I love memoirs and essays, so the genre of essay-length short memoirs is one of my favorite. I love delving into the details of other people’s lives. The length allows me to read broadly on a whim with minimal commitment. In roughly 5–30 minutes, I can consume a complete morsel of literature, which always leaves me happier than the same amount of time spent scrolling through my various social news feeds.
What exactly are short memoirs? I define them as essay-length works that weave together life experiences around a central theme. You see examples of short memoirs all the time on sites like Buzzfeed and The New York Times. Others are stand-alone pieces published in essay collections.
Memoir essays were my gateway into reading full-length memoirs. It was not until I took a college class on creative nonfiction that I realized memoirs were not just autobiographies of people with exciting lives. Anyone with any amount of life experience can write a memoir—no dramatic childhood or odd-defying life accomplishments required. A short memoir might be an account of a single, life-changing event, or it may be reflection on a period of growth or transition.
Of course, when a young adult tells people she likes writing creative nonfiction—not journalism or technical writing—she hears a lot of, “You’re too young to write a memoir!” and “What could someone your age possibly have to write about?!” As Flannery O’Connor put it, however, “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.”
As the lit magazine Creative Nonfiction put it, personal essays are just “True stories, well told.” And everyone has life stories worth telling.
Here are a few of my favorites:
SHORT MEMOIRS ABOUT GROWING UP
SCAACHI KOUL, “THERE’S NO RECIPE FOR GROWING UP”
In this delightful essay, Koul talks about trying to learn the secrets of her mother’s Kashmiri cooking after growing up a first-generation American. The story is full of vivid descriptions and anecdotal details that capture something so specific it transcends to the realm of universal. It’s smart, it’s funny, and it’ll break your heart a little as Koul describes “trying to find my mom at the bottom of a 20-quart pot.”
ASHLEY C. FORD, “THE YEAR I GREW WILDLY WHILE MEN LOOKED ON”
This memoir essay is for all the girls who went through puberty early in a world that sexualizes children’s bodies. Ford weaves together her experiences of feeling at odds with her body, of being seen as a “distraction” to adult men, of being black and fatherless and hungry for love. She writes, “It was evident that who I was inside, who I wanted to be, didn’t match the intentions of my body. Outside, there was no little girl to be loved innocently. My body was a barrier.”
Kaveh Akbar, “How I Found Poetry in Childhood Prayer”
Akbar writes intense, searing poetry, but this personal essay contextualizes one of his sweetest poems, “Learning to Pray,” which is cradled in the middle of it. He describes how he fell in love with the movement, the language, and the ceremony of his Muslim family’s nightly prayers. Even though he didn’t (and doesn’t) speak Arabic, Akbar points to the musicality of these phonetically-learned hymns as “the bedrock upon which I’ve built my understanding of poetry as a craft and as a meditative practice.” Reading this essay made me want to reread his debut poetry collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, all over again.
funny short memoirs
Harrison Scott Key, “My Dad Tried to Kill Me with an Alligator”
This personal essay is a tongue-in-cheek story about the author’s run-in with an alligator on the Pearl River in Mississippi. Looking back on the event as an adult, Key considers his father’s tendencies in light of his own, now that he himself is a dad. He explores this relationship further in his book-length memoir, The World’s Largest Man, but this humorous essay stands on its own. (I also had the pleasure of hearing him read this aloud during my school’s homecoming weekend, as Key is an alumnus of my now alma mater.)
David Sedaris, “Me Talk Pretty One Day”
Sedaris’s humor is in a league of its own, and he’s at his best in the title essay from Me Talk Pretty One Day. In it, he manages to capture the linguistic hilarities that ensue when you combine a sarcastic, middle-aged French student with a snarky French teacher.
Gay is best known for her serious works of fiction and creative nonfiction, but she lets loose her fine sense of humor with this funny short memoir essay about joining the intense world of competitive Scrabble. It was a refreshing surprise to find nestled between heavier topics in her essay collection Bad Feminist.
Bill Bryson, “Coming Home”
Bryson has the sly, subtle humor that only comes from Americans who have spent considerable time living among dry-humored Brits. In “Coming Home,” he talks about the strange sensation of returning to America after spending his first twenty years of adulthood in England. This personal essay is the first in a book-length work called I’m a Stranger Here Myself, in which Bryson revisits American things that feel like novelties to outsiders and the odd former expat like himself.
Short memoirs to make you think (and possibly cry)
Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, “I Had a Stroke at 33”
Lee’s story is interesting not just because she had a stroke at such a young age, but because of how she recounts an experience that was characterized by forgetting. She says that after her stroke, “For a month, every moment of the day was like the moment upon wakening before you figure out where you are, what time it is.” With this personal essay, she draws readers into that fragmented headspace, then weaves something coherent and beautiful from it.
In this refreshing essay, Mori discusses balancing “the double calling” of being a writer and a teacher. She admits that teaching felt antithetical to her sense of self when she started out in a classroom of apathetic college freshmen. When she found her way into teaching an MFA program, however, she found that fostering a sanctuary for others’ words and ideas felt closer to a “calling.” While in some ways this makes the balance of shifting personas easier, she says it creates a different kind of dread: “Teaching, if it becomes more than a job, might swallow me whole and leave nothing for my life as a writer.” This memoir essay is honest, well-structured, and layered with plenty of anecdotal details to draw in the reader.
Alex Tizon, “My Family’s Slave”
In this heartbreaking essay, Tizon pays tribute to the memory of Lola, the domestic slave who raised him and his siblings. His family brought her with them when they emigrated to America from the Philippines. He talks about the circumstances that led to Lola’s enslavement, the injustice she endured throughout her life, and his own horror at realizing the truth about her role in his family as he grew up. While the story is sad enough to make you cry, there are small moments of hope and redemption. Alex discusses what he tried to do for Lola as an adult and how, upon her death, he traveled to her family’s village to return her ashes.
Classic short memoirs
James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”
This memoir essay comes from Baldwin’s collection of the same name. In it, he focuses on his relationship with his father, who died when Baldwin was 19. He also wrestles with growing up black in a time of segregation, touching on the historical treatment of black soldiers and the Harlem Riot of 1943. His vivid descriptions and honest narration draw you into his transition between frustration, hatred, confusion, despair, and resilience.
JOAN DIDION, “GOODBYE TO ALL THAT”
Didion is one of the foremost literary memoirists of the twentieth century, combining journalistic precision with self-aware introspection. In “Goodbye to All That,” Didion recounts moving to New York as a naïve 20-year-old and leaving as a disillusioned 28-year-old. She captures the mystical awe with which outsiders view the Big Apple, reflecting on her youthful perspective that life was still limitless, “that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month.” This essay concludes her masterful collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”
This is the title essay from O’Brien’s collection, The Things They Carried. It’s technically labeled a work of fiction, but because the themes and anecdotes are pulled from O’Brien’s own experience in the Vietnam War, it blurs the lines between fact and fiction enough to be included here. (I’m admittedly predisposed to this classification because my writing professor included it on our creative nonfiction syllabus.) The essay paints an intimate portrait of a group of soldiers by listing the things they each carry with them, both physical and metaphorical. It contains one of my favorite lines in all of literature: “They all carried ghosts.”
Multi-Media Short Memoirs
Allie Brosh, “Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two”
In this 2-part blog-post comic, Brosh explains her clinical depression with comical accuracy. She talks about the guilty feeling that comes from being sad for no discernible reason and the various ways she tried to explain it to her well-meaning friends. The analogy of the dead fish is unforgettably insightful. Both parts also appear in her book-length comic memoir, Hyperbole and a Half.
George Watsky, “Ask Me What I’m Doing Tonight”
Watsky is a rapper and spoken word poet who has built a following from YouTube. Before he made it big, however, he spent five years performing for groups of college students across the Midwest. “Ask Me What I’m Doing Tonight!” traces that soul-crushing monotony while telling a compelling story about trying to connect with people despite such transience. It’s the most interesting essay about boredom you’ll ever read, or in this case watch—he filmed a short video version of the essay for his YouTube channel. Like his music, Watsky’s personal essays are vulnerable, honest, and crude, and the whole collection, How to Ruin Everything, is worth reading.
If you’re looking for even more short memoirs, keep an eye on these pages from Literary Hub, Buzzfeed, and Creative Nonfiction for more well-told life stories. You can also delve into these 100 must-read essay collections.
When we’re not writing about books, Rioters write short memoirs, too! Angel and Christine recently had features on other websites, and Kelly’s memoir of her childhood reading life is a great example of a memoir essay popping up in the “Our Reading Lives” tag.By signing up you agree to our Terms of Service