There’s nothing like sinking into a satisfying essay based memoir. Whether it’s following a cult survivor or a famous Hollywood star, slipping under another person’s skin is one of my favorite bookish pleasures. And sometimes memoirists step away from the simple chronological structure. Instead, they use essays with various focal points to construct their narrative. The essay focuses on a moment in time or an idea to discuss, which generally also means that the book’s progression doesn’t follow specific time periods.

Two examples from my recent reading are Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am I Am I Am and T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Daughters. Although both use the essay format, the authors’ stories and styles couldn’t be more different.

I Am I Am I Am

Maggie O’Farrell looks back at her life and highlights every moment where it might’ve ended. She subtitles her endeavor as “Seventeen Brushes with Death.” There’s genuine drama in each experience, whether small or momentous. Each essay title is chosen by using the part of her body at risk in the experience described.

While O’Farrell moves around through various decades, the sequence she intends isn’t clear. And it truly doesn’t matter. Each essay is distinct and by the end, I felt like I knew the author. But considering the focus on dramatic physical events, that knowledge is still fragmented. O’Farrell doesn’t attempt to tell her whole life story. Instead these moments, some medical and others not, describe a life uniquely at risk.

I also appreciated O’Farrell’s thoughtfulness and her ability to weave disparate events into a coherent narrative. This memoir read very quickly for me, partly because I always wanted to finish an essay before putting the book down again. Although each story is distinct, parts of them intertwine and ultimately build a vignette of the author’s life.

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Daughters

T Kira Madden came of age at a completely different time than I did—some twenty years after my own childhood. But she grew up in a town I know well, Boca Raton, Florida. I lived and worked there for a few years around the time she was growing up.

It was the 80s and the culture of addiction was everywhere. As a young adult, I had some coping skills despite making typically immature choices. But for Madden, her entire childhood was tinged with the patina of her parents’ addictions. As she told her story, I realized that she never had anyone put her absolutely first in their life. Instead, her parents tragically put their drugs of choice and the people who inhabited their lives before their daughter.

Madden’s essays are unvarnished and vulnerable. She talks about home life, but also about how she felt at school. Despite her famous (sometimes infamous) family, kids treated her badly. Much of that happened because she’s multiracial. In a place like Boca Raton, where looks were everything, that made her stand out as someone “other.”

Settling into adulthood was a process for Madden. Of course, all of us go through that. But she faced specific challenges more significant than just playground name-calling and picking a college. Her familial bonds are deep but also frayed around the edges. And explaining this makes for a gripping essay.

My conclusions

Both of these authors master the art of essay and memoir in their books. O’Farrell sets out to tell dramatic stories but overall the tone felt gentle to me. On the other hand, Madden writes essay after essay that punched me in the gut with their drama and intensity.

I recommend both books, despite their differences. Reading them near each other illustrated the many ways an essay can project a moment in our lives.

Pair with a memoir in chronological form like In Pieces from Sally Field, which I adored. Another option would be Sin Child by Angela Howard, which parallels Madden’s story in some ways.