If you want to write a compelling memoir, the best thing you can do is read—read all the good memoirs you can! What follows are widely considered to be the ten best memoirs ever written, with descriptions taken from reviews. Once you’ve read all these, do an internet search to find others that are highly lauded and will inspire you when writing your own memoir.


Glass Castle1—The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.
The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered. Truly astonishing, The Glass Castle is a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family. Walls wrote, “One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. ‘You'd be destroying what makes it special,’ she said. ‘It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.’”


Diary of a Young Girl2—The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Discovered in the attic in which she spent the last years of her life, Anne Frank’s remarkable diary has since become a world classic—a powerful reminder of the horrors of war and an eloquent testament to the human spirit. In 1942, with Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. For the next two years, until their whereabouts were betrayed to the Gestapo, they and another family lived cloistered in the “Secret Annexe” of an old office building. Cut off from the outside world, they faced hunger, boredom, the constant cruelties of living in confined quarters, and the ever-present threat of discovery and death. In her diary, Anne Frank recorded vivid impressions of her experiences. By turns thoughtful, moving, and amusing, her account offers a fascinating commentary on human courage and frailty and a compelling self-portrait of a sensitive and spirited young woman whose promise was tragically cut short. Frank wrote, “I wish to go on living even after my death.”


Night3—Night by Elie Wiesel

Night is a candid, horrific, and deeply poignant autobiographical account of Weisel’s survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. Offering much more than a litany of the daily terrors, everyday perversions, and rampant sadism at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, it also eloquently addresses many of the philosophical as well as personal questions implicit in any serious consideration of what the Holocaust was, what it meant, and what its legacy is and will be. Wiesel wrote, “Never shall I forget that first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night. . . . Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.” 


Angel's Ashes4—Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

A Pulitzer Prize–winning, number-one New York Times bestseller, Angela’s Ashes is Frank McCourt’s masterful memoir of his childhood in Ireland. Born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland, McCourt wears rags for diapers, begs a pig’s head for Christmas dinner, and gathers coal from the roadside to light a fire, enduring poverty, near-starvation, and the casual cruelty of relatives and neighbors—yet lives to tell his tale with eloquence, exuberance, and remarkable forgiveness. McCourt wrote, “The Master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the faith, and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland. And I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.”


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings5—I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide. Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and lives with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned. Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.  Angelou wrote, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”


Running with Scissors6—Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

As the son of an alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother, young Augusten Burroughs faces a challenging childhood at the very least. His life takes an unexpected turn when his mother gives him to her unorthodox therapist, and the boy becomes a member of the doctor’s own strange, extended family. Burroughs wrote, “My mother began to go crazy. Not in a ‘Let’s paint the kitchen red!’ sort of way, but crazy in a ‘gas oven, toothpaste sandwich, I am God’ sort of way.” He followed that with, “It’s a wonder I’m even alive. Sometimes I think that. I think that I can’t believe I haven’t killed myself. But there’s something in me that just keeps going on. I think it has something to do with tomorrow, that there is always one, and that everything can change when it comes.” 


A Child Called It7—A Child Called “It” by Dave Pelzer

This book chronicles the unforgettable account of one of the most severe child abuse cases in California history. It is the story of Dave Pelzer, who was brutally beaten and starved by his emotionally unstable, alcoholic mother: a mother who played tortuous, unpredictable games that left him nearly dead. He had to learn how to play his mother’s games in order to survive because she no longer considered him a son, but a slave—and no longer a boy, but an “it.” Dave’s bed was an old army cot in the basement, and his clothes were torn and raunchy. When his mother allowed him the luxury of food, it was nothing more than spoiled scraps that even the dogs refused to eat. The outside world knew nothing of his living nightmare. He had nothing or no one to turn to, but his dreams kept him alive—dreams of someone taking care of him, loving him, and calling him their son. Pelzer wrote, “It is important for people to know that no matter what lies in their past, they can overcome the dark side and press on to a brighter world.”


Liars Club8—The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr

The Liars’ Club is Mary Karr’s autobiographical journey through her turbulent childhood and young adulthood. Karr describes in vivid detail the traumas she experienced during that time, including her dysfunctional family life, behavioral problems at school, and sexual abuse inflicted upon her by her classmates and caretakers. Karr employs poetic language and visual imagery as she recounts these difficult episodes, attempting to capture how these episodes present themselves to her memory and to see what significance she can attach to them now as an adult. Karr wrote, “Mother’s particular devils had remained mysterious to me for decades. So had her past. Few born liars ever intentionally embark in truth’s direction, even those who believe such a journey might axiomatically set them free.” 


This Boys Life9—This Boy’s Life: A Memoir by Tobias Wolff

This unforgettable memoir introduces us to the young Toby Wolff, by turns tough and vulnerable, crafty and bumbling, and ultimately winning. Separated by divorce from his father and brother, Toby and his mother are constantly on the move, yet they develop an extraordinarily close, almost telepathic relationship. As Toby fights for identity and self-respect against the unrelenting hostility of a new stepfather, his experiences are at once poignant and comical, and Wolff does a masterful job of recreating the frustrations and cruelties of adolescence. His various schemes—running away to Alaska, forging checks, and stealing cars—lead eventually to an act of outrageous self-invention that releases him into a new world of possibility. Wolff wrote, “When we are green, still half-created, we believe that our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters. We live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever.”


On Writing10—On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Immensely helpful and illuminating to any aspiring writer, Stephen King’s critically lauded, million-copy bestseller shares the experiences, habits, and convictions that have shaped him and his work. Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have. King’s advice is grounded in his vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999—and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery. Brilliantly structured, friendly, and inspiring, On Writing will empower and entertain everyone who reads it—fans, writers, and anyone who loves a great story well told. King wrote, “Writers remember everything . . . especially the hurts. Strip a writer to the buff, point to the scars, and he’ll tell you the story of each small one. From the big ones you get novels.”


 

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