The Top Three Memoirs to Begin Your Journey Into Nonfiction

As a book lover, I have always been enthralled with fiction. I start a new novel and instantly become enamored by the worlds that authors create filled with breath-taking settings, captivating characters, and gripping plot lines. For so many years, I believed that fiction was the only genre for me, scoffing at the evil idea of “nonfiction,” which in my mind equated to a list of facts similar to reading an encyclopedia.

But thankfully, and to be frank, I’m not sure exactly how or when it happened during my literary maturity, at some point over the years I have found my gateway genre to nonfiction, and I am so happy I did. In a word: memoirs. Memoirs, while very much based in reality, have just enough creative writing elements (setting, characters, plot, etc.) to still draw me in. And what’s more, these stories are even better, in some aspects, than my beloved novels because they are real humans connecting with their real readers about their real lives –the victories, the agonies, and everything in between. And at the end of the day, isn’t that the point of “Big-L” Literature? To showcase humanity through stories?

So, if you are like my former self, stuck in your Team-Fiction ways, not wanting to give nonfiction a try, I would like to present to you three of my absolute favorite memoirs as recommendations to help you see the light and ease your way into the satisfying waters that are creative nonfiction.

Educated by: Tara Westover

Published in 2018, Educated follows Westover’s story from childhood all the way to her Cambridge education. Westover’s story gripped me from the start and would not let me go. Raised in rural Idaho, Westover was isolated from many outside of her immediate family and didn’t have typical childhood experiences such as going to school. Her family was an entanglement of love, violence, fear, and determination: determination by some to stay secluded, determination by others (like Westover’s older brother and eventually Westover herself) to see what the world beyond her family’s mountain had to offer. Her story is one of life-long struggles to love her family and make them proud while also discovering who she is apart from the tumultuous upbringing she survived. One piece of that discovery was seeking an education beyond the subpar homeschooling she received from her family. As a lover of learning, I was captivated by Westover’s desire to earn an education and felt as if I was walking onto the campuses of Brigham Young University, Harvard, & Cambridge alongside her in her later years. This is a story of turmoil and triumph and will likely not leave you for a long time after turning the final page.

“When I was a child, I waited for my mind to grow, for my experiences to accumulate and my choices to solidify, taking shape into the likeness of a person. That person, or that likeness of one, had belonged. I was of that mountain, the mountain that had made me. It was only as I grew older that I wondered if how I had started is how I would end–if the first shape a person takes is their only true shape.”

Tara westover, Educated

Hillbilly Elegy by: J.D. Vance

As a life-long Kentuckian, this book feels a little closer to home than that of Westover’s Idaho mountains. Vance’s memoir, subtitled, “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” relays his family’s history, including tracing their roots to their native Jackson, Kentucky and following their move to Middletown, Ohio. His story, published in 2016, shines a light on his family struggles, and in turn makes a bigger commentary on the people in his community and their socio-economic status–in his words “a culture in crisis.” From his mother’s drug abuse to his difficulty in school, he recounts what life was like for him and how a few people along the way inspired him to strive for better. His journey, leading him out of Middletown, to enlist in the military, go to college, and attend Yale Law School, is nothing if not awe-inspiring. Now a movie on Netflix starring Glen Close and Amy Adams, this story will infuriate you one moment and inspire you the next. It highlights some brutal truths about realities in our country, but reinforces the mindset that anything is attainable if a person is willing to put in the work.

“And if I leave you with the impression that there are bad people in my life, then I am sorry, both to you and to the people so portrayed. For there are no villains in this story. There’s just a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their way–both for their sake and, by the grace of God, for mine.

J.D. Vance, hillbilly elegy

The Glass Castle by: Jeannette Walls

I have, in my opinion, saved the best for last. I’m not sure if I have the adequate words to describe how deeply I love The Glass Castle. I first read this book a few years ago after my younger sister told me about it, she having had read it for a class assignment. I was immediately in love, but it is an admiration that has grown even deeper over the years. As an English teacher, I have also taught this book to my students as part of a memoir study over the past several years. With each passing year, my beloved copy of the book becomes a bit more worn and annotated, and I feel just a bit closer to the Walls family.

Published in 2005, this is the story of Jeannette and her unconventional family: her father Rex, her mother Rose Mary, older sister Lori, younger brother Brian, and younger sister Maureen. Jeannette’s childhood was, in a word, nomadic. With Rex’s drinking problem and Rose Mary’s apathy toward being a parent, money, food, and stability were scarce. This resulted in Jeannette and her siblings being more responsible than their parents and essentially learning to fend for themselves. This story is so paradoxical in that the behavior of the parents is infuriating, but there is an evident bond of love between them all at the same time. For instance, in a drunken rage, Rex burns down the family Christmas tree one year, but then later helps Jeannette pay for a semester of college when she thought she would have to drop out due to expenses.

The way that Jeannette recounts the unfathomable experiences of her life (many that would make most people bitter for life) and yet is able to draw out of those difficult times lessons, strengths, and love for her family is unparalleled. The fact that she had such an unstable life and is now in a loving marriage and is a successful writer is a testament to her resiliency and determination. Her memoir has been transformed into a beautiful film starring Brie Larson as Jeannette and Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts as Rex & Rose Mary. While there are some creative liberties taken in the film, it is still a fascinating portrayal of Jeannette’s life. Each time I finish reading The Glass Castle, named after the home Rex promised to build his family for years but never did, I feel as if I am a distant cousin visiting with her family, hearing the same familiar tales that are repeated at every family reunion, but never tiring of experiencing them all over again.

“We raised our glasses. I could almost hear Dad chuckling at Mom’s comment in the way he always did when he was truly enjoying something. It had grown dark outside. A wind picked up, rattling the windows, and the candle flames suddenly shifted, dancing along the border between turbulence and order.

jeannette walls, the glass castle

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