Feeling Stuck on Your Personal Essay? 4 Memoirs to Inspire You

One of the best ways to overcome writer’s block and improve your writing is by reading other works in the same genre. These are four memoirs I recently read and loved that can inspire you no matter which topic you end up choosing. Each book has a unique style and story, so it’s a good reminder that there’s no such thing as one perfect approach to personal storytelling. (Still stuck on your draft? Go to your nearest bookstore or library and spend some time in the Memoir or Personal Essay section with a notebook in hand. Find one that speaks to you and start free writing. I swear it works!)

1) All That You Leave Behind by Erin Lee Carr

This memoir is both a heartwrenching ode to Carr’s famous media columnist father — who passed away one cruel random night when she was just 26 — and an honest reflection of how she overcame her own alcoholism. She describes the struggles of making it in her early 20s with pathos and humor. The book grapples with questions like what it means to be heir to a media legacy while you are still figuring out your own path, and how much you really inherit from your parents.

Good for: Writing about a death in the family or struggling with overcoming an addiction

Get inspired by: Her crisp, clear prose shows how to storytell without needed to embellish. She gets real without feeling like a diary entry. She also writes about her alcoholism by acknowledging her mistakes, which is crucial. Her self-awareness is inspiring. You never want to sound like you’re making excuses.

2) Educated by Tara Westover

This memoir is a beautiful account of surviving an extreme Mormon survivalist sect so against the “government” that she grew up without a birth certificate. Westover details being forced to do dangerous hard labor as a kid and being abused by an older brother whose mental health issues are ignored and denied. The story is ultimately inspiring: She went on to graduate from Cambridge with a history PhD.

Good for: Writing about a complicated family upbringing

Get inspired by: Great examples of deep self-reflection and answering the “why.” Westover has had years to process what happened to her (hopefully with therapy), so she is able to describe her past in a way that is deep but not accusatory. When writing about abuse, the tone is really important in showing how you overcame the adversity, and Westover’s descriptions are a good example of showing hurt without sounding bitter, which is a hard balance to strike when writing about something so personal.

3) Feast by Hannah Howard

I profiled Hannah for our alumni magazine and this is how I described her book: “Feast chronicles her rise through the ranks of the New York City restaurant scene — all the while binging and starving herself. The bildungsroman explores how a foodie makes peace with food, how it is both her greatest love and worst nightmare. The memoir is as much a love affair with food, and the chefs and grocery scions that make up its world, as it is a love affair with NYC.”

Good for: Writing about personal issues like eating disorders

Get inspired by: Hannah’s a poet first and her lyricism and poetic descriptions show how powerful literary nonfiction can be. If you want to take your writing to the next level, this is a great example of how to do so.

4) Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Noah explores his upbringing in South Africa during apartheid and what it felt like to grow up hiding for having a white father. His story also delves into domestic abuse, alcoholic family members, the economic need for crime in poverty, and trying to become a man in the aftermath of a broken system. He brings humor to tragedy, all the while explaining the sociopolitical movements happening all around him with ease.

Good for: Writing about complicated matters like race with humor

Get Inspired by: Noah is a brilliant comedian at the Daily Show for a reason: he excels in using humor to talk about yourself even when the subject matter is depressing. He’s also a pro at explaining complex historical events in easy-to-understand prose, which is a good reminder that your essay must be clear and leave no questions unanswered.