The astrophysicist Carlo Rovelli believes the universe is made up not of particles or magnetic fields, but an interconnected series of events onto which we project a sequence of past, present, and future. I thought of his theory as I was trying to explain to myself what drew me to the memoir-in-essays as a form. Exploring a complex network of interactions sounds like the work of an essayist, whereas the projection of time is clearly the memoirist’s domain. Even when a memoir unfolds in a nonlinear chronology, there is almost always a transformation that relies on a “before” and “after.”
Sometimes, a story requires both tacks. As Elizabeth Kadetsky wrote of the memoir-in-essays for Lit Hub, “The more traditional memoir focuses on seeking and attaining redemption. The nonlinear structure of an essay collection reveals that there is never easy redemption, never clear resolution: bad things happen for no reason; overcoming one trial does not lessen the need to adapt in the next.” If only I’d had this explanation when I was writing my first book, which often felt like an unsuccessful memoir until I fully leaned into its essay-ness. Luckily, I found models of the hybrid form I’ve grown to love that had already accomplished what I hoped to; many of them are included in the list below.
Each of these books helped me to answer the question of what makes a collection of personal essays a memoir. I thought about Rovelli’s theory that time is an illusion, and of the expansiveness of the universe as a metaphor for interiority. I came to the conclusion that each one of these books is like its own solar system—made up of distinct planets traveling in diverse orbits, nevertheless managing to revolve around the same sun.
A History of My Brief Body by Billy-Ray Belcourt
In an author’s note, Belcourt addresses the rejection of linearity in his memoir, composed of lyric essays that blend the personal with the theoretical. As a young, queer NDN poet in Canada, Belcourt resists a colonial legacy of violence and oppression through art, intimacy, joy, and love while also processing his own intergenerational trauma and grief. His unusual alchemy of form, content, and style results in a work that’s both moving and thought-provoking, reminiscent of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays by Damon Young
Although labeled a memoir in essays, this book reads like an essay collection, probably because Young so deftly uses personal narrative as a lens to illuminate something larger than himself—the absurdities and dangers of living in America while Black. To that end, he reexamines experiences with racism, misogyny, and anxiety and interrogates his own beliefs in the process. Written by a sharp cultural critic with a rare combination of humor and emotional depth, these essays will entertain you and make you smarter.
How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays by Tyrese L. Coleman
Coleman’s experimental memoir in stories and essays questions whether genre really matters when it comes to memory-based writing while simultaneously asking, What is truth, anyway? The fiction and nonfiction, which are not labeled as such, weave together seamlessly, and the book truly reads like a memoir in essays, with occasional switches in point of view that serve to broaden and deepen the narrative. It is a story of girlhood, womanhood, motherhood, and grief—one that zigs and zags and keeps things interesting.
Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine by Emily Bernard
With strong and graceful prose, Bernard explores race from a variety of personal angles—her role as a professor of African American studies, as a mother to two adopted children from Ethiopia, and as a wife to a white man. In the opening essay, the echoes of racism are surprisingly not heard when she becomes the victim of a random stabbing, but instead in how the surgeon treats her body, reaching forcefully into an open wound in her abdomen. The visceral power of this moment hangs over the rest of the book, a metaphor for the trauma from which Black bodies can never fully escape.
Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot
This book stretched my mind and pierced my soul. Although labeled a memoir, it’s composed of a series of exquisite essays that eschew the traditional ways we use language, move through time, and write about our internal and external lives. The essays grapple with Mailhot’s tumultuous girlhood growing up in the Seabird Island Indian Reservation and her struggles with early motherhood, sexual abuse, and mental illness. The book also shines a light on an important cultural context that has been largely ignored by mainstream publishing—the epidemic of violence and trauma faced by Indigenous women.
Abandon Me: Memoirs by Melissa Febos
This stunner of an essay collection looks at attachment and abandonment through the prism of patterns in Febos’s own relationships. She wrestles with the chronic absence of the sea-captain father she grew up with, meeting her Native birth father for the first time, an intense love affair with a woman who is already attached, her brother’s mental illness—and even the sound of her own name. Over the course of the essays, which overflow with both intellect and emotion, Febos rediscovers herself through her most intimate bonds with others.
My Body Is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta
When I first discovered this book, I thought, wait, you can do that? Elissa Washuta’s memoir is composed of a series of formally inventive essays—one is written as a letter from her shrink; another aligns her Catholic upbringing with Cosmo’s rules for womanhood. The nontraditional composition seems almost self-aware, as if mimicking its own content. It’s a window into the mind of a young woman struggling with a bipolar diagnosis, reconciling her ethnic identity, and coming to terms with a sexual assault.
If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter
This book has perhaps one of my favorite titles, because it reflects an almost universal desire to revisit one’s younger self—a phenomenon that drives many memoirs. In it, Van Meter reconciles the gap between his adult identity as an openly gay man and his closeted youth in Missouri. The essays explore the author’s coming of age episodically, through formative experiences with empathy, gender, and identity. Although the writing is tender and profound throughout, it’s the arrangement of essays that keeps this book surprising.
Welcome to My Country: A Therapist’s Memoir of Madness by Lauren Slater
A psychologist who struggles with mental illness is an interesting premise for a memoir-in-essays. Slater captures a reverse reflection of herself in the lives of her patients, which include schizophrenics and sociopaths who, unlike her, will not recover. This collection, which relies on portraiture as much as it does personal narrative, shows us how the other might be a pathway to the self. Slater’s understanding of the therapist-patient relationship culminates when she goes to see a patient in a psych ward where she herself once spent years—and wonders what separates her from its current inhabitants.
The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
In this extraordinary collection of personal essays, Beard excavates the sublime from the mundane using vivid sensory details to tell her stories of girlhood growing up in the Midwest. Although the book’s most famous essay recounts a horrific massacre, the details that stick in my mind are gloriously ordinary—carrying an old, sick dog up and down the stairs, the whirring sound of buttons being poured out of a jar, and the bonds between two sisters and their daughters.
And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Sarah’s memoir-in-essays, A Woman, a Plan, an Outline of a Man, forthcoming on October 1 from Zone 3 Press! – Ed.
A Woman, a Plan, an Outline of a Man by Sarah Kasbeer
In this debut collection, one woman picks up the pieces of the typical all-American girlhood. With wry humor and raw emotion, Kasbeer reexamines the most painful experiences from her youth, including a violent boyfriend and a sexual assault. Her vivid descriptions of growing up in Illinois recall the coming-of-age memoirs of Mary Karr, but written for the #MeToo era. As an adult living in New York during this clarifying cultural moment, she has no choice but to reckon with her own trauma. Artful and entertaining, these essays explore sexuality, desire, privilege, shame, and the ways we find to heal.