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Advanced Memoir: From First Sentence to Resolution

Complete Syllabus

This class is designed for writers who 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: 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 identify themes for a whole book but also introduce the memoirist 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 three.

Week 2: Description for the Sake of Moving the Narrative Forward -- Working with Body Chapters
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 3: 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, abuse at the hands of parents or guardians, or other painful situations. Who can we include? Some of the hardest decisions to make include the representation of other people: who can we leave out while remaining true to the story? Can we use composite characters? Is it okay or necessary to change names? These are the questions we will tackle this week in the readings and discussions.

Week 4: Interviewing Others to Enrich Your Memoir
Interviewing others is not easy. Often you have only 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 5: 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 6: Framing and Scaffolding of the Memoir and Individual Chapters
How do we shape our memoir? How do we shape the chapters within it to create a fluid, whole, and cohesive book? Depending on what we are writing, this answer can change quite drastically. For instance, a story-based memoir will take a different shape than a research-based memoir. This week we look at look at how memoirs can be structured. We will also look at how chapters are structured within a memoir. We will talk broadly about the larger structural options: strict chronology, bookending, weaving, and other structural options for both the full book and the chapters.

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: Landscape, Setting, and Moving Through the World
This week we will look at how landscape, setting, and cultural identity can play a large part in memoir. We will use travel writing and nature writing examples to examine how environment can play a huge part in understanding identity, both personal and cultural, and how moving through the world – travel writing – can help move chapters forward in the memoir. You will turn in a 1,500 to 3,000 word climactic chapter and a 500-word resolution chapter.

Week 10: Publishing and the Ethics of Publishing Truth
After all the planning and polishing, structuring and revision, you want to share your writing with the world. During this week, we will continue our discussion on the ethical issues related to publishing memoir and creative nonfiction. 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.