Judith Barrington's Writing the Memoir: A Sophisticated Guide

Judith Barrington, memoirist and poet, has established a reputation as an excellent teacher and workshop leader. Her book Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art has become a well-known text in academic courses. When more than two professors recommended the book, I decided to buy it. I’m glad I did.

Barrington selects some of the thorniest issues in memoir writing and creates a “practical guide to the craft, the personal challenges, and ethical dilemmas of writing your true stories.” In twelve chapters she exposes the flesh of issues such as naming names, writing about living people, and moving around in time. Deftly she filets each topic, leaving the reader feeling empowered and informed.

First, you should know that Barrington’s own memoir Lifesaving: A Memoir has won several prizes and praise from such creative nonfiction luminaries as Vivian Gornick, Philip Lopate, and many others. After reading this craft book, I ordered the memoir also. I trusted Barrington’s voice from the beginning.

Barrington’s advice to writers begins with the idea of apprenticeship–years spent reading, observing, experimenting, writing, revising, and editing–before attempting to publish your work. Those of us who have spent longer as apprentices than we were hoping to will enjoy this exchange recounted by Barrington:  a doctor at a cocktail party told writer Bill Roorbach that she was going to take six months off and write her story. “Roorbach’s satisfying comeback was, ‘You know, you’ve inspired me! I’m going to take six months off and become a surgeon!’

Like many other craft book writers, Barrington advocates keeping a notebook ready at all times for the kinds of fleeting thoughts, sensory perceptions, that bring back memory. But unlike many other instructors in the art of writing, she spurns the advice to note all the “big moments” in your life. Instead, create a haunting story out of “lifelong preoccupations.” Let your journals record and guide you to your life’s signature story–the things that really matter to you. At the end of this chapter, and every chapter, are excellent exercises, some of the best I’ve seen.

Just as Virginia Woolf needed to kill the “angel in the house,” the totally self-abnegating, decorous Victorian woman’s voice in her head, so do most of us need to kill off inner demons. One can’t write a memoir without risking offense to others or to the image of ourselves others may have of us.

And yet. One of the greatest controversies in the field, and one that sparked the longest comment dialogue ever in this blog, is the question, “What does the memoirist owe to other people, especially those still living?” Linda Joy Myers tackled this question in an earlier post entitled, “How to Write Your Memoir and Still Go Home for the Holidays.” So I was eager to read Barrington’s chapter “Writing About Living People.”

She takes a moderately conservative position of whether or not to publish work that might hurt others.  I found this piece of wisdom very helpful: “I feel certain that, if faced with an unresolvable conflict, peoples’ lives are more important than my words.” And I smiled when I read Annie Dillard’s wry comment, “Things were simpler when I wrote about muskrats.”

Too much concern about others silences the memoir voice. Too little concern may reflect undigested experience or the author’s immaturity. Barrington quotes Teresa Jordan as saying, “I think that if you understand the true depth of the story, it’s surprising how much truth people will embrace about themselves.” The key to striking the right balance between self and others may be to go another layer or two deeper into the story.

This morning, as I was walking, I listened to a wonderful podcast of novelist Edna O’Brien being interviewed by Diane Rehm on NPR. Even novelists, who are obviously making up their stories, can become outcasts in their home towns, as O’Brien was after the publication of her first novel, Country Girls. Often these same home towns become devoted to the memory of the writer who first offended them when it becomes clear that this writer spoke the truth in love.

If I had to choose one memoir writing book from all that I have read so far, I would choose this one.

Have any thoughts to share on this book or others on the subject of memoir? Anything you want to remember to carry into your own work?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Richard Gilbert on May 27, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    I love Barrington’s book! It is very complete, yet concise. I am long-winded and really admire brevity, and as a teacher know that brief books often work so much better for students. They are not as overwhelming and are easier to teach, too. I also enjoyed her memoir; she does practice what she preaches.

    Your comment about depth in writing about what hurt is true. If the experience has been processed and understood, a writer can largely transcend the account seeming vengeful. I agree that this maturity may help with family members’ defensive reactions. Certainly not all, but it will help with those who wish to be fair and to acknowledge another’s vastly different experience even within the same family.

    • shirleyhs on May 27, 2011 at 3:38 pm

      Richard, you were one of the two professors I cite above. Hope you recognized yourself. 🙂 And thanks for your testimonial here to help other readers, writers, and teachers choose from among the many options available for help with memoir.

      Brevity, the soul of wit, the student’s friend–if it truly is digested wisdom and not just the first, easy thoughts poured out on the page.

  2. Sharon Lippincott on May 27, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    I read Barrington’s book about writing about five years ago. I checked it out of the library at that point, and last month I found a used copy that now sits by my chair awaiting a reread. Thank you for reminding me why I sensed the need to reread!

    • shirleyhs on May 27, 2011 at 3:45 pm

      Sharon, you’ve spent so much time with this genre and with helping others tell their stories! Thanks for chiming in here. I have your book The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing: How to Transform Memories Into Meaningful Stories on my bedside right now. Isn’t that funny? I want to consult your book as I speak to the participants on memoir writing in a workshop I am doing June 4. I am sure I will find many nuggets there and I commend your book to readers also. I think I will take a whole armful of writing guidebooks, and I have a feeling yours will be a popular choice.

  3. Katie Roberta Stevens on May 29, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    For other writers of memoirs, please don’t to be surprised if the book you start is vastly different than the book you finish. I recently published My Mother Killed Christ: But God Loves Me Anyway. It’s my memoir as a child of a mentally ill mother who believed she killed Jesus and set herself on fire. I began my book as a confession. After turning 50 years old and conducting a mid life review, I felt ashamed that I had many affairs and cheated in all romantic relationships. This began by cheating on my high school sweetheart with a priest. After looking back, examining my mother’s mental hospital records, and reviewing my relationship with her, my viewpoint changed dramatically. I found, within myself, a strong and amazing woman. My book ended in triumph and peace. This was the reward I never anticipated! I hope you have the same remarkable experience. Write it for you!

    • shirleyhs on May 31, 2011 at 2:32 am

      Thanks, Katie. All best with your new book.

  4. Annette Gendler on June 1, 2011 at 12:29 am

    Barrington’s Writing the Memoir is my #1 “textbook” when I teach intro to memoir. See my blog post “My Favorite Books on Writing Memoir” May 3.

  5. shirleyhs on June 1, 2011 at 12:55 am

    Annette, you may have been the second person who touted Judith Barrington to me. Thanks for outing yourself. Now I will have to go find that post and see how many other texts we have in common.

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