The Vignette: What to Read to Be Inspired
Reading memoir in the format in which you would like to write is an effective way to internalize style and discover what may and may not work for you.
Here are a few titles that, in my opinion, utilize vignette-style writing to its fullest potential.
Vignette-Style Autobiographical Writing
The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New
(2016) by Annie Dillard
The entry titled “Jokes” is a fine example of writing from family experience that feels particular and universal at the same time; even without a true narrative arc, Dillard develops her parents into real characters and paints a picture of her home that makes the reader feel a welcome guest.
Tell Me More
(2018) by Kelly Corrigan
Read this joy-filled, sensitive memoir not because it is vignette-driven (it is not) but because it very likely started out that way. Corrigan—who has been called “the voice of her generation” by O: The Oprah Magazine and “the poet laureate of the ordinary” by HuffPost—beautifully weaves 12 stories together to create a book that says plenty about her life, and ours. Consider Corrigan’s book a goal to strive for in terms of using life experience to convey something beyond yourself, and of editing stories so they transform into a whole that is greater than its parts.
My First New York: Early Adventures in the Big City
(2010) from the editors of New York magazine
This compendium of candid accounts from various luminaries puts New York City on the map in an entirely new and wholly personal way. Each vignette (called “small, glittering essays” by the LA Times) is an exquisite example of capturing a slice of life via an interview (translated for the book into as-told-to pieces), an approach anyone can try simply by speaking into your phone’s voice recorder and transcribing—and editing—later.
(1975) by Joe Brainard
Dani Shapiro introduced me to this tiny gem during a memoir writing workshop a few years back, and I have recommended it countless times since. Brainard’s memories, recounted in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, are short and pointed, often mere phrases or single sentences, occasionally a brief paragraph, each beginning “I remember...”. Read this book to discover the power of short reminiscence, and emulate it to create your own list of prompts for future development.
Finding Inspiration in Fiction
The House on Mango Street
(1984) by Sandra Cisneros
This a great fictional model for vignette-style of writing. The book is a series of sketches and vignettes written in rich, poetic prose that together form a loose narrative about the author’s Chicano childhood. The vignettes add up, as Cisneros has written, “to tell one big story, each story contributing to the whole—like beads in a necklace.” Told in first person, the book reads like a true autobiographical exploration. Her language is lush and figurative, offering us a glimpse into her world without much editorial exposition.
All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten
(1986) by Robert Fulghum
Robert Fulghum, whose eight nonfiction books all rose to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, refers to his writing as “stories, observations, and affirmations.” His books are filled with anecdotes, wit, and wisdom around everyday experiences and life-changing transitions.
He says his “writing usually begins as journal entries—notes to myself—lines of verbal perspectives drawn from walking around and stopping at intersections as I move camp each year.” Fulghum says he molds his raw ideas into stories by sharing them aloud with a walking companion, thereby “editing” his stories as he goes. “In time, the stories and reflections migrate into book form,” he writes. “Even so, please keep in mind that I think of what I’m doing as writing letters and postcards to friends, always ending with the unspoken tag line: ‘Wish you were here.’”
Two more of Fulghum's titles to check out for inspiration for using a casual voice to capture vignettes that resonate:
What on Earth Have I Done? (2007)
It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It (1989)
Related Reading on Vignettes
In “How to Write a Good Story in 800 Words or Less” you’ll find writing tips and, more importantly, one of the best examples of how powerful brief character writing can be, a 145-word piece by Meyer Berger.
Check out our Vignettes Writing Prompts series: