There’s a Seat for You At the Writer’s Table

Photo: Daniel Balaure

You keep hearing about that amazing memoir everyone’s reading, that book at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for months now. But you really don’t want to read it. Best-selling memoirs can throw you off track with your own writing.

Sound like you?

As a memoir teacher and coach for many hundreds of writers, I’ve heard this complaint too many times. Here’s the truth: Reading good memoirs can be one of the best things you do for your writing.

Artists have mentors. Painters visit museums and art galleries to learn from other painters, musicians listen to esteemed musicians. As writers, some of your best mentors are successful writers in your genre.

But you have to read the books! Stephen King says, “If you want to be a writer you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

To King’s list, I add three more essentials:

1. Consider the writers you admire to be your mentors. Read them, learn from them. Don’t run from them.

2. Immerse yourself in your genre, reading popular memoirs to see what the authors do that attracts readers. Be aware of your own impressions as you read.

3. Remember: Your story is as important as any bestselling memoirist’s. Every writer with a successful book has put in the time it takes to get there.

Read the Best

When you read current bestsellers and older classics, notice writing styles, voices, be aware of what you like and don’t like. Notice the author’s use of scene and dialog, how they handle the passage of time. Read like a writer.

Some of my favorite memoirs are Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam, Russell Baker’s Growing Up, James McBride’s The Color of Water, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (Gilbert’s memoir of a personal journey to find true happiness sold more than 10 million copies worldwide). I like each of these authors for different reasons, and I could (and have) read these books again and again.

Novelists sometimes write memoirs, too. Hemingway’s memoir is A Moveable Feast. Amy Tan wrote The Opposite of Fate, Isabelle Allende, The Sum of Our Days. Joan Didion’s memoir is The Year of Magical Thinking, Alice Walker’s wrote The Chicken Chronicles. And there are many others (including Stephen King). Look up a few of your favorite novelists and read their memoirs.

When you feel your own worth in the presence of greatness, that spark that can ignite you and inspire you to become the best writer you can be. Remember, there are a lot of great writers. And there’s room for you at the table.