9 Essays and Memoirs To Make You A Better Writer

I’ve been a full-time freelance writer for over three years now, and while I do all sorts of different culture writing to support myself, personal essays are my favorite thing to write, even when they demand more time and emotional energy. At A-Camp, I’m leading a workshop for new writers on how to write and pitch personal essays and get paid for them. But if you can’t make it, I’ll let you in on two of the secrets to becoming a published writer: Write a shit ton and read a shit ton.

Since I moved to New York a year ago, I started reading more nonfiction than ever, drawn in particular to essay collections by young women. I want to share some of the best essay collections and memoirs I’ve read in the past year, all books I feel are particularly useful to creative nonfiction writers in the way they master the essay craft.


I’ll Tell You In Person by Chloe Caldwell

Caldwell is funny and open in her second collection of essays, which vary in scope and style. Side note: I also highly recommend her novella Women, a lesbian love story that features only women and nonbinary characters.

Notable Essay: “The Laziest Coming Out Story You’ve Ever Heard


A Body, Undone by Christina Crosby

Physical pain is incredibly difficult to write about, and yet it’s at the epicenter of Crosby’s incisive memoir that also touches on gender and sexuality.

Notable Essay: “Masculine, Feminine, Or Fourth Of July”


Redefining Realness by Janet Mock

Okay, if you haven’t read Mock’s memoir, literally stop reading this article and go do it now. Also, pre-order her book about her twenties!

Notable Essay: Read the whole damn thing.


Too Much And Not The Mood By Durga Chew-Bose

Chew-Bose writes gorgeous lyrical essays evocative of Maggie Nelson. This book swallowed me up.

Notable Essay: “Heart Museum”


All The Lives I Want by Alana Massey

These essays blend pop culture and personal narrative, which is pretty much my sweet spot.

Notable Essay: “All The Lives I Want”


Funny In Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

This was published back in 2003, but I only just read it, and it’s one of the funniest memoirs I’ve ever read.

Notable Essay: “Girls Just Wanna Have Funds”


Goodbye To All That: Writers On Loving And Leaving New York edited by Sari Botton

This collection features 28 essays all by different women, all using Joan Didion’s “Goodbye To All That” essay as inspiration.

Notable Essay: “Home” by Melissa Febos


You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have To Explain by Phoebe Robinson

Robinson does such a great job of capturing her personality and voice in her writing, which is very important for writers to do!

Notable Essay: “Casting Calls For People Of Color That Were Not Written By People Of Color


Where Am I Now? by Mara Wilson

I’m still shook from the chapter about show choir that so perfectly captured my high school experience. Anyway, Mara’s great! She knows your first crush was Miss Honey, and she knows how to write damn good essays.

Notable Essay: “A Letter”


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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a Brooklyn-based writer, television critic, and comedian who spends most of her time over-analyzing queer subtext on television, singing "Take Me Or Leave Me" in public places, and assembling cheese platters. She has a cat named after Piper Halliwell from Charmed, and her go-to karaoke song is "Everywhere" by Michelle Branch. Her writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her screaming in all-caps about Kalinda Sharma, Jennifer Lopez, and oysters on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 52 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. I swear AS writers = psychic. Probably this week I’ll read Mara Wilson’s autobiography. And I was thinking about pitching an essay to a webzine that publishes solely nb ppl about having to ‘dequeer’ my work by using my birth name and hating it.

    If I were a trans guy I’d just tell them my names Liam but my gender fluctuates & I don’t feel I can explain that to mainstream publishers.

  2. I love Chloe Caldwell’s writing! We’ve emailed a few times and I had heart eyes the whole time. It’s very easy for me to get lost (in a good way) reading all of her online work. Too Good and Not Enough is next on my to-read pile!

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