Advanced Memoir: From First Sentence to Resolution

Complete Syllabus

This class is designed for writers who have already explored the basics of memoir and are ready to tackle the challenges of longer excerpts and full-length manuscripts. Over the course of 10 weeks, we will look at how to start a full manuscript, how to conceptualize and write “critical chapters,” and how to use/write a resolution in memoir when it must reflect real life. We will also look at the importance of Truth in memoir. When is it okay to fill in gaps, cut or combine characters, or or speed up narrative to write an entertaining scene or narrative? You will learn the advanced technique of creating a contract between you, the author, and your reader, look at expanding your memoir beyond the the personal (the “I”), and practice incorporating the world surrounding your story using scene, research, and detail.

How it works:

Each week provides:

  • written lectures and a selection of readings
  • discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor

Some weeks also include:

  • writing exercises and prompts
  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay for instructor and/or peer review (up to 3,500 words and typically in weeks 3, 6, and 9)
  • optional video conferences that are open to all students in Week 2 (and which will be available afterwards as a recording for those who cannot participate)

Aside from the live conference, there is no need to be online at any particular time of day.
To create a better classroom experience for all, you are required to participate weekly in class discussions to receive instructor feedback on your work.

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Week 1: Truth vs. truth in Creative Nonfiction -- Ethics of Writing Memoir
We will begin delving into the ethical issues related to  writing memoir and creative nonfiction. Using contemporary articles and essays that explore this topic, we’ll ask questions like. When is okay to fill in gaps? Can you cut people? And what if you want to speed up narrative to write an entertaining scene or narrative? Throughout the week, you'll talk about strategies for writing a compelling and truthful story. You will write a scene from your childhood that ‘fills’ in the gaps as you explore the boundaries of memoir and memory. This week includes a video-conference and the opportunity to ask any questions you might have about ethics of creative nonfiction.

Week 2: First Sentences and First Chapters -- Establishing Voice
We will look at how first lines and first pages of memoirs, through narrative description and word choice, not only create themes for a whole book but also introduce the memoirist’s voice and establish immediate trust between writer and reader. We will look at examples, sharing what we all believe to be wonderful first sentences and chapters from our favorite books. We will begin working on our first chapter/first paragraphs for week 3.

Week 3: Description for the Sake of Moving the Narrative Forward -- Working with Body Chapters
We will look at getting out of our reflective minds. As writers, many of us love to sit in a moment and paint a picture of the world we have created in our writing, showing our readers where we are and how it looks, making them feel as if they are there, too. But you don’t want the story to stall while you stop to take in the scenery. This week you will explore using action (literal movement) within your description to move narrative forward. You will also submit a 1,500 -2,000 word first chapter that aims to create voice and theme.

Week 4: Tackling the Hardest Part of Writing Memoir -- Who Can You Include
Writing memoir can be very, very risky because we have to write about people besides ourselves. Many times memoir is focused on the loss of loved ones, the cracking of marriages, and abuse at the hands of parents or guardians. Who can we include?

Week 5: Interviewing Others to Enrich Your Memoir
Interviewing others is not easy. Many times you only have one opportunity to ask an interviewee for her story. This week, you will practice interviewing techniques that have proven effective in narrative nonfiction and discuss your pitfalls and successes. This week’s writing exercise will be the beginning of a longer essay to be turned in week six.

Week 6:Taking the “ME” out of Memoir -- Weaving in Other People’s Stories
The best part about using other people’s stories within your own is that it gives your readers a break from the first person narrative. This week you will jump into third person for a while and explore the world through your interviewee’s experiences. You will share what you believe to be a middle chapter (1,500 - 2,000 words) that includes third-person narrative about someone else who is critical to your story.

Week 7: Writing Climactic Chapters in Memoir
Many of the best memoirs really do follow the well-known tradition of storytelling: catalyst, tension building, climax, and resolution. This week we will look at how to choose the part of your experience that would best serve as a climactic chapter. We will look at examples of climactic chapters in memoir and work together to find our own chapters.

Week 8: Writing a Resolution in Memoir
Life goes on after your memoir is published. For better and worse, there never is true resolution in memoir because we have to live after the book has sold. That being the case, how can you  create a feeling of resolution in a memoir? We must pick a moment in our experience that makes the story feel resolved—that feels conclusive—but at the same time, we have to be honest with our reader. We will share resolutions and return to the question, “What is ethical in memoir writing?” How do we remain ethically sound in choosing the conclusion of our memoir?

Week 9: How Reading Travel Writing Can Help with Memoir
To many, travel writing is seen as listicles (lists of top-tens), but really good travel writing can help memoirists grow their narratives through defining place as a character. We will find and share travel pieces that explore place as characters. You will turn in a 1,500 to 3,000 word climactic chapter and a 500-word resolution chapter.

Week 10: Publishing
After all the planning and polishing, structuring and revision, you want to share your writing with the world. During this week we will review the steps and best practices for submitting complete manuscripts to agents and independent publishers; we’ll also discuss the option of self publishing.

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Questions? Check out our FAQ page or contact our Director of Education, Sharla Yates, at yates[at]creativenonfiction.org.