References and Selected Works
on Writing Autobiography/ Biography/Family History
Akeret, Robert U. Family Tales, Family Wisdom: How To Gather the Stories of a Lifetime and Share Them with Your Family. New York: Morrow, 1991.
Atkinson, Robert. The Gift of Stories: Practical and Spiritual Applications of Autobiography, Life Stories, and Personal Mythmaking. Westport, CN: Bergin & Garvey, 1995.
“The purpose of this book,” writes Atkinson, “is to provide you with some practical reasons and guidelines for finding, organizing, making coherent, sharing, and appreciating the story of your life within the universal framework of mythology” and provides “guidelines for you to assist someone else in telling their life story.” Believing in the “universality of life,” and that “all autobiographical writing is spiritual,” he uses the mythic pattern of initiation (separation/ transformation/return) to structure and understand life stories. Not as complicated as it sounds!
Barrington, Judith. Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art. Eighth Mt. Press, 1996.
Bateson, Mary Catherine. Composing a Life. New York: Plume, 1989. [UNK BD431 B32]
Beach, Richard. Writing about Ourselves and Others. Urbana, IL: EWRIC And NCTE, 1977.
Bloom, Larry. The Writer Within: A Guide To Creative Nonfiction. Bibliopola Press, 1998.
Cheney, Theodore A. Rees. Writing Creative Nonfiction: How To Use Fiction Techniques To Make Your Nonfiction More Interesting, Dramatic, and Vivid. Ten Speed Press, 1991.
Coles, Robert. The Call of Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Daniel, Lois. How To Write Your Own Life Story: A Step by Step Guide for the Non-Professional Writer. Chicago: Chicago Review P, 1991.
Fleming, Margaret and Jo McGinnis, eds. Portraits: Biography and Autobiography in the Secondary School. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1985.
Although this book is primarily for analyzing autobiographies and biographies, by seeing all of the layers that a good work can contain, a writer can find new depths in his or her own family stories.
Fletcher, William. Recording Your Family History. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1986.
Forche and Gerard (eds.). Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs (2001).
Gerard, Philip. Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1996.
Not necessarily concerned with family histories or personal memoir, Gerard offers many suggestions for writing creatively. He gives a lot of examples from his own writing, and not enough concrete suggestions, and most of his ideas are a matter of general knowledge or common sense. However, he writes well!
Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones. Boston: Shambhala, 1986.
The text is an odd conglomeration of Zen Buddhism, autobiography, and techniques for creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry writing. Goldberg herself states in the introduction, “Learning to write is not a linear process. There is no logical 1-to-B-to-C way to become a good writer.” Goldberg’s basic thesis is that in order to become a writer, simply write. Most people become self-conscious and self-censoring, and this has to be overcome. Goldberg’s method is to use Zen Buddhism. Goldberg offers methods she found useful to writing (always carry a notebook, set aside an amount of time each day to write, etc.) which are common-sense, but also tells her readers that there is no way to tell someone how to do something creative.
Gouldrup, Lawrence P. Writing the Family Narrative. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1987.
A compact little volume of about 150 pages, Gouldrup covers both research tips and writing suggestions to create a family history. Chapter 2 is especially good, as it explains and gives examples of how to organize your material and incorporate outside research into a lively and readable narrative. Excellent bibliographies in each chapter, many annotated.
Gutkind, Lee. The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997.
McDonnell, Jane Taylor. Living to Tell the Tale: A Guide to Writing Memoir. Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1998.
McDonnell draws from her own experiences as a writer and a teacher of memoir to provide the definitive book on writing “crisis memoirs” and other kinds of personal narrative. She explains specific techniques and gives advice to help the writer discover his or her inner voice, recognize–and then silence–the inner censor, begin a narrative, and develop it with such aids as photographs and documents, Radio, & online publicity.
Miller, Brenda, et al. Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003.
Demonstrating the range of creative nonfiction from memoir to travel writing to the lyric essay, Tell It Slant combines practical guidance with an illustrative anthology of 34 essays from Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris, E.B. White, Virginia Woolf, and others. The result is a stimulating collection of writing and activities that makes it easy and enjoyable for students to begin to write and to try new modes of writing.
Minot, Stephen. Literary Nonfiction: The Fourth Genre. Upper Saddle River, NY: Pearson, 2003)
Moffat, Mary Jane. The Times of Our Lives: A Guide To Writing Autobiography and Memoir. Santa Barbara: John Daniel, 1989.
Myerhoff, Barbara. Remembered Lives: The Work of Ritual, Storytelling, and Growing Older. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992.
Pechter, Mark, ed. Telling Lives: The Biographer’s Art. Washington, D.C.: New Republic Books, 1979.
Polking, Kirk. Writing Family Histories and Memoirs. Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 1995.
An excellent general guide that contains information on basic places to research genealogy, interview questions and techniques, writing and organizing your material, editing, and publishing. Contains a bibliography and index.
Rainer, Tristine. Your Life as Story: Writing the New Autobiography. New York: Putnam, 1997.
More concerned with what to do after the material has been gathered, Rainer guides the reader through important choices in how to write and organize your stories as well as some tips on publishing. Contains a good bibliography and index.
—. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature. New York: Putnam, 1998.
Roorbach, Bill, (ed.) Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
—. Writing Life Stories: How To Make Memories, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature. Cincinnati: Story Press, 1998.
Focusing on the personal memoir, Roorbach helps writers discover stories in their own then concentrates on the actual style and writing of these stories. Each stage has various exercises for writers to guide them through the process. The book contains many good ideas, but makes the process prescriptive rather than organic.
Root, Robert L. The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (2nd Edition). Longman, 2001.
A comprehensive and indispensable introduction and guide to the way creative nonfiction is written today, the selections represent a wide range of contemporary creative nonfiction, including examples in essay, memoir, literary journalism, and cultural criticism. These readings establish a thorough grounding in the nature of the genre and provide excellent models for writing.
Spence, Linda. Legacy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History. Athens, GA: Swallow Press, 1997.
Not at all a guide to writing family history, the book does contain a series of stimulating questions to ask family members or consider yourself for all of the stages of life, with examples from published writers interspersed throughout the lists of questions.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. Telling Women’s Lives: The New Biography. New Brunswick, NJ: 1994.
Zinsser, William, ed. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
Brief Suggested Nonfiction Reading List
Blew, Mary Clearman. All But the Waltz. New York: Viking, 1991.
“Beginning with her great-grandparents’ arrival in 1882 in Montana–still a territory then–Blew relates the stories that make up her life. . . . as she traces their connection to Montana’s natural and human landscapes. What is most memorable is Blew’s discovery of herself as a writer, whose observations on growing up, making do, leaving, and enduring are idiosyncratic and utterly convincing.”
—. Balsamroot. New York: Penguin, 1994.
“In this emotionally honest memoir dealing with three generations of women, Blew describes her relationship with her independent Aunt Imogene, the older women’s struggle with dementia, and the effect it has on the family. “Blew imaginatively re-creates the dry, dusty, sparsely populated Montana of the early homesteaders and of Imogene’s young womanhood.”
—. This Is Not the Ivy League. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.
Blew detail the role of education in her life, beginning with her graduation from a one-room school in Montana to the University of Montana, culminating in her struggles to obtain her PhD. in English and her eventual teaching career. “This memoir is Blew’s behind-the-scenes account of pursuing a career at a time when a woman’s place in the world was supposed to have limits . . . [and] a woman who refuses to told what she can and cannot be.”
Dickenson, James. Home on the Range: A Century on the High Plains. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.
A family history told the author by his maternal grandmother, it is “about life in a rural wheat-farming community in western Kansas, a way of life that is gradually disappearing as the country has become industrialized and urbanized.” “A mixture of fond memories and factual nuggets,” the book describes “a land of dust storms, ghost towns, and good country people.”
Doig, Ivan. Heart Earth: A Memoir. New York: Penguin, 1993.
“Raised by his father and maternal grandmother, Ivan Doig had no more than a vague memory of his mother, who died on his sixth birthday. Then he discovered a cache of her letters—and through them, a hopeful, strong, wise, and witty woman whose voice prompted a re-visioning of Doig’s past.” A “prequel to his acclaimed This House of Sky.
—. This House of Sky: Landscapes of the Western Mind. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978.
“Ivan Doig grew up in the rugged, elemental Montana wilderness with his father, Charlie, and his grandmother, Bessie Ringer. His life formed among the sheepherders and characters of small-town saloons and valley ranches as he wandered beside his restless father. What Doig deciphers from his past with piercing clarity is not only a raw sense of the land and how it shapes us, but also the ties to our mothers and fathers . . .”
Dudley, Charles Iron Eye. Choteau Creek: A Sioux Reminiscence. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
“From the time he was three years old, in 1943, Joseph Iron Eye Dudley was raised by his grandparents on the Yankton Sioux reservation. Their tiny, weatherbeaten house, nestled in a bend of Chotau creek on the rolling South Dakota prairie, is where he grew up, and this moving reminiscence recreated with warmth and candor a childhood poor in material goods but overflowing with spiritual wealth.”
Funda, Evelyn I. Roots: A Farm Daughter’s Lament. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.
Funda describes three-generations of her family on their farm in southern Idaho and her loss when the land is sold. A great weaving of family history and memoir. The unique chapter titles, the names of common weeds that have symbolic connections with the chapter topics, are one of the creative organizing principles of this cultural memoir.
Hasselstrom, Linda M. Going Over East: Reflections of a Woman Rancher. Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1987.
“A poet, essayist, and working ranch woman,” Hasselstrom describes her life on her South Dakota ranch homesteaded by her Swedish forebears. “She structures her narrative around the opening and closing of gates as she ‘goes over east’ en route to summer pasture. With each stop she makes a nostalgic foray into the past, discusses the routine demands of their cow-calf operation, pays loving tribute to a favorite old horse, celebrates the wildlife or the silent dignity of deserted homesteads, or hurls a diatribe at the forces (corporate, agribusiness, hunters, encroaching population) threatening the future of the land—and of the small ranch.”
—. Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land. Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1991.
A collection of new and previously published essays and poems, Windbreak focuses on ranching today, discussing her strong connection with the land and environmental issues.. Although the collection does not have the creative structure of her other works, her style, “voice,” and ability to tell a good story are world emulating.
—. Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains. Berkeley, CA: Barn owl Press,1987.
Using journal-type entries, each beginning with the day’s temperature and weather, Hasselstrom chronicles the “everyday” events on her South Dakota ranch as well as her responses to them.
Jordan, Teresa. Riding the White Horse Home. New York: Vintage, 1993.
“In 1887 Teresa Jordan’s great-grandfather bought a ranch in the Iron Mountain country of southeast Wyoming. Four generations later her father sold it, under the economic pressures that have made ranching a dying way of life. She searches into her family’s past to find models by which to understand and live her life.” I have taught and reread this book dozens of times, and it is one of my favorite books.
Kittredge, William. A Hole in the Sky: A Memoir. New York: Vintage, 1992.
“Kittredge’s stunning memoir is at once autobiography, a family chronicle, and a westerner’s settling of accounts with the land he grew up in. . . an honest reckoning of the American myth that drove generations of Americans westward–and what became of their dream after they reached the edge.”
Kloefkorn, William. This Death by Drowning. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Kloefkorn, Nebraska’s State Poet, assembles a collection of reminiscences, each having some connection with water, from his life on his grandparents’ farm to modern-day Caribbean cruise.
—. Restoring the Burnt Child. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.
This One Book, One Nebraska Selection is the second in his four-part memoir that that covers the four elements of water, fire, earth, and air. This volume describes his life between the ages of nine and thirteen in a small Kansas farming community in the 1940s.
—. At Home on This Moveable Earth. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
The third book in the memoir series continues describing Kloefkorn’s year in Kansas.
—. Breathing in the Fullness of Time. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
Kloefkorn completes his memoir in this volume with essays that span the complete life.
Luther, Ken. Cottonwood Roots. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
“This account of the author’s journey proceeds from his birthplace in broken Bow, Nebraska, eastward across the Midwest to new York State and back into time as he carries out genealogical research on his family. His findings along the way give rise to diverse reflections, from courthouse architecture to the financial and social stresses of ‘proving up’ land claims.”
McFadden, Cyra. Rain or Shine: A Family Memoir. 1986. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.
“Cy Taillon was the molasses-voiced king of rodeo announcers. When he dies in 1980, newspapers canonized as the dean of rodeo and compared him to John Wayne. A reformed rake, handsome and charming and flashy, he was also difficult, often more loveable to the public than to his family. Their daughter, Cyra, grew up on the rodeo and circuit” and this book is the story of her “complex relationship with her parents and eccentric relative.”
Momaday, N. Scott. The Names: A Memoir. Tucson: University of Arizona press, 1976.
A Kiowa, Momaday traces his family roots back four generations, sharing stories of their lives and the lives of his people, preserving his tribe’s history, myths, and legends, and “imagining” himself. He writes, “Some of my mother’s memories have become my own. This is the real burden of blood; this is immortality.”
—. The Way to Rainy Mountain. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969.
An unusually organized work that combines tribal history and personal history. Each “story” is comprised of three parts: a myth, legend, or family story; historical or factual background; a personal, poetic response to the subject.
Norris, Kathleen. Dakota: A Spiritual Journey. New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1993.
“Nearly twenty years ago, Kathleen Norris returned to the house built by her grandparents in an isolated town on the border between North and South Dakota. The elemental landscape forced her to confront and reexamine her heritage, religion, language, and the land itself. . . [She] weaves together the lives of farmers, townsfolk, Native Americans, and a community of Monks whose home is on the Plains.”
Randolph, Ladette. Leaving the Pink House: A Memoir. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014.
Randolph begins her memoir with a description of the trip that she and her husband took to look at a farmhouse on an acreage outside of Lincoln, Nebraska, to fulfill her husband’s dream of living in the country. The remainder of the first part of this chapter describes the decision to purchase of their “dream house.” Here, too, Ladette sets up her unifying idea for her book: “I best understand life through the houses where I have lived” (2). The second half of the chapter flashes back to her childhood, focusing on the house where she grew up in Custer County, Nebraska, and some family history.
Stegner, Wallace. Angle of Repose. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.
Although this work is a novel, it is about a man going through family memorabilia to understand the life of his grandmother, which is loosely based on the true biography of writer Mary Hallack Foote.
—. Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier. 1955. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.
A memoir of Stegner’s boyhood in the Cypress Hills region of southern Saskatchewan, this book “combines fiction and nonfiction, history and impressions, childhood remembrance and adult reflection.”
Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place.
In 1983 Williams learned that her mother was dying of cancer and, at the same time, that her beloved Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge would be flooded. She interweaves the stories of three generations of women with “dying and accommodation” to transform a “tragedy into a document of renewal and spiritual grace.”