Life Stories: A Few Recommendations

Our lives, like snow flakes, are each unique and the best ways of telling our story will be individually distinctive. Even so, we can learn by reading like a writer, by learning from the work of others. Probably the best approach is to find one or more life stories that you have enjoyed reading and then study it to discern what contributes to its appeal for you. 

I offer a number of qualified recommendations from my own reading. The list below is eclectic and certainly not definitive. Yet plucked from dozens of memoirs on my home bookshelves, these are stories that reflect aspects of writing that I have emphasized in our “Life Sentences” writing lessons.

  • Horton Foote. Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. 
  • Horton Foote. Beginnings: A Memoir. New York: Scribner, 2001.

It might seem puzzling that a writer even as gifted as Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Horton Foote would publish two memoirs of youth within a couple of years of each other. The content of the two volumes, however, is significantly different. As the subtitle indicates, Farewell recalls Foote’s childhood in Texas, with memories of his immediate and extended family and depictions of his hometown of Wharton and people in that community. Beginnings, by contrast, focuses on Foote’s early experiences as an actor and playwright.

One of the most notable features of these two memoirs is their smooth progression from scene to scene. Readers feel as if they had stepped into the middle of a conversation between interesting but very ordinary people. Only later, and with careful observation, is it apparent how carefully the backstory and necessary details are woven into what seems every day talk.

Frederick Buechner. Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1982.

Frederick Buechner. Now & Then. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1983.

Frederick Buechner. Telling Secrets: A Memoir. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.

Buechner is an American writer, essayist, memoirist and Presbyterian minister. His writing provides a sharp contrast to that of playwright Horton Foote. Buechner’s several memoirs are almost all told in summary narrative form rather than scene. But he illustrates well the power of personal reflection, especially of a spiritual nature. “…if God speaks to us at all in this world,” he writes, “if he speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks”  (Sacred Journey, 1). Buechner once described the central theme in his works as “listen to your life.” In his memoirs, he is listening for “whispers from beyond time,” and he grounds well those whispers and that listening in the particular events of his own upbringing and adult life.

  • Pierre Berton. Starting Out: 1920-1947. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987.
  • Pierre Berton. My Times—Living With History: 1947-1995. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, Ltd, 1995.

Berton was a Canadian journalist and an award-winning nonfiction writer, who published 50 books for adults and 22 for young Canadian readers. Perhaps best known for his two-volume history of the building of Canada’s railway (The National Dream and The Last Spike), Berton also chronicled his own life in two volumes. Carefully researched and detailed as all of his writing tended to be, Berton’s life story engages his readers with vivid scenes, effective description and sentences that are well varied and highly readable.

  • John Dean III. Blind Ambition: The White House Years. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.
  • John Dean III. Lost Honor: The Rest of the Story. Los Angeles: Stratford Press, 1982.

Dean, at the age of 32, became White House Counsel for President Richard Nixon and subsequently played a key role in the political scandal known as Watergate. Initially a strategist in efforts to cover-up White House criminal activities, he later became a key witness for the prosecution.

Dean’s first volume opens with a well-developed scene, one filled with effective dialogue, picturesque description, and narrative sentences that flow smoothly. Though Dean was a well-educated lawyer, such storytelling abilities likely were not his alone. His acknowledgements quietly note the editorial assistance of Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer prize-winning American author and historian. Dean’s subsequent account similarly credits Digby Diehl, a journalist and well-known collaborator on celebrity memoirs.

Such collaborations do not detract from such life stories; they enhance them. Though most of us, in writing about our lives, will not have available such skilled assistance, we can learn from them in such published accounts as John Dean provides. Dean played a key role in American historical events, but his personal account also reflects how to integrate one’s personal life with the larger events of one’s time.

  • Louis L’Amour. Education of a Wandering Man. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.

L’Amour is best known to readers as the writer of dozens of popular “Westerns.” He once said in an interview that he wrote over 50 novels before one of them sold. His persistence not only led to success but contributed to a a very accessible writing style. It can be interesting to study the memoirs of such experienced and successful writers. Personally I read L’Amour not so much for his stories as to observe his skillful handling of action (an action scene takes longer to read than a summary, but must seem rapid-paced). He is a good descriptive writer (using the essential minimum) and his well-honed sentences can be understood and enjoyed by most readers.

(I’ve also been partial to L’Amour ever since I learned he owned one of the best manuscript collections on the travels of Marco Polo. L’Amour’s had a good knowledge of the great epics of the world). 

  • Dan Rather. The Camera Never Blinks: Adventures of a TV Journalist. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1977.

Rather’s memoir is one of half a dozen he wrote describing his experiences as a journalist and national-news broadcaster. Each of the chapters is very readable, most of them using engaging scenes filled with dialogue and enough description for the reader to visualize the setting. Rather was an experienced writer, but his memoir also taps the skills of another writer, Mickey Herskowitz, a journalist and co-author with many political and sports figures.

  • Peggy Noonan. What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era. New York: Random House, 1990.

As her title implies, Noonan provides a political memoir, one chronicling her experiences in Washington, D.C. as a speechwriter for U.S. President Reagan. Earlier in her career, Noonan worked as a journalist for Dan Rather (CBS News) so understood the breadth of the political spectrum. Her memoir is about writing and it is well written. “I began my career writing for the ear. I learned how to write for broadcast, how to be conversational and catch the listener’s attention, how to try to sum up a situation with a good, true line” (18). Not only did that qualify her to work as a presidential speechwriter, but it also enabled her to write effectively about her life and experiences. Like the memoirs of Pierre Berton, John Dean, and Dan Rather, Noonan creates engaging scenes with good description and dialogue.  Noonan also demonstrates very smoothly how to weave ideas and reflections into one’s life writing.

Norman Levine. Champagne Barn. Markham, ON: Penguin Books, 1984.

Levine was a Canadian short-story writer who lived most of his life in England. It may seem odd to include the works of a short-story writer among recommended models for life writing, but Levine is a worthy exception. His stories are written in first-person and most have a strong autobiographical feel. The fact that the circumstances recounted are fiction does not disqualify their value to a life writer. Levine’s stories are highly readable, a credit to his effective sentences, and they flow from scene to scene, with sprightly dialogue and precise description.

Margaret Laurence. Heart of a Stranger. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

Laurence is best known to Canadians as the author of five novels set in fictional Manitoba town of Manawaka (e.g. A Bird in the House, The Stone Angel, The Diviners). Laurence’s writing career began while she and her husband lived in Africa and Heart of a Stranger is a collection of articles and essays that illustrate another approach to life writing. Having first been published separately, each of the nineteen pieces in this collection stand on their own, but they are unified by Laurence’s articulate philosophy.

The articles found in this work may be of special interest if you are thinking of writing about your travels; they are filled with memorable description, clear characterization, and life-like dialogue.

Kathleen Norris. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1993. 

Norris is a Washington, D.C.-born poet who moved with her husband to Lemmon, South Dakota, where her writing shifted to non-fiction. Her reflections on gossipy small-town life and on the spirituality of life in the High Plains illustrate powerfully how personal experiences can point to larger truths. 

Bruce Catton. Waiting for the Morning Train: An American Boyhood. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1972.

If you are historically inclined, Catton’s memoir of youth in Benzonia, Michigan may be of interest to you. Catton is best known as a historian, journalist, and popular chronicler of the U.S. Civil War. I find his historical accounts to be more compelling reading, perhaps because the conflict is more obvious. Yet it is interesting to observe how an experienced writer takes a little known locale and tells its history along with his own connection to it. The book is worth reading for its sentences alone. Catton is always confident in his narration, using a style that is accessible but not simplistic.

Katie Funk Wiebe. Alone: A Widow’s Search for Joy. Wheaton, Illinios: Tyndale House Publishers, 1976.

Katie Funk Wiebe. Border Crossing: A Spiritual Journey. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1995.

Katie Funk Wiebe was a well-known Mennonite writer, essayist, public speaker and teacher.  Born and raised in Laird, Saskatchewan, Katie Funk married Walter Wiebe and in time moved to Hillsboro, Kansas, anticipating a joint “literature ministry.” Instead, Wiebe found herself widowed at 38 when Walter died of a brain tumour. Alone is Wiebe’s first major book, a memoir chronicling her experiences as a single parent and independent breadwinner. In addition to teaching English at Tabor College, Wiebe became a prolific writer, including many accounts of her life and those of others. 

As a Canadian who became American, Wiebe understood the significant changes one experiences when crossing a national border. In her spiritual memoir Border Crossing (2002), published when she was 78, Wiebe reflects on crossing the border into the land of aging. The memoir is an effective blend of life story and larger reflection.

Also well worth reading are Wiebe’s life-writing guidebooks, Good Times with Old Times (1979) and How To Write Your Personal or Family History (2017).

Albert B. Facey. A Fortunate Life. Victoria, Australia: Penguin Books Australia, 1981.

At the outset a reader might think Facey’s title, A Fortunate Life, is intended ironically. Young Albert’s father died when he was two and his mother left him and other siblings with grandparents as she set off to locate older children who had been working in the Australian goldfields with their father. Albert went to work at the age of eight and endured months of horse-whippings and other physical abuse by his employer before he escaped. After years of itinerant work, Facey joined the Australian Imperial Force in World War I and fought in the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign, where he was severely wounded. Despite his injuries Facey lived a long life and at the prompting of his wife and children, he began to make notes about his experiences. At age 85, he learned that his life story would be published, but he barely lived to see that day. Described as “the extraordinary life of an ordinary man,” Facey’s life story now has sold over a million copies and is a testament to great resilience in the face of adversity.

Eric Ambler. Here Lies Eric Ambler: An Autobiography. Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Company, 1985.

It is interesting to observe the practice of skillful writers when they describe their own life. Like Louis L’Amour, Eric Ambler was a genre writer, only not of westerns but of suspenseful spy stories. When Ambler died in 1998, at the age of 89, the San Francisco Chronicle noted that he deserved “to be better remembered” since he “essentially invented the modern spy novel.” In addition to his clever title, Ambler’s autobiography has a number of interesting features, including its opening scene. Ambler had a knack for opening his stories at a moment of high interest. His autobiography is no different. The first sentence depicts Ambler staring at a bearded man who said something he did not understand. It turns out he has just had an accident, his new car having plunged down an embankment in Switzerland, rolling over a couple of times before stopping. The bearded man is a German truck-driver who has stopped to assist. 

Whether one reads Ambler’s account or that of any number of writers, one can learn much by studying how they create their scenes, employ their dialogue and description, and fashion sentences that are clear, varied and easily readable.

Terry Waite. Taken On Trust. Toronto: Seal Books 1994.

Terry Waite was an Anglican church leader and special envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie in the mid-1980s. In Lebanon, he negotiated the release of missionaries held captive in Iran after the Islamic revolution there, as well as the return of British hostages in Libya and American hostages in Lebanon. In 1987, however, Waite himself was taken captive and held for four years under stressful conditions that included beatings and mock executions. Waite’s experience as a hostage is dramatic and well told; it began, as he notes in his foreword, during his long years of solitary confinement when he had available no writing materials. He “wrote” in his imagination and began to recount those memories once he was released. 

Jane Fonda. My Life So Far. New York: Random House 2005. 

I am no great fan of celebrity biographies, finding well-described lives of ordinary people to be of more interest. With Fonda, I make an exception, in part because she has led a varied and interesting life, not limited to her award-winning movie performances or even her often-criticized political advocacy. As is typical with such a well-known figure, Fonda had no shortage of editorial assistance as she recounted her often difficult life. She writes with an actresses’ knowledge of dramatic structure and speaks of her life in terms of three acts. “To have a good third act,” she says, “you need to understand what the first two have been about. To know where you’re going, you must know where you’ve been” (vi). Her memoir is divided into three sections: Act 1: “Gathering”; Act 2: “Seeking”; Act 3: “Beginning.” By recounting her own life journey, Fonda aims to show how “by moving back inside ourselves, we can restore balance—not just within ourselves but on the planet” (x).