Today I’m sharing with you nine of the books that have impacted me as a writer and helped me improve my voice, my characters and my narrative arc.
Seven of these books are memoirs. Of the other two, Bastard Out of Carolina is fiction, with strong autobiographical elements, and the semi-autobiographical Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, is officially categorized as a novel. But what makes them remarkable is that all of their authors put story first.
I strongly recommend any and all of these books if you are still working on your storytelling and voice development. And even if you are not, they are just amazing reads, each and every one.
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
A funny, forgiving and deeply moving look back at a childhood full of poverty, disease and death that is also an amazing tale of perseverance and love amid all the misery.
What it’s about: McCourt tells a gripping story of an Irish-American boy’s life with a drinking father and a mother who is trying to keep the family alive
What I took away: It is not the number of books you produce. (McCourt wrote his first book at age 66.) It is the ability to write a story, as McCourt did, that can show us the way, help us see what it means to be human. Oh, and also, spending many years as a teacher before becoming an author is not necessarily wasted time, but can fill a writer with insights and life experiences to make their way into a compelling book.
Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
A darkly hilarious telling of Karr’s deeply troubled childhood in an east Texas oil town in the 1960s.
What it’s about: In an honest, crystal clear voice, Karr narrates how she navigates a childhood in an east Texas oil town with an alcoholic, mentally unstable mother and a hard drinking, storytelling father.
What I took away: We can have a challenged, out of the ordinary childhood and tell the story with grace and honesty, without blaming or shaming anyone. Karr shows with breathtaking beauty how a child can grow up smart and strong despite the obstacles she encounters in life.
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
The illegitimate child of a teenage mother is caught between the mother she adores and a stepfather who beats her and eventually molests her.
What it’s about: Allison tells the story of a girl growing up poor and white in the rural south in the 1950s around hard-drinking, law-breaking men and women who marry too young. When her stepfather becomes vicious, she is caught in a triangle that leads to a harrowing climax.
What I took away: The setting, the dialogue and dialect, authentic characters and sensory details will make a story come alive.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
A girl growing up in an English Pentecostal community struggles with her sexual identity.
What it’s about: The narrator is being raised as a budding evangelical but when she comes to terms with her sexuality, she is disowned by her God-fearing mother.
What I took away: The most sensitive subjects will engage readers when tackled with wit, humor and imagination.
mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen
A story of a childhood steeped in the Mennonite religion that is full of humor and self-deprecating honesty.
What it’s about: A woman who has left her conservative Mennonite upbringing behind experiences a life crisis at the age of 40 and tackles issues of faith, love, family and healing when she returns home.
What I took away: This author shows us that you never completely leave your family behind—and that often goodness and love abound, even amidst the quirkiness.
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
A young girl with unconventional parents must fend for herself as the dysfunction of her family escalates to epic proportions.
What it’s about: With a bright, hard-drinking father and a mother who says she is “addicted to excitement,” a young girl learns how to navigate her world, mostly without help.
What I took away: Time and distance give an author the ability to tell her story with astonishing honesty and expressions of deep affection for her parents.
Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick
Over decades, a mother and daughter fight, separate, and reconcile, finally realizing that they are much more like each other than different.
What it’s about: The author expertly weaves a tale of her never ending struggle to become completely free and independent from her mother.
What I took away: A good story expertly balances scene and summary, so the reader knows both what happened and how it affected the author.
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
An account of the death of Didion’s troubled adopted daughter and her struggle to cope with it so soon after losing her husband.
What it’s about: The author pieces together literary snapshops and memories of her daughter’s life and death.
What I took away: What I take away from Didion’s books, and especially Blue Nights, is the writer’s uncanny sense of place, her ability to ground us and almost put us in the story with her, to make us feel as if we are there.
daughter of the queen of sheba by Jacki Lyden
The story of a midwestern girl and her mother who suffers from depression and in her manic phases, thinks she is the Queen of Sheba.
What it’s about: Lyden, a foreign correspondent for NPR, chronicles how her mother’s manic depression shaped her life in her 60s/70s childhood and beyond.
What I took away: The use of vivid imagery will make a story stick. Also, it takes courage to write a true story.
One Hundred Names for Love by Diane Ackerman
A marriage, a stroke, and the language of healing.
What it’s about: When her husband Paul West, author of 50+ books, is struck by a stroke that leaves his brain a “massive wasteland,” his equally accomplished writer wife, Diane, becomes his caregiver and cheerleader, helping him regain his ability to speak, and eventually to write again.
What I took away: The most complex subject matter, in the right hands, can make an inspiring and joy-filled reading experience. Ackerman, in the way only a poet can do, blends the science of the brain with a love of language as we learn about aphasia and brain injury at its most emotional and human level.
Have you read any books lately that made you think about life in different ways?
What books have made you a better writer?