Ear­li­er this week, Tova Mirvis wrote about the val­ue of per­son­al writ­ing. Today, she delves into the many mem­oirs she read before writ­ing her own, The Book of Sep­a­ra­tion, out lat­er this month from Houghton Mif­flin Har­court. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Before I could write a mem­oir, I need­ed to read.

I was pri­mar­i­ly a fic­tion writer and read most­ly nov­els. But before writ­ing The Book of Sep­a­ra­tion, I decid­ed to spend a year read­ing only mem­oir. I asked friends and fel­low writ­ers for sug­ges­tions. I made lists and assem­bled a stack of books. I kept a note­book where I wrote about what I could learn from each mem­oir. How did the author struc­ture the sto­ry? How did the author make use of flash­backs? How did the author cre­ate a com­pelling voice?

I began by re-read­ing two of my favorite mem­oirs: Devo­tion by Dani Shapiro and After­math, by Rachel Cusk. I loved Devo­tion for its prob­ing ques­tions and com­pas­sion­ate voice, After­math for its blunt force hon­esty. I had turned to these books for com­fort as I nav­i­gat­ed my divorce and leav­ing my Ortho­dox Jew­ish world, and my copies were well-worn, pas­sages under­lined, pages creased.

From there, I set out. Mem­oirs of child­hood. Mem­oirs of addic­tion. Mem­oirs of divorce. Mem­oirs of com­ing of age. Mem­oirs of excur­sions and adven­tures. I scrib­bled notes in the mar­gins, fold­ed down the cor­ners of pages I want­ed to return to.

There were books whose sto­ries haunt­ed me – the voice of the writer pained, hon­est, bold. Read­ing them, I felt like I under­stood not just the author’s sto­ry but the world around me more deeply: Jes­myn Ward’s Men We Reaped; Alice Sebold’s Lucky; Pang-Mei Natasha Chang’s Bound Feet and West­ern Dress; Car­o­line Knapp’s Drink­ing: A Love Story.

There were books that parceled out wis­dom about how to forge a gen­uine self: Fierce Attach­ments by Vivian Gor­nick; Through the Door of Life, by Joy Ladin. My Salinger Year by Joan­na Rakoff was a com­ing of age sto­ry so sure-hand­ed and mov­ing that I devoured it in one sit­ting. In Cab­in, Lou Ure­neck turned the process of build­ing a cab­in into a pen­sive, mov­ing explo­ration of fam­i­ly and growth.

Some books, like Alexan­dra Fuller’s Leav­ing Before the Rains Come, I read more than once. This mem­oir, about Fuller’s divorce set against the back­drop of her African fam­i­ly and upbring­ing, was lush and pierc­ing. On each page, I stopped to take in a moment of beau­ty. In the end, at least in this end,” she wrote, the world beyond me and the world inside me could no longer exist in the same place and I broke.”

I under­lined and underlined.

I was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed to read mem­oirs of leav­ing the ultra-Ortho­dox world, espe­cial­ly Shulem Deen’s sear­ing, mas­ter­ful All Who Go Do Not Return, and Leah Vincent’s bold, pow­er­ful Cut Me Loose. In both, the pain of forg­ing a change and the brav­ery required to do so was appar­ent on every page.

These bore much in com­mon with mem­oirs that explored leav­ing oth­er reli­gious worlds. Through the Nar­row Gate and The Spi­ral Stair­case by Karen Arm­strong describe the author’s jour­ney to becom­ing a nun and then the slow leav­ing of her con­vent. What cap­ti­vat­ed me was her por­tray­al of the mys­tery and pow­er of reli­gious faith even as she describes the slow encroach­ment of doubt. I also loved Los­ing my Reli­gion by William Lob­dell, a Catholic jour­nal­ist who cov­ered the Catholic sex­u­al abuse cas­es and whose faith was burned away as a result.

I savored Not That Kind of Girl by Car­lene Bauer, which traces her desire to be a good girl inside her Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian world, and the process by which she came to ques­tion her role there. In this book, the author’s voice jumped off the page and car­ried me into a world that was both for­eign and famil­iar. As far as I could tell,” Bauer writes about the offi­cial church teach­ings, that was the only sto­ry told by the offi­cious soul, and the real and true sad­ness had been excised for a more mel­liflu­ous account.…”

I fold­ed over this page. My Ortho­dox Jew­ish upbring­ing in Mem­phis was a world far from hers, yet I knew the feel­ing that parts of your expe­ri­ence were not per­mit­ted. The par­tic­u­lars might have var­ied, but the emo­tion­al truths land­ed close to home.

In all these mem­oirs, I found a com­mon theme: the trans­for­ma­tion of the self over time. In many of these mem­oirs, the author leaves one world and begins to make way for anoth­er. The kinds of leav­ings var­ied – leav­ing a reli­gious world, a child­hood, a destruc­tive way of being, a for­mer self. But in all, there was a pal­pa­ble sense of the lone­li­ness that comes with change and departure.

This was a feel­ing I knew well. In the years of leav­ing my mar­riage and reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty, I felt more than any­thing the sense of the known world reced­ing – the way it looks when you set sail from a fixed shore­line and move into some­thing that is uncer­tain and unmapped. Through­out those years, I won­dered: did any­one around me feel this way too?

The answer, for me, came in these memoirs.

Read­ing mem­oir helped teach me how to write mem­oir. But most of all, my year of read­ing helped me feel a lit­tle less alone in the world. Now, when I look at these books on my shelves, I think of the authors as fel­low trav­el­ers. These mem­oirs are books to take with you on the jour­ney across.

Tova Mirvis is the author of three nov­els: Vis­i­ble City, The Out­side World, The Ladies Aux­il­iary, a nation­al best­seller, and the mem­oir The Book of Sep­a­ra­tion. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe Mag­a­zine, and Poets and Writ­ers, and her fic­tion has been broad­cast on NPR. She lives in New­ton, Massachusetts.