What I've Learned About Life from Reading Memoirs

Over the last few years my nonfiction reading has increased by quite a bit, being partial to memoirs from runners, chefs, travelers, and writers (and the trashy celebrity ones I listen to occasionally). I think in a way these books are a form of self-help for me, as most of the time you're learning about someone who has experienced major obstacles and has had to dig deep to succeed. For me, that's a lot more influential than an instruction manual on how to live life. I've been thinking a lot about some of the major takeaways lately, as I just finished one, so I thought I'd share a few:

If your child writes a memoir, how would they portray their childhood? This has been such a huge one for me everyone always talks about their childhood in their memoirs (see below). There have been some stressful things that have come up in our home since Sawyer has been born and I either try to keep them from him, or explain things in age-appropriate terms. I try to be positive, a problem solver, admit to my mistakes, and also show that I have my own interests outside of just motherhood and my job. I'm sure their are flaws he'll hone in on once he's older and more reflective, but above all I hope that he sees I've always really tried.

Speaking of childhood, no one cares (with exception)
I usually really can't stand the childhood sections of memoirs, unless they're particularly interesting for some reason. It's just one of those things... if I don't really know someone I don't need to know they played soccer for three years, what type of cigars their father smoked, or what their mom cooked on Sunday nights. Call me a monster, go ahead, but those really are the sections I can't wait to get through.

Problems resolve, and new one arise
Ain't that the truth? So, if you're a memoir-writer it's because you presumably have a unique story to tell, and you're obviously still alive and able to tell it. If you look at the range of memoirs, there's everything from abuse to accidents to disabilities to poverty to every other horrible condition imaginable. These people rise up, conquer the challenge and often have to do the same later. But, it's like running- at first five miles seems impossible, but you do it. Then, when you later have a seven-miler on your schedule it doesn't seem as bad because you've built up the endurance. It's the same way with life- we can hone those problem solving skills and be ready to take on more. 

Be willing to accept help, and then give back when you are able
So few people do it alone, whether they ask for help or it is forced upon them. Personally, I detest asking for help, but there have been moments in my life when I have had to at least accept it. When I was nineteen, in college, I needed help with getting a down payment for a new car so that I could commute and stay at UCLA; my mentor/boss/friend who had no children lent me the money and we created a schedule for paying her back. I was horrified, but now as an adult I know that she really wanted to help and did it because she could. But then, once able you have to give back (I'll refrain from publicly patting my own back). This happens in memoirs ALL THE TIME- people start scholarships, foundations, they mentor others, they help advance careers. I can't think of any memoir where someone did it alone.

Repression will come back to haunt you 
Oh yes, the possible outcome of compartmentalizing! Not all, but many of the memoirs I have read have had people really struggle to come to terms with things from their past. I think the act of writing these books is therapeutic in and of itself for many of these people, but often there is mention of therapy, life changes, heavy conversations, etc... that help the authors come to terms with things that have happened in the past. 

Push Yourself Harder
You don't write a memoir because you sit on your ass and watch Netflix all day. You end up writing a memoir because you did something great or you persevered through something hard. People are running marathons with one legs, overcoming no formal childhood educations to become celebrated academics, and start from poverty to build empires. You can really do great, big things if you want to. 

Some of my all-time favorites (memoirs with a few essay collections thrown in):

Anything written by Leslie Jamison- focus on her life as an addict and academic

Heavy by Kiese Laymon- a memoir that looks at what it means to be black, gay, and to struggle with your body in America

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi- A doctor details his journey with cancer (although maybe not during Covid19)

I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O'Farrell- She recounts her many brushes with death, both literal and metaphorical

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah- Noah talks about his life in South Africa under The Apartheid 

Becoming by Michelle Obama- She's amazing- no need to say more

Dear America Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antionio Vargas- Fascinating discussion of immigration 

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl- The story of  Gourmet magazine's editor

I Hear She's a Real Bitch by Jen Agg- A female restaurantear who has to fight the boy's club in Toronto

Anything written by Anthony Bourdain 

Let Your Mind Run by Deena Kastor- a running memoir that's applicable to the sport and life in general (it's so motivating, I use it with my students too)

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt- a story of a family in which one of their twins was trans-gendered and how they navigated this road together 

Leaving the Witness by Amber Scorah- A look into Jehovah Witness, and leaving it

The Rules do Not Apply by Ariel Levy- I thought it was such an honest, raw look into a marriage

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea by Alyssa Mastromonaco- A Obama staffer who is just so brilliant and witty

How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell- Holy cow, I learned so much about drugs from the beauty editor's memoir


  1. Yes to so many of the memoirs on your list (especially Jamison - she was scheduled to speak in Melbourne in May and of course, it's been cancelled. I'm devastated!).

    Also agree about Levy's memoir - there are scenes from that book that I still think about (actually heard her speak last year - she was fantastic - sharp, witty and straight to the point.

    Have you read The Bright Hour by Nina Rigg?

  2. Still sayin' ya need to read Joseph Anton!!!

  3. I totally agree with you about the boring childhood sections with the exception of "Becoming", and I don't know why... I just relished reading every part of how Michelle Obama got to be what she became, and I'm not talking about the President's wife - I mean coming from a totally middle-class house with no academic history to being an Ivy-league educated lawyer. I thought it was all fascinating even though I usually don't!