to Write a Memoir: Examples and a Step-by-Step Guide

    7. How to Write a Memoir: Edit, edit, edit! Once you're satisfied with the story, begin to edit the finer things (e.g. language, metaphor, and details). Clean up your word choice and omit needless words, and check to make sure you haven't made any of these common writing mistakes.

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  3. Write a Great Memoir: How to Start (and Actually Finish) Your First Draft

    Also set weekly milestones. In addition to your final deadline, I recommend breaking up the writing process into weekly milestones. If you're going to write a 65,000-word memoir over 100 days, let's say, then divide 65,000 by the number of weeks (about 14) to get your weekly word count goal: about 4,600 words per week.

  4. 63 Memoir Writing Prompts With Examples

    From What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, a memoir about the fluidity of running and writing. 7. "The soil in Leitrim is poor, in places no more than an inch deep. " From All Will be Well, Irish writer John McGahern's recounting of his troubled childhood. 8.

  5. How to Write a Memoir: Turn Your Personal Story Into a ...

    3. Distill the story into a logline. 4. Choose the key moments to share. 5. Don't skimp on the details and dialogue. 6. Portray yourself honestly. 🎒Turn your personal life stories into a successful memoir in 6 steps!

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    Most childhood memoirs cover a range of 5 - 18 years of age, though this can differ depending on the story. Examples of this type of memoir. Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. The groundbreaking winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography, McCourt's memoir covers the finer details of his childhood in impoverished Dublin.

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  9. How to Write Your Memoir in 6 Simple Steps (With Examples)

    Steer clear of self indulgence. 5. Seek Outside Perspectives. Typically it's good to write a first draft of your memoir, take a few days off, read it back to yourself, and then dive into a second draft. Once you've completed the second draft, however, it's time for outside eyes.

  10. Writing a Memoir: How to Craft a Compelling Story

    Writing a biography is all about learning how to tell an engaging story based on real events but in a way that grabs the reader's attention. You might have some great stories to tell, but with a good memoir outline and tone, you might get the memoir or writer's life experiences outline that keeps your reader's attention from the beginning ...

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    It's the moment when things turn around. It's time to outline the final act of your memoir to end on a strong note and with a powerful message. 6. End by showing how you've changed. The Third Act is where the main conflict of your story is finally resolved, so the stakes and tension should be at their highest.

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    127 Best Memoir Writing Prompts You'll Love. January 3, 2024 / 11 minutes of reading. Memoir writing requires dedication and talent to describe critical points of your life. See our memoir writing prompts to inspire you to make your own. So you finally decided to put your life on paper. Writing a memoir and sharing it with others is a great ...

  13. How To Write An Autobiography, A Biography and Memoir

    Autobiographies and memoirs are often written with the assistance of professional freelancers. By prior mutual agreement, this fact can be hidden. When anonymous, the paid author or co-author becomes the ghostwriter. He/she is paid off and loses all future claims to authorship or co-authorship of the work.

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    It's a sexual and intellectual coming-of-age story that swims along literary lines, honoring the books that nourished Bechdel and her parents and seemed to speak for them: Kate Millet, Proust ...

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    Memoir. A memoir ( / ˈmɛm.wɑːr /; [1] from French mémoire [me.mwaʁ], from Latin memoria 'memory, remembrance') is any nonfiction narrative writing based on the author's personal memories. [2] [3] The assertions made in the work are thus understood to be factual. While memoir has historically been defined as a subcategory of biography or ...

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    The Wreckage of My Presence by Casey Wilson (2021) Now 33% Off. $12 at Amazon. Reading actress and comedian Casey Wilson's memoir is like sinking into a comfy couch with your favorite beverage ...

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    Writing a memoir based on your own experience requires a good overarching story, but in order to make an impression on the reader from page one, it's important to craft an especially strong opening. When you write a memoir, begin with a dramatic hook that makes the reader want more. If you can hold the reader's attention from the top, they'll stick with you through the whole book.

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    Discover the differences and similarities between an autobiography vs. biography vs. memoir. Learn what makes each format so special. ... This genre of writing is often stories covering famous people's lives, such as celebrities. In many memoir projects, the celebrity or person of interest needs help with organization, writing the story, and ...

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    In 2022, the author Salman Rushdie was onstage at a public event when a man ran up and stabbed him. His new memoir, Knife, delves into that moment when Rushdie thought he was going to die — and ...

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