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10 Insights From Famous Memoirs, From Joan Didion to Betty White

A common misperception about memoirs is that they are composed solely of facts, when actually, it’s more accurate to say they are made up of truths. A memoir is one person’s interpretation of a set of events in their life, and due to the faultiness of memory and subjective points of view, or simply because the writer is just one person in this world, memoirs can only capture one part of the kaleidoscopic lens that makes up reality. This is why memoirs so captivate us as readers: They offer up not just the framework for a life, but the meat of it, too — the nuance and unpredictability and emotion of it.

The beauty of memoir is that as a reader, we’re not just witnessing events as they happen on the page; we’re also let into the thought process of the memoirist. “Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition,” wrote author William Zinsser in his 2006 book, On Writing Well. “It may look like a casual and even random calling up of bygone events. It’s not; it’s a deliberate construction.” These 10 quotes from well-known memoirs, which tackle everything from grief to gratitude to belonging, reveal the delicate art of capturing life on the page.

Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave.
— Cheryl Strayed, "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail"

One of the best-known memoirists of the past decades, Cheryl Strayed chronicled her improbable 1,100-mile trek up north along the Pacific Crest Trail in her 2012 memoir Wild. The journey is so much more than a physical one, however. In the book, Strayed also details the deep grief she was going through at the time mourning the sudden death of her mother, as well as her recovery from heroin addiction. Her popular memoir inspired the 2014 film by the same name, starring Reese Witherspoon.

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it… We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.
— Joan Didion, "The Year of Magical Thinking"

Joan Didion (1924-2021) is heralded as one of America’s foremost writers and thinkers, and in her 2005 memoir about grief, she digs into a difficult period of her life following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. In trademark Didion prose, she turns what was a devastating event into a book pulsating with life, contemplation, and story.

I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.
— Roger Ebert, "Life Itself: A Memoir"

Renowned film critic Roger Ebert was known for his astute takes on the biggest movies of the day, and he was just as insightful when it came to understanding his own career and life trajectory. In his 2011 memoir Life Itself, Ebert paints vivid portraits of the people in his life, both his friends and family growing up, but also the many Hollywood A-listers whom he crossed paths with in his decades-long career.

For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.
— Michelle Obama, "Becoming"

Michelle Obama’s much-anticipated 2018 memoir cast a wide net on her very eventful life, starting with her childhood growing up in the South Side of Chicago, to her early career as a lawyer and executive, to her life in the White House alongside her husband, former President Barack Obama. In her vulnerable writing, she opens up about the difficulties of juggling a career and parenthood, and encourages readers to lean into the ongoing nature of change and growth.

You live inside your parents’ lives until one day, they live inside yours.
— Donia Bijan, "Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen"

Before she was an acclaimed writer, Donia Bijan was a chef who owned her own French-inspired bistro in San Francisco, L’Amie Donia. She was always an avid reader and writer, and when she made the decision to shutter L’Amie Donia in 2004, she turned her attention to another one of her loves: storytelling. Bijan’s memoir captures her childhood growing up in Tehran, and follows her family’s move to the United States and then her own departure to France to study at the Cordon Bleu.

[I] had come of age feeling like my belonging was something to prove. Something that was always in the hands of other people to be given and never my own to take… I could never be of both worlds, only half in and half out, waiting to be ejected at will by someone with greater claim than me. Someone whole.
— Michelle Zauner, "Crying in H Mart"

Michelle Zauner found success as the lead singer of experimental pop band Japanese Breakfast, but in 2021, she became known to a whole new audience as an author, too. Her memoir, Crying in H Mart, is an expansion of an essay by the same title, which she published in The New Yorker in 2018. It weaves together different elements of Zauner’s life, all tied together by food, grief, and unshakeable familial bonds.

I just had to be strong enough to allow myself to be vulnerable. Great lesson. For art and for life.
— Jane Lynch, "Happy Accidents"

Even though Jane Lynch is a household name these days, the Glee alum didn’t have such an easy start. Born in the South Side of Chicago, Lynch came from humble beginnings, making it difficult to fulfill her dreams of becoming an actress from an early age. But through what she deems a series of “happy accidents,” she succeeded in getting her foot in the door of Hollywood, earning Emmys and Golden Globes for her role as snarky gym teacher Sue Sylvester on Glee.

For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself… In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.
— Haruki Murakami, "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running"

Though he is best known for his wild, fantastical novels, Haruki Murakami’s nonfiction prose is just as riveting and thought-provoking. His 2007 memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, has become a sort of life guide for runners and writers alike, full of life lessons pulled from the quotidian act of putting one foot in front of the other, day after day after day.

I think my love for books sprang from my need to escape the world I was born into, to slide into another where words were straightforward and honest, where there was clearly delineated good and evil, where I found girls who were strong and smart and creative and foolish enough to fight dragons, to run away from home to live in museums, to become child spies, to make new friends and build secret gardens.
— Jesmyn Ward, "Men We Reaped"

There is not a single word wasted in Jesmyn Ward’s powerful 2013 memoir, Men We Reaped. In it, she examines the societal elements that led to her losing five men in her life over the course of five years — to drugs, accidents, suicide, and to the American condition known as racism. She recounts her own upbringing growing up in poverty in Mississippi, and brings beautiful truths to light about what it means to write for a community, and for those she’s lost.

Friendship takes time and energy if it's going to work. You can luck into something great, but it doesn't last if you don't give it proper appreciation. Friendship can be so comfortable, but nurture it — don't take it for granted.
— Betty White, "If You Ask Me: (And of Course You Won’t)"

One of America’s most beloved actresses, Betty White lived a life full of stories, relationships, and joy. In her memoir — even the title of which showcases White’s singular lighthearted outlook and humor — she writes about everything from her beauty regimen to her unabashed love for animals, to the friendship she maintained with her co-stars on The Golden Girls.

Photo credit: tavisbader/ Unsplash

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About the Author
Joyce Chen
Joyce Chen is a writer, editor, and community builder based in Seattle, Washington.
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