On Writing: My Current Top 3 Favorite Memoirs of the Craft

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Our friend Katya is back to recommend some top memoirs to inspire the writer in all of us. 

There is a certain brand of aspiring author we all know. Their journal collection is slightly shabbier than most, they tend to always look a bit distracted, and they are ready and willing to start doing writing exercises at the drop of a hat (or a napkin, since it’s easier to lay flat to write on). Their shelf of writing manuals and exercise books tends to be the biggest, because no matter how slow they go, they eventually get to the end, and then they have to start all over again.

*deep breath* Hi, my name is Katya, and I have a writing memoir problem.

Though I try to give my shelves a good clear-out every now and again, I still find it hard to let go of books and pass them onto somebody who will enjoy them more. Also, with time, I’ve gotten a tad more aware of my own tastes, so I tend to pick up books that I would keep. And when it comes to writing memoirs… well, let’s just say picking a top three was hard. (The struggle, it’s real.)

But before I get into this list in earnest, it’s worth pointing out what these books are not:
They are not necessarily the best manuals for writing, as in the act of writing, as in, composing a novel. They could be, but they are not the first thing I would recommend to somebody who is just starting off. (As for what I might recommend, Stephen King’s “On Writing” was a good enough “gateway”.)
They are also not necessarily the “writer’s block un-blockers”, although of course, they could be, if the writing inspires you as much as it does me. But if you want something specifically designed for that purpose, Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” or “The Sound of Paper” are both great (the former is structured over 12 weeks; you can set your own pace with the latter.)
Finally, I feel like I should say that this is a highly subjective list, based on personal preference rather than an unbiased judgement on the writing. I feel like there is so much advice on writing out there these days, when it comes to deciding who you should listen to, you need to be aware of your own needs, and your own voice. (Translation: Don’t crucify me, I could only pick 3.)
Without further ado, here are my top 3 favourites:
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
If you read Julia Cameron at all, you would have heard of Natalie Goldberg. The two kind of go together and, along with Anne Lamott, have written some of the most well-known books on the creativity. Goldberg’s book is very easy to read and the exercises are adaptable to everyday life, more so than “The Sound of Paper” because they don’t ask for commitment to morning pages or artist dates (something that I struggle with). If anything, Goldberg’s approach is entirely student-led, which I think makes this a great book if you’re looking to expand your practice.
Still Writing by Dani Shapiro
If Goldberg’s book focuses on the craft of writing and dispensing practical advice to writers, “Still Writing” is more about the life of a writer in general, with all its “perils and pleasures”. Dani Shapiro has a voice that compels you to listen – and her advice on writing is tempered by long years of experiences. Discussing everything, from droughts, through strange muses, to the annoying presumption some people have that they know a writer from reading their books, she delivers the same messages that most of us know (keep up your practice, listen in, have empathy) in a manner that really drives the point home. It’s one of those books that is full of passages you remember – and when I hit a rough patch, I can count on opening it and finding something that will make me feel less alone.
Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran
This one’s a little bit of a cheat because, in addition to the preface by the editor, the book contains essays from 20 authors on what they do what they do… but man, is it a treasure trove of good advice (also, it makes your reading list grow like nothing else.) It’s what I would call “best of both worlds”, combining practical advice with life story in a way that is easily absorbable and engaging. The wide variety of voices in the collection – from Isabel Allende to Kathryn Harrison to Armistead Maupin, there is a little something for everybody in there. (Admittedly, one of the writers is James Frey, so you might want to buy the book second hand, or get a new copy and rip out those particular pages, or skip them entirely. I did the latter, and I don’t feel any poorer for it.) Also, if you’re interested in memoir-writing, “Why We Write About Ourselves”, which is by the same editor, is another excellent book.
Or hell, it’s a great book if you just want to discover someone new to read, too.

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