10 Inspiring Books on Women’s Lives

book covers side by side
I never tire of learning about other women’s lives and how they were forged.  How does one construct a passionate life?  Or articulate the way one survives the throes of it?  What art can be made from mess?  My first two books circled these questions in different ways, and my reading life continues to focus on books that explore these questions.


Here is a non-fiction reading list of memoirs and biographies, if you too like a fire lit underneath your chair and inside of your pen.


1. Nora Zeale Houston’s Dust Tracks on a Road — A memoir I’m currently reading, which Maya Angelou said was written with “royal humor and imperious creativity.”  “I was always asking and making a crow of myself in a pigeon’s nest,” Houston writes of her incessant and early curiosity.  “It was hard on my family and surroundings, and they in turn were hard on me.”

2.  Martha Graham’s Blood Memory — If you want a meditation on high art and hard work, and the devotional act of creation, read Martha.  I’ve written about how her comments on a life of dance cross all genres. The quote that most translates to the writing life is this:  “You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that book cover showing a woman walking on the beach with a man following her holding an umbrellamotivate you. Keep the channel open…No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”


3. Francoise Gilot’s Life with Picasso — Gilot’s memoir of her ten years with Picasso is a frank account of their personal and artistic lives.  While she provides sober and intelligent insight into Picasso’s artistic objectives, she also discusses her own attempts to paint well, which she continued to do despite Picasso’s ego and complexities (and continues to do into her nineties). Gilot writes, “I paint the way some people write their autobiography. The paintings, finished or not, are the pages of my journal, and as such they are valid. The future will choose the pages it prefers.”


4. Lisa Cohen’s All We Know: Three Lives — Cohen’s voluminous book is a sharp look at three relatively unknown women who were highly engaged in the culture of their time, but left little record behind:  Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland.


5. Kate Summerscale’s Queen of Whale Cay — Though I had come across Joe Carstairs before, it was Summerscale’s book and research that made Joe’s island lifebook cover shows a woman sitting with her legs crossed on a yellow velvet couch so vivid for me: the mentality, boats, races, girlfriends, parties, islanders, and museum of war artifacts. Joe created a highly specific, provocative life for herself.


6. Kate Bolick’s Spinster — I have Millay quotes in my books, spent a month at the artist’s colony at Steepletop, and wrote a story about her sister Norma in my latest collection, so I’m interested in any author who also found Millay a touchstone, and who asks questions like this in her book:  You are born, you grow up, you become a wife. But what if it wasn’t this way?   What if?  It is a book of compelling examples, hard questions, and possibilities.


7.  Beryl Markham’s West With the Night —  If you have Paula McClain’s latest bookCircling the Sun in your to-read pile, make Beryl’s memoir a companion piece.  The prose is spare and incisive, and while the ghost-writing rumors may be true, the life and bravery were real. Markham gives perhaps the best advice a writer could take: “Never hope more than you work.”


8.  Lydia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water — I’ve taught this memoir at Bennington, and I agree with the New Yorker on Yuknavitch’s stunning ability to write about the book cover shows a woman wearing a velvet dress standing on a stage with her arms openfemale body.


9.  Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies — Shapton circles and examines her passion for swimming and water, and the way the element shaped her life. The book is elegant, creative, atmospheric, and quietly sensual.


10. Arianna Huffington’s biography of Maria Callas —  It is difficult, after having read this book, to imagine a woman more passionate about her craft and identity than Callas. Huffington’s book navigates mother issues, self-confidence, financial hardship, marriage, infidelity, but most importantly, a woman’s lifelong commitment to her art.

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