9 Books That Made Me a Better Writer

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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?

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Comments

  1. Sean says

    Interesting that I’ve only read one of those books. Can’t wait to get started reading them! I would add, “The Invisible Wall” by Harry Bernstein, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, and “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz. Very different styles, but each was a book that showed me what great writing looks like. And that great writing isn’t cookie-cutter writing.

    Plus these guys add a few Y chromosomes to the discussion!

  2. says

    Sean,

    I just realized from your comment that eight of these nine memoirs were written by women. I did a little thinking on that and I figured it out. I am so focused on writing my memoir, which is about three generations of women and the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, that I have been reading a lot of memoirs by women lately to see how they tackle these subjects.

    I have devoured so many memoirs, and so many good ones written by men: “Running with Scissors” and “Dry” (Augusten Burroughs); “One Boy’s Life” (Tobias Wolff); “A Moveable Feast” (Ernest Hemingway); “The Color of Water” (James McBride); “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” (William Styron); “Me Talk Pretty One Day” (David Sedaris); “Stop-Time” (Frank Conroy), to name a few.

    I will be expanding my reading lists soon and I appreciate your recommendations, as I’m sure my readers do. Thanks, Sean.

  3. Kelli Castillo says

    I, too, have been devouring memoirs in preparation for my own project and am glad to see some of my favorites on your list. Three more I’d recommend are “The World’s Strongest Librarian” about Josh Hanagarne’s journey with Tourette’s Syndrome and “The Middle Place” and “Lift” both by Kelly Corrigan. Reading Kelly’s stories feels like sitting across the kitchen table having a cup of coffee with a dear friend. I’ve learned so much about the importance of voice from her books.

    Thanks for the list, Judy. I’m excited to check out a few of your choices.

    • says

      Kelli,

      Josh is such a talented writer—and an overall good person. He took the time in my early blogging days to encourage me, even left a comment on my blog. Interestingly, I featured him and Mary Karr in a post recently and purchased “World’s Strongest Librarian,” but had to quit reading when my Kindle blew up. I have a new one now and look forward to finishing his book! I will check out Kelli Corrigan’s books, too. Thanks for the suggestion.

  4. says

    I read Angela’s Ashes and Glass Castle. I see you like family drama. I like them too. I prefer them in books. :)
    I’m going to check out your other 7 books on the list.
    I want to write my memoir but my family said they would sue me. :(

    • says

      Natasha,

      Gosh, thanks so much for tweeting about my posts. I appreciate it. Indeed, I do like family drama. My memoir is full of it and I like to see how other writers handle plot, character development and voice.

      I used to worry about the legal part, but actually I am just writing this as my perspective on the strange and wonderful family of mine. (I have changed a few names, though.) : )

  5. says

    I haven’t written much lately, but I’ve been reading through Sitchen’s Earth Chronicles. The books have proven to be fascinating reading. Sitchen’s research into the history of ancient civilizations is quite impressive and eye opening. It’s a captivating trip back through centuries of time.

      • says

        Zecharia Sitchen’s works fall more into the non-fiction genre (even though some might question the validity of some of his conclusions). He is mostly working from his own, as well as other scholars, interpretations of ancient cuneiform tablets found in archaeological digs in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, etc.
        The last couple of days I’ve been reading about the pantheon of gods that we know through Greek and Roman culture and the presentation of where those beliefs originated prior to the development of the Greek & Roman civilizations. This was all triggered by some of my own research into the biblical story of Jonah & The Whale.

      • says

        Zecharia Sitchen’s works fall more into the non-fiction genre (even though some might question the validity of some of his conclusions). He is mostly working from his own, as well as other scholars, interpretations of ancient cuneiform tablets found in archaeological digs in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, etc.
        The last couple of days I’ve been reading about the pantheon of gods that we know through Greek and Roman culture and the presentation of where those beliefs originated prior to the development of the Greek & Roman civilizations. This was all triggered by some of my own research into the biblical story of Jonah & The Whale.

  6. says

    Hi Judy,

    Hope all is well.

    Loved Angela’s Ashes and love the fact that McCourt was a late bloomer ;)

    Haven’t read everything on your list, but thanks … several are going in my “must read” file.

    I’ve always had Liars’ Club on my list. Maybe I’ll finally get around to it after I’m done with George RR Martin’s ‪A Song of Ice and Fire‬. That’s taking a while.

    Been reading too many business books lately too ;)

    • says

      Craig,

      I have been focused on memoirs right now simply because I am writing my own. It is fascinating to me how different writers use voice, setting and character to tell a rich, intricate story.

      Wow, Martin’s fantasy epics? You ARE ambitious. I am not a fan of the genre but fantasy is doing very well these days. I know what you mean by the biz book rut. I was there for several years myself. I feel so much more free, not having to keep up on all that content anymore!Bob is reading Scott Berkun’s My Year Without Pants next. Scott spoke at the last Seattle WordPress meetup. Actually, his new book sounds interesting.

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