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Fifty definitive memoirs
Nothing inspires more than the truth of another person's experience, transmitted directly.
Be sure to check out An Ordinary Disaster, my own book-length memoir that I’ve serialized here on Substack as a work in process.
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I grew up reading Tintin, Slocum, sci-fi, Swallows & Amazons—and Hustler magazine. In my twenties and thirties I read novels, and then a lot of philosophy in my forties, books that became favorites like Why Buddhism is True, Straw Dogs, Antifragile and Against Love.
Now in my fifties as a writer of memoir, I read mostly in that genre. I love the truth of deep personal story, especially writing by men, by musicians and people in the music business, writing that includes place as a character, adventure, physicality, an erotic edge, psychology, recovery stories, and, most of all, great writing.
I hope you find some new inspiration here!
Fifty Definitive Memoirs
Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, Chrissie Hynde — I love how you can hear her voice and her lyrics for the Pretenders in her writing.
Acid for the Children: A Memoir, Flea — I love Flea’s spare, direct and honest writing, and how so much of his experience overlaps with my own.
The Long Way, Bernard Moitessier — there are lots of books about sailing around the world, even sailing alone around the world, but Moitessier kept going after going around once, and invented modern ocean sailing along the way.
The Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller, Mary V. Dearborn — OK it’s not a memoir, but… this is a truly outstanding biography of a writer that has been a major inspiration to me.
Where the Body Meets Memory, David Mura — it’s rare for men to write honestly about their sexuality, and Mura does it well.
Brother One Cell: An American Coming of Age in South Korea's Prisons, Cullen Thomas — a beautifully written and compelling memoir by one of my favorite writing teachers.
Restaurant Man, Joe Bastianich — I also love restaurant stories, and this is a fun and very informative ride that tells you everything you need to know about how to run a restaurant (and of course, the first thing is: don’t).
Punch Me Up to the Gods, Brian Broome — great writing, and a great example of someone able to convey his childhood experience in the voice of the child— When I thought of writing a book of love letters to ex girlfriends, I searched to see if someone already had, and, well, there was Tim. Super honest, sweet, and very funny. Tim is sort of the John McPhee of relationship writing.
Where I Was From, Joan Didion — sets the standard for memoir and writing about place. A classic of California prose, self-reflection, family history, and sharp wit.
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Nick Flynn — a modern classic, and one of the best titles out there.— I cried a lot reading Just Kids. A beautiful coming-of-age and becoming-an-artist story.
The Rainman's Third Cure: An Irregular Education, Peter Coyote — music, movies, sex — and great writing.
Confess: The Autobiography, Rob Halford, who holds a special place in my heart as a native San Franciscan, for being a rock ‘n roll star who was a closeted hard-core leatherman homo for decades, unbeknownst to most of his fans—except those of us who grew up in San Francisco! There is a very very sweet story in his book about how he met his lifelong partner as one of their shows, because someone was savvy enough to decipher his barely-coded gay-rodeo lyrics. Well-written and very funny, to boot!
Memories, Dreams, Reflections, C.G. Jung — much of this is not a dense as you might expect, and really, a beautiful look into one of the 20th century’s greatest minds. A life lived, guided by his dreams. Incredible! I’d avoided going straight to the source with Jung for a long time, having incorrectly assumed that the writing would be dense and unapproachable. To the contrary—at least in this work, and in Man and His Symbols, Jung’s classic introduction to Jungian psychology, his intention was to reach the lay reader, and so if you’re curious about Jung, don’t hesitate! For an even more approachable intro to Jung, I highly recommend Practical Jung by Harry A. Wilmer.
The Tender Bar: A Memoir, J.R. Moehringer — at the core of “memoir” as a genre.
Ham on Rye, Charles Bukowski — learning to drink, smoke and fuck at twelve
The Creative Act: A Way of Being, Rick Rubin — some of the best writing I’ve come across not just about the creative process, but about creativity as a way of being. Of course, he says that in the title. It doesn’t really matter whether you know who Rick Rubin is as a legendary music producer—his words ring true, and his voice is otherworldly soothing and wise. This is one of the people that I always mention as an example of someone who you can tell has done a ton of meditation just by the sound of their speaking voice.
Drinking: A Love Story, Caroline Knapp — the defining example of recovery memoir.
An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison — a beautifully written personal account of her own manic-depression, recovering from mental illness, and finding love by a highly intelligent, deeply feeling woman who also happens to be a professor of psychiatry and “one of the foremost authorities on manic-depressive illness.”
This Boy's Life, Tobias Wolff — another genre-defining memoir. Outstanding writing.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King — King as a writer, and it’s a great read.— although not quite a native, a fellow San Franciscan by upbringing, and by way of her outstanding work.
Heavy, Kiese Laymon — loved it for the language, and for the truth.
Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back Again, Norah Vincent — a fascinating report from a year spent passing as a man.
The Night of the Gun, David Carr — he goes on a bit, but you can’t beat the story, and his unique method of approaching his own life as an investigative reporter.
The High Sierra: A Love Story, Kim Stanley Robinson — an ode to ‘the best mountains in the world for backpacking’ from a legend of science fiction, Californian to the core, utopian futurist, and environmental visionary. I interviewed Stan for my podcast recently.
West with the Night, Beryl Markham — lyrical, historic account of life in early twentieth-century Africa.
To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers, Philippe Petit — beats Alex Honnold’s free-solo of El Capitan as the greatest ever feat of creative physicality, in part because Petit foresaw that the Towers could not stand forever.
Everest: The West Ridge, Thomas F. Hornbein — a defining example of mountaineering literature, and a riveting account of pioneering a new route on Everest—the hard way.
Educated, Tara Westover — incredible story of growing up and escaping from an ultra-repressive family and educating herself into adulthood.
Small Fry: A Memoir, Lisa Brennan-Jobs — I loved her writing, and, of course, she happens to be Steve Jobs’ daughter.
Stop-Time, Frank Conroy — another classic of the genre. Excellent writing.
Road Song: A Memoir, Natalie Kusz — To be honest, I can’t remember anything more specific than it’s beautifully written, but I tend to include books in my favorites more for the writing than for the the story, and so if it’s here, it’s worth a look.
My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean, Amy Dresner — grittier than most recovery stories. Amy’s a great writer, and a hero, really.
Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain — In the late ‘90’s, I used to eat at Les Halles in New York before I had any idea who Bourdain was, just because it was across the street from an office I used to work out of there.
Sexus, Henry Miller — More autofiction than memoir, and some of the best writing about sex—and the life of a writer, and a man—that will ever be put to the page.
Rogue River Journal: A Winter Alone, John Daniel — elegant, honest, and open.— I love Melissa’s writing. Everyone should read this tragic, beautiful, and true telling of her youth and life as a young woman. A window into womanhood that is revealing of all of us.
Scar Tissue, Anthony Kiedis — another great rock ‘n’ memoir. Great to read in conjunction with Flea’s book.
Life, Keith Richards — perhaps you can survive doing coke and heroin most of your life, if you get the good stuff.
Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir, Rebecca Solnit — I once was guilty of attempting to “mansplain”to Solnit herself, long before the term came to be. It took me a while to warm up to her writing but she is a treasure and this is a masterpiece.
Chickenhawk, Robert Mason — I’m not much for war stories, but this is riveting, and comes with a delicious surprise ending.
The Terrible: A Storyteller's Memoir, Yrsa Daley-Ward — modern, raw, intense
In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin — perhaps the defining example of travel writing cum memoir, a book that I discovered in my teens and that seared “Patagonia” in my mind forever as the most beautiful place on earth.
I'm Your Huckleberry: A Memoir, Val Kilmer — Val tells is like it is, with sweetness, light and depth.
Siberian Education: Growing Up in a Criminal Underworld, Nicolai Lilin — Apparently there was a bit of a scandal around this book because the author initially claimed it as memoir and it turned out to be more like autofiction, but… so what. I came across my copy in my favorite English-language bookshop in Warsaw, and it contains many gems including “Don’t keep money in the house.”
I also have to mention The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, a brilliant documentary about comedian Garry Shandling that continues to inspire me. “Your material is purely a vehicle for you to express your spirit. … It doesn’t have any value beyond you expressing yourself in a very soulful, spiritual way. *It’s why you’re on the planet. … It is merely a vehicle to be Garry.” He got it.
Memoir on Substack
A few of my favorite memoirists and writers of personal essay and autofiction on Substack. Have you read any of these writers? Please comment below ⬇️
My own writing
Books about writing memoir
I’ve read a lot of craft books. These are the ones that I’ve found to be actually useful:
Method Writing: The First Four Concepts, Jack Grapes
The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr
The Memoir Project, Marion Roach Smith
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King
Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, John McPhee
Other book lists
Books on psychology and philosophy
Stick around and chat
What are three of your favorite memoirs that aren’t on this list?
Which of these beautiful books had you never heard of?
Who is your favorite memoirist here on Substack?
What’s your favorite film based on a memoir?
What are you writing?
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