I love memoirs and essays, so the genre of essay-length short memoirs is one of my favorite. I love delving into the details of other people’s lives. The length allows me to read broadly on a whim with minimal commitment. In roughly 5–30 minutes, I can consume a complete morsel of literature, which always leaves me happier than the same amount of time spent scrolling through my various social news feeds.
What exactly are short memoirs? I define them as essay-length works that weave together life experiences around a central theme. You see examples of short memoirs all the time on sites like Buzzfeed and The New York Times. Others are stand-alone pieces published in essay collections.
Memoir essays were my gateway into reading full-length memoirs. It was not until I took a college class on creative nonfiction that I realized memoirs were not just autobiographies of people with exciting lives. Anyone with any amount of life experience can write a memoir—no dramatic childhood or odd-defying life accomplishments required. A short memoir might be an account of a single, life-changing event, or it may be reflection on a period of growth or transition.
Of course, when a young adult tells people she likes writing creative nonfiction—not journalism or technical writing—she hears a lot of, “You’re too young to write a memoir!” and “What could someone your age possibly have to write about?!” As Flannery O’Connor put it, however, “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.”
As the lit magazine Creative Nonfiction put it, personal essays are just “True stories, well told.” And everyone has life stories worth telling.
Here are a few of my favorites:
SHORT MEMOIRS ABOUT GROWING UP
SCAACHI KOUL, “THERE’S NO RECIPE FOR GROWING UP”
In this delightful essay, Koul talks about trying to learn the secrets of her mother’s Kashmiri cooking after growing up a first-generation American. The story is full of vivid descriptions and anecdotal details that capture something so specific it transcends to the realm of universal. It’s smart, it’s funny, and it’ll break your heart a little as Koul describes “trying to find my mom at the bottom of a 20-quart pot.”
ASHLEY C. FORD, “THE YEAR I GREW WILDLY WHILE MEN LOOKED ON”
This memoir essay is for all the girls who went through puberty early in a world that sexualizes children’s bodies. Ford weaves together her experiences of feeling at odds with her body, of being seen as a “distraction” to adult men, of being black and fatherless and hungry for love. She writes, “It was evident that who I was inside, who I wanted to be, didn’t match the intentions of my body. Outside, there was no little girl to be loved innocently. My body was a barrier.”
Kaveh Akbar, “How I Found Poetry in Childhood Prayer”
Akbar writes intense, searing poetry, but this personal essay contextualizes one of his sweetest poems, “Learning to Pray,” which is cradled in the middle of it. He describes how he fell in love with the movement, the language, and the ceremony of his Muslim family’s nightly prayers. Even though he didn’t (and doesn’t) speak Arabic, Akbar points to the musicality of these phonetically-learned hymns as “the bedrock upon which I’ve built my understanding of poetry as a craft and as a meditative practice.” Reading this essay made me want to reread his debut poetry collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, all over again.
funny short memoirs
Harrison Scott Key, “My Dad Tried to Kill Me with an Alligator”
This personal essay is a tongue-in-cheek story about the author’s run-in with an alligator on the Pearl River in Mississippi. Looking back on the event as an adult, Key considers his father’s tendencies in light of his own, now that he himself is a dad. He explores this relationship further in his book-length memoir, The World’s Largest Man, but this humorous essay stands on its own. (I also had the pleasure of hearing him read this aloud during my school’s homecoming weekend, as Key is an alumnus of my now alma mater.)
David Sedaris, “Me Talk Pretty One Day”
Sedaris’s humor is in a league of its own, and he’s at his best in the title essay from Me Talk Pretty One Day. In it, he manages to capture the linguistic hilarities that ensue when you combine a sarcastic, middle-aged French student with a snarky French teacher.
Roxane Gay, “To Scratch, Claw, or Grope Clumsily or Frantically”
Gay is best known for her serious works of fiction and creative nonfiction, but she lets loose her fine sense of humor with this funny short memoir essay about joining the intense world of competitive Scrabble. It was a refreshing surprise to find nestled between heavier topics in her essay collection Bad Feminist.
Bill Bryson, “Coming Home”
Bryson has the sly, subtle humor that only comes from Americans who have spent considerable time living among dry-humored Brits. In “Coming Home,” he talks about the strange sensation of returning to America after spending his first twenty years of adulthood in England. This personal essay is the first in a book-length work called I’m a Stranger Here Myself, in which Bryson revisits American things that feel like novelties to outsiders and the odd former expat like himself.
Short memoirs to make you think (and possibly cry)
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, “I Had a Stroke at 33”
Lee’s story is interesting not just because she had a stroke at such a young age, but because of how she recounts an experience that was characterized by forgetting. She says that after her stroke, “For a month, every moment of the day was like the moment upon wakening before you figure out where you are, what time it is.” With this personal essay, she draws readers into that fragmented headspace, then weaves something coherent and beautiful from it.
Kyoko Mori, “A Difficult Balance: Am I a Writer or a Teacher?”
In this refreshing essay, Mori discusses balancing “the double calling” of being a writer and a teacher. She admits that teaching felt antithetical to her sense of self when she started out in a classroom of apathetic college freshmen. When she found her way into teaching an MFA program, however, she found that fostering a sanctuary for others’ words and ideas felt closer to a “calling.” While in some ways this makes the balance of shifting personas easier, she says it creates a different kind of dread: “Teaching, if it becomes more than a job, might swallow me whole and leave nothing for my life as a writer.” This memoir essay is honest, well-structured, and layered with plenty of anecdotal details to draw in the reader.
Alex Tizon, “My Family’s Slave”
In this heartbreaking essay, Tizon pays tribute to the memory of Lola, the domestic slave who raised him and his siblings. His family brought her with them when they emigrated to America from the Philippines. He talks about the circumstances that led to Lola’s enslavement, the injustice she endured throughout her life, and his own horror at realizing the truth about her role in his family as he grew up. While the story is sad enough to make you cry, there are small moments of hope and redemption. Alex discusses what he tried to do for Lola as an adult and how, upon her death, he traveled to her family’s village to return her ashes.
Classic short memoirs
James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”
This memoir essay comes from Baldwin’s collection of the same name. In it, he focuses on his relationship with his father, who died when Baldwin was 19. He also wrestles with growing up black in a time of segregation, touching on the historical treatment of black soldiers and the Harlem Riot of 1943. His vivid descriptions and honest narration draw you into his transition between frustration, hatred, confusion, despair, and resilience.
JOAN DIDION, “GOODBYE TO ALL THAT”
Didion is one of the foremost literary memoirists of the twentieth century, combining journalistic precision with self-aware introspection. In “Goodbye to All That,” Didion recounts moving to New York as a naïve 20-year-old and leaving as a disillusioned 28-year-old. She captures the mystical awe with which outsiders view the Big Apple, reflecting on her youthful perspective that life was still limitless, “that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.” This essay concludes her masterful collection,Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”
This is the title essay from O’Brien’s collection, The Things They Carried. It’s technically labeled a work of fiction, but because the themes and anecdotes are pulled from O’Brien’s own experience in the Vietnam War, it blurs the lines between fact and fiction enough to be included here. (I’m admittedly predisposed to this classification because my writing professor included it on our creative nonfiction syllabus.) The essay paints an intimate portrait of a group of soldiers by listing the things they each carry with them, both physical and metaphorical. It contains one of my favorite lines in all of literature: “They all carried ghosts.”
Multi-Media Short Memoirs
Allie Brosh, “Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two”
In this 2-part blog-post comic, Brosh explains her clinical depression with comical accuracy. She talks about the guilty feeling that comes from being sad for no discernible reason and the various ways she tried to explain it to her well-meaning friends. The analogy of the dead fish is unforgettably insightful. Both parts also appear in her book-length comic memoir, Hyperbole and a Half.
George Watsky, “Ask Me What I’m Doing Tonight”
Watsky is a rapper and spoken word poet who has built a following from YouTube. Before he made it big, however, he spent five years performing for groups of college students across the Midwest. “Ask Me What I’m Doing Tonight!” traces that soul-crushing monotony while telling a compelling story about trying to connect with people despite such transience. It’s the most interesting essay about boredom you’ll ever read, or in this case watch—he filmed a short video version of the essay for his YouTube channel. Like his music, Watsky’s personal essays are vulnerable, honest, and crude, and the whole collection, How to Ruin Everything, is worth reading.
If you’re looking for even more short memoirs, keep an eye on these pages from Literary Hub, Buzzfeed, and Creative Nonfiction for more well-told life stories. You can also delve into these 100 must-read essay collections.
When we’re not writing about books, Rioters write short memoirs, too! Angel and Christine recently had features on other websites, and Kelly’s memoir of her childhood reading life is a great example of a memoir essay popping up in the “Our Reading Lives” tag.
News, new releases, and reading recommendations for nonfiction readers!
As "progressive" and enlightened as American society claims to be, it sure doesn’t seem so when one looks at how often it marginalizes the mentally ill. Misconceptions, myths, and subsequent stigmas continue to circulate, making life absolute hell for patients already suffering from serious medical conditions. Despite this social isolation, plenty of empowered individuals take up their writing implements and use their realities to completely dismantle common, wrongheaded assumptions. Memoirs about mental illness are more or less a subgenre all on their own, and any author willing to put him- or herself out there in the interest of education deserves commendation. Listed in no particular order, and never meant to discount the brave contributions of other writers, the following 20 reads make a great place to start learning about mental illness from a first-person perspective. As literature is, of course, entirely subjective, try not to pitch a wee hissy over inclusions and exclusions.
Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen: In this famous memoir of mental illness, author Susanna Kaysen chronicles her stint in a psychiatric hospital at age 18. She received a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, a condition largely overlooked and misunderstood by the American mainstream, and relates all the intimate details back to readers. Not only does Kaysen’s autobiography shed light on BPD’s many nuances and symptoms, she also critiques the mental health care system.
Hurry Down Sunshine by Micheal Greenberg: Lauded by critics at Booklist, Library Journal and The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Hurry Down Sunshine revolves around a father coming to terms with his daughter’s mania. With brutal intensity, he opens up about watching his beloved Sally succumb to her brain chemistry. Psychiatric illness does not only impact the suffering individuals — it physically, mentally and emotionally resonates with the ones who love them most.
Blue Genes by Christopher Lukas: Bipolar disorder, depression and suicide run rampant throughout Christopher Lukas’ family, claiming both his brother (Pulitzer-winning journalist J. Anthony Lukas) and his mother. His aching memoir traces how generations pass on their conditions and come to impact loved ones. It’s an agonizing read, but one wholly necessary to understanding the nature of mental illness.
Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel: Major depressive disorder descended upon writer Elizabeth Wurtzel during her college and young professional days, after a lifetime of loneliness and longing for an absent father. Like many individuals suffering from this agonizingly common condition, she turned towards substance abuse and even a suicide attempt as a means of self-medicating. But a combination of steel will and a determined doctor set Wurtzel back on the difficult road to recovery.
Wasted by Marya Hornbacher: All the eating disorders remain some of the most misunderstood, yet high-profile, psychiatric conditions. This Pulitzer finalist defies many of the unfair stereotypes levied onto those with anorexia and bulimia, approaching the subject matter with intelligence and openness. Wasted candidly discusses a 14-year struggle with eating disorders and their comorbid diagnoses.
An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison: As both a clinical psychologist and bipolar patient, Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison speaks about mental illness from a very unique perspective. She has written extensively about her tumultuous experiences in various books, but none more personal and evocative as An Unquiet Mind. Ultimately, Jamison concludes that despite the horrors of suicide and searching for a valid treatment option, she feels her experiences made her a better person.
Just Checking by Emily Colas:Just Checking covers Emily Colas’ life with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, starting with her childhood and moving up to marriage, motherhood and an emotionally-ripping divorce. Rituals and compulsions meant to quell her fears eventually isolate the people she loves most, and it isn’t until she hits the bottom when psychiatric treatment becomes an option. Much of the memoir also covers how OCD severely impacts college students, sometimes driving them towards substance abuse as she once did.
Darkness Visible by William Styron: After a lifetime of alcohol abuse and sedatives, the celebrated author of Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner discovered he suffered from depression. Such a revelation, popping up in his 60s, guided him down a path of self-analysis and forced him to analyze of his experiences up to that point. Comparing and contrasting his melancholy with that of other famous figures who struggled with depression brings peace and reflection.
Skin Game by Caroline Kettlewell: Self-mutilation, often (but not always) involving cutting, crops up as a sadly common method of dealing with numerous psychiatric illnesses. In this emotional, deeply personal autobiography, Caroline Kettlewell explains how slicing herself with razor blades brought solace during her isolated childhood. As of its publication, she was still coming to terms with the issues inspiring the painful actions.
Unholy Ghost edited by Nell Casey: Twenty-two writers, including such luminous names as Larry McMurtry and William Styron, contribute their voices to this provocative anthology. All of them shed light on the realities of prolonged depression, allowing readers to analyze commonalities and understand unique experiences alike. Because the condition takes on so many different, ugly forms, anyone wanting to know more about it would do well to explore this volume with an open mind.
The Quiet Room by Lori Schiller with Amanda Bennett:Wall Street Journal reporter Amanda Bennett teams up with the courageous Lori Schiller to educate readers on schizo-affective disorder and the dangers of ignoring symptoms. Plagued with auditory hallucinations and suicidal thoughts, Schiller attempts to eke out a "normal existence" by seeking no treatment whatsoever. And, in doing so, ends up losing control of everything — though her story thankfully ends on an upbeat, hopeful note.
Musical Chairs by Jen Knox: A melange of family psychiatric history and struggling to fit into American suburbia sits as the main theme of Jen Knox’s Musical Chairs. Both factors contribute to the author’s nightmarish encasement in substance abuse and sexual objectification, but she eventually realizes how much she really needs her loved ones. Knox grapples with the myriad emotions attached to removing herself out of isolation and into treatment and resolution.
Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp: Untreated and unacknowledged mental illness often — but, of course, not always — leads to substance abuse issues as a means of alleviating the anguish. Caroline Knapp slowly succumbed to alcoholism after struggling with anorexia, both of which were unfortunately exacerbated by her high-pressure parents. Until age 36, this Brown-educated journalist kept the demons suppressed from employers and loved ones before finally checking into rehab.
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs: Augusten Burroughs’ mother sent him to live with her psychiatrist at age 13 after their tragic, unhealthy family life finally collapses in on itself. But even then, the new household contains some bizarre dysfunctions of its very own — including pedophiliac encounters with another adopted son twice Burroughs’ age. Psychology buffs with an interest in the nature versus nurture debate will particularly find his narrative fascinating.
Electroboy by Andy Behrman: Electroshock therapy has a very negative reputation, but in reality it can actually help patients suffering from a number of different psychiatric conditions. Andy Behrman’s manic depression (now known as bipolar disorder) drove him to actions both thrilling and utterly destructive, ultimately landing him in prison when his confidence became so overwhelming he forged paintings. Once he resigns himself to doing whatever it takes to feel well and whole, a combination of the right medicine and electroshock proves successful.
Sickened by Julie Gregory: Julie Gregory spent her childhood forced into illness because of her mother’s Munchausen by proxy disorder. In the very first memoir of its type, she chronicles the horror of constant physical abuse and how she weathered it hoping to please mommy. Gregory learned of MBP in college, and from there confronted the lie that had been foisted on her since birth.
When Rabbit Howls by Truddi Chase: Because of childhood sexual abuse and exploitation, the author began retreating inside herself and displaying the symptoms of multiple personality disorder — a condition oftentimes wrongfully confused with schizophrenia. Her memoir was one of the first to address the issue from a patient’s perspective rather than that of the doctor, and proved unique in her refusal to condense the different personalities down. Rather, Chase worked towards organizing them into a cohesive team dynamic.
A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill: Sexual frustration and anxiety drove writer and journalist Pete Hamill to begin abusing alcohol in adolescence. All he wanted in life was escape, and the desire sent him on even more voyages — many of them reckless or poorly considered – than the ones booze provided. Many note that this memoir isn’t exactly a detailed peek into alcoholism and regaining self-respect, but it is notable for its influence on Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story.
Lucky by Alice Sebold: Not all mental illnesses come from trauma; not all traumas inspire mental illness, but the two still walk hand-in-hand in plenty of instances. Bestselling author Alice Sebold was brutally raped during her freshman year at Syracuse, and viscerally bristled when a cop told her she should feel "lucky" not to have been murdered like an earlier female student. The incident, along with her upbringing as the child of alcoholics, thrust her headlong into depression and a brutal heroin addiction.
Stalking Irish Madness by Patrick Tracey: Because family history and genetics oftentimes dictate the mental health and stability of succeeding generations, it makes sense that many memoirs covering the subject delve deeply into such themes. Schizophrenia plagues Patrick Tracey’s sisters, and he devotes time and resources to tracing the diseases’ origins in his lineage. While he dredges up plenty of ambiguity and even more questions, the book does serve as an honest glimpse into an incredibly misunderstood condition.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 18th, 2011 at 11:34 pm and is filed under Health News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.