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Educational Reading: Tara Westover Recommends Four Inspirational Memoirs

Posted on 7th March 2018 by Martha Greengrass

Tara Westover, the author of the unforgettable new biography, Educated, recommends the inspirational memoirs that gave her the conviction to write her own.

Writing about your life is difficult for all sorts of reasons, but perhaps the most difficult thing of all is finding and holding on to a sense of conviction—a belief that there is a reason to write at all. When I first began to contemplate writing my own memoir, Educated, I lacked this belief. It was difficult to imagine the value of my story; it was impossible to conceive of a person who would benefit from reading about my life, which felt specific to me, defined by my own petty dramas and self-obsessions and self-lacerations. What was the point? Why write it? 

For me, the conviction to write came not from my own writing but from the writing of others. Every time I read a memoir and saw some bit of myself in someone else’s life - especially in lives that, according to all the facts, had no bearing to mine, no emotional truth to give me - I felt encouraged to try to set down my own life. To draw some meaning from it that might resonate with others. If I could weep openly at Cathy Rentzenbrink’s brother lying in a hospital bed, in a near vegetative state, despite my own brothers’ relative health; or at Joan Didion’s husband dying suddenly, tragically during dinner, despite the fact that I wasn’t married; then maybe there was a point to writing after all. 

So here’s my list of memoirs. The ones that moved me—the ones I stayed up late into the night to read, then, after I’d finished them, kept me up even later because I they made me want to write. 

'A Sketch of the Past' by Virginia Woolf

'A Sketch of the Past' is Woolf’s unfinished memoir, edited and published posthumously. In it, Woolf is preoccupied with the nature of being, and the nature of art. She is interested in what she calls moments of being, which she contrasts with moments of non-being. For me, the sketch redefined what it means to be a thinking thing, capable of self-reflection, memory, perspective. A line will serve to give you some idea of the philosophy of this work: “[T]he whole world is a work of art…we are parts of the work…we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

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Virginia Woolf's only autobiographical writing can be found in this collection of five unpublished pieces. What is most striking is the extent to which she drew on these early experiences for her novels, as she tells how she exorcised the obsessive presence of her mother by writing To the Lighthouse. The author's own account of her early life is fascinating.
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Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeannette Winterson

This is a beautiful book about one woman’s journey to accept herself despite never being accepted by her adoptive parents. It is her reckoning with herself—with how she sees herself, and the fact of that being so different from how her mother sees her, and of all the ways she will be forever marked by that difference. Winterson writes, “Where you are born—what you are born into, the place, the history of the place, how that history mates with your own—stamps who you are, whatever the pundits of globalisation have to say.”

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This is a life story full of hurt and humour and a fierce love of life. It is about the pursuit of happiness, about lessons in love, the search for a mother and a journey into madness and out again. It is generous, honest and true.
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The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Didion’s husband had a heart attack during dinner; he did not survive. Didion chronicles the year after his death, and her own feelings about it, in what has been described as a manual for grief for the agnostic. If believers have the Bible, and the warm comfort of belief in an afterlife, non-believers have Joan Didion, and her thoughtful reckoning with the senselessness of death and the insanity of grief. She writes: “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.…We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. 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.” 

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This powerful book is Didion's 'attempt to make sense of the weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness ... about marriage and children...about life itself'. The result is an exploration of an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage, and a life, in good times and bad.
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The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink, 

This is the story of a family coming to terms with loss: the author’s teenage brother is hit by a car while walking home, and after a series of medical setbacks, settles into a vegetative state. The family battles with the hope that he will recover for nearly ten years before they are able to let go. Cathy writes, “I wish you were here, I thought. I’m a lost soul without you. I thought of him lying in hospital, starting to heal so that he would wake up and come back to us. I wish you were here, I thought. You will be, you will be.” It is a beautiful, deeply moving book. 

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The Last Act of Love is a book about Cathy Rentzenbrink’s own relationship with her brother, Matty. In 1990 Matty was in a hit and run accident and left in a permanent vegetative state. This absorbing, original and profoundly affecting book tells of the love that came before this event and what happens in the aftermath of tragedy.
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