Stories of great journeys first brought me to reading. Personal stories are what kept me there. When I was a kid I loved the tales of expeditions and adventures, real-life stories of pioneers and astronauts. I was all over Davey Crockett, and the autobiographies of great travelers. But as I grew older, I wanted more. I wanted the truly personal side, I wanted something deeper than only the details of a trip or journey, I wanted to experience what was in the heart of the writer in his or her words, a different kind of adventure.
Of course there are many kinds of personal stories and memoirs. Maybe a 1001 approaches—the celebrity memoir, the my-family-is-crazy memoir, the dysfunction memoir, the addiction memoir, the travel memoir, the survivor memoir, the coming of age memoir, the food memoir, and I could go on and on. There may be more kinds of memoir than kinds of fiction, and some of the best memoirs fit in several categories and others create their own.
Let me add at least one more—the finding-home memoir.
Okay. That will need some explanation.
You certainly have heard the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The lyrics are, for me, the essence this style of memoir—a longing for something bigger than yourself. It can be a physical home, a little place to meditate, a state of mind that offers hope and creativity, a place where love grows, a place to do your work, or all of the above. The writing shed where I write this post is one of those places for me. There are many.
The finding-home memoir is a story of transformation, the personal journey of uncovering one’s perfect spot in the universe. I contend that this is what we all do for all entire lives. All of us searching, looking for that place, that home space, that spot, that state of mind that is purely, authentically us.
Here are a few finding-home memoirs that I love and admire. Yes, they can also be placed in other categories, but at their core, they are books about finding your own personal corner of the cosmos—a physical place, a locale, a state of being.
False Calm —Maria Sonia Cristoff: Part journalism, part personal essay, part travel memoir. Cristoff returns home to Patagonia to chronicle the ghost towns left behind by the oil boom. Sharp observations and deep emotion carries this book of people and the places they inhabit.
What the River Knows —Wayne Fields: At the age of forty-two, the author sets off on a kind of pilgrimage wading through a twenty-mile stretch of a small river in northern Michigan with a fly rod. This place in the woods helps the author reveal a personal story of family and aging.
There Are Other Rivers —Alastair Humphreys: This is a self-published book by a world-renowned adventurer and traveler. It’s a beauty. The book chronicles the author’s walk alone across India in a unique and personal way, and is a wonderful reflection on the appeal of the open road and most importantly the journey of self-awareness.
Crazy Brave —Joy Harjo: Tribal myth and ancestry, music and poetry are the ingredients of Harjo’s journey of becoming a poet. It’s the story of a deep spiritual life, a connection with the natural world, betrayal, and love. This is a memoir about family and the breaking apart necessary to find a voice and a place in the world.
Under the Birch Tree —Nancy Chadwick: A birch tree becomes synonymous with home―and one spring morning, the author makes a discovery under that tree that foreshadows the disconnections in her life. The book is an exploration of what it means to belong.
A Dog Year —Jon Katz; I’m not a big Katz fan. Not always my style. But I absolutely love this book. It’s the story of how a man discovers himself through his love of dogs—a story of trust and understanding, of life and death.
A Moveable Feast —Ernest Hemingway: A classic. A brilliantly personal diary of the mood of Paris after World War I and the unbridled creativity of the artists who lived there. Paris was the home that launched Hemingway.
The Longest Way Home —Andrew McCarthy: Yes, this is the actor and I was skeptical. But McCarthy, many do not know, is an award-winning travel writer, and in this book he takes the reader on a deeply personal journey played out amid some of the world’s most evocative locales. It’s the story of how McCarthy came to grips with his wanderlust and found the courage to trust love, settle down, and make a singular home in a big world.
There are countless good memoirs. And just because I mention these seven here doesn’t mean there won’t be seven others tomorrow that I love just as much, even more, or that these books should all be on the same shelf next to one another. I am not comparing them. I am simply offering the books I think offer a wide and beautiful spectrum of the finding-home memoir.
This spring my memoir of home, The Consequence of Stars will be available from Adelaide Books. I hope it might join the many others on the shelf of poignant and relatable personal stories, right next to the seven here and dozens of others that have touched and continue to touch readers someway, somehow.
6 thoughts on “1001 Memoirs”
Thank you so much for including me among your picks of a few wonderful works about personal journeys of place, mind and heart. Reading about others’ travels, literally and figuratively, presents as a guide or road map for us, opening a door to our reflections and self-awareness.
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great list. Congrats, Nancy.
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While not specifically drawn to memoirs, nonetheless a good number of the books I’ve read through the years have involved a quest, many of them with the goal of finding a spiritual haven. I will cite a few that have had special resonance: “The Autobiography of a Yogi,” by Paramahansa Yogananda; Carlos Castaneda’s encounters with Don Juan and “The Three Pillars of Zen” by Philip Kapleau. I have also had a long-standing affinity for the stories of those who put themselves in extremis — mountaineers, polar explorers, sailors. What draws me is the struggle to find clarity, fulfillment — perhaps a home — in great isolation and peril.
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I’m with you, Nick. Adventures of the body and the soul! Look for a new post in the new year on what might fall into that “spiritual haven” bucket.
Thank you, David. Your post gave me an idea to jump-start my new year in writing. I’m going on a trek to find my “spot” in the universe. Wishing you a Happy (and contented) New Year!
That is fantastic! What a great commitment to the new year.