Some people can sit down and write the story of their lives in a clear and straightforward fashion and be done. Other people, like New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast—author of wise, honest, unreasonably entertaining new graphic memoir about aging, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?—approach autobiography per Emily Dickinson’s legendary advice:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant—Success in Circuit liesToo bright for our infirm DelightThe Truth’s superb surpriseAs Lightning to the Children easedWith explanation kindThe Truth must dazzle graduallyOr every man be blind—
Like Chast and Dickinson herself, the writers below became famous by telling their truth but telling it slant, disguised as fiction, cartoon, essay, instruction, or comedy:
The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West
The daughter of eccentric London intellectuals, West turned her dysfunctional childhood into a top-notch novel, which has since become a classic. Wry and eerie by turns, and generally delightful throughout.
Maus I and II, by Art Spiegelman
Sometimes the counterintuitive idea—like rendering a memoir of the Holocaust as a comic book, where Jews are mice and Nazis are cats—is the brilliant one that transcends genre altogether. The horrifying true story of Spiegelman’s father’s family changed how we think about high art and, in the process, won a Pulitzer Prize.
Postcards From the Edge, by Carrie Fisher
The stories Fisher tells in her debut “novel” about growing up in Hollywood wrestling with success, the aftermath of success, drug addiction, bad taste in men, and a once-famous, now-decrepit, always-crazy mother (Debbie Reynolds) are too raw to be made up and too amazing to be true. The only sensible course of action is to stop trying to decide what to believe and just enjoy. (Then, bonus! Enjoy the movie, starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine having the time of their lives.)
PAIR WITH: Other 20th-century classic novels-from-life: Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong, and The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. After meeting literary alter egos Isadora Wing and Esther Greenwood, American popular culture would never be the same. One has to wonder how these books would have worked as straight-up memoir instead of fake fiction, but ultimately the story is what counts, and both of these gripping, feminist stories, for very different yet related reasons, needed to be told.
Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott
Bay Area literary guru Lamott is beloved, a sage who is candid and generous and who has nonetheless not risen above vanity, who can laugh at her own flaws and help the rest of us love ourselves a little better too. Although she has written several more straightforward memoirs, she found her voice, as the writing teachers say, while composing this writing manual that serves equally well as a guide for life.
PAIR WITH: The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, by Ann Patchett, and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King. The only writing advice worth reading, it turns out, comes from authors willing to look back over their own lives, recognize and enumerate their mistakes, and acknowledge that success is a combination of luck, work, and talent over which people have very limited control—and, in doing so, give readers a fascinating glance at the individual behind the sign reading “Men At Work.”
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman
Turkish essayist Batuman, unable to free herself from her obsession with Tolstoy and the other pre-Soviet greats, gets a Ph.D in Russian literature—so how does she end up in Uzbekistan? The same kind of happy accident that brought her to Samarkand launched this highbrow, eccentric, and highly revealing book-about-books, released only in paperback and not expected to sell, onto “best of” lists and made it a surprise success.
One Man’s Meat, by E.B. White
White is one of America’s greatest observers, and these essays, written on and about his farm in Maine in the 1930s, show his reverence for dry humor, small towns, and the life of the mind. A contemporaneous blurb from the Yale Review proclaims it “Good writing,” which is about as hilarious an understatement as could be made. These essays are revelatory and transformative, even when they’re only, supposedly, about chickens.
What’s your favorite work of creative memoir or autobiography?