Roots & Branches: Writing Your Family Tree

Roots & Branches: Writing Your Family Tree

We don’t get to choose our familiesbut when we write our stories we do get to make many choices about how we frame, represent, embrace, and challenge the family histories we’ve heard, discovered, or remembered through the years.

Family is a rich and layered topic to explore. Through the course of this five-week workshop, you will:

  • DIG DEEP to hit the roots of your family tree and write the stories that you can pass down to the next generation;
  • CRAFT honest, compassionate, and complicated portraits;
  • LEARN how to use key events, big and small, to build a narrative that will preserve and define your family’s unique story;
  • RECEIVE FEEDBACK from your fellow workshoppers;
  • STRENGTHEN your writing. 

You’ll learn to connect with a wider audience while also adding artistry, depth, and complexity to your work for this class and beyond. Most important, you will leave with a polished, revised piece of creative nonfiction you will feel confident about submitting to publications.

Writers of all skill levels are welcome to attend this workshop. You can bring a work in progress, but please keep in mind that this workshop will focus on generating new work and new strategies for telling your story better.

Read on for week-by-week descriptions.

Tuesdays (February 20, 27 and March 13, 20, 27)
6:00 pm – 8:30 pm

Advance registration strongly recommended. 
The workshop is limited to 12 students.


Week 1: The Family Portrait
Family is made up of people, and this week we’ll discuss how to craft honest, compassionate, and complicated portraits of our family members. We’ll use photographs as our source material to start with physical descriptions, and move on to describe the things that we could never know from a photo in order to bring our family members to life. We’ll discuss the uses of dialogue; balancing showing and telling when building characters; and the complexities of writing about people who are not able to “defend themselves” on the page. In exploring this topic, we’ll read short pieces from Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff, and Cheryl Strayed.

Week 2: Myths and Legends: Untangling Facts from Fiction
Second only to people, plot—narrative—drives readers to creative writing. In week two, we’ll focus on how to write about the big and small events that can act as frames for your stories and help you to preserve the special moments that define family life. We’ll also connect family moments with larger events of cultural importance, which help to broaden the scope and impact of your story. Through in-class writing exercises and personal timelines, we’ll create plot points to make sure our stories continue moving along in ways that interest and engage readers.

Week 3: Workshop and Revising For Luminous Detail
Week three will be our first week of workshopping. Half of the class’s work will be reviewed this week. Rather than a traditional method of noting the strengths and weaknesses of a text, and offering praise and suggestions, we will use a method of response that allows readers to ask questions about the text and to the author. By having the opportunity to hear and respond to reader questions, you will gain a greater understanding of your intentions and interests in crafting the work. 

We’ll also spend some time this week on specific revision techniques that require a writer’s attention to language and detail. These are revision exercises that will help you elevate your workshop pieces, but also translate to all creative writing, no matter the content or genre. Revising toward luminous detail is finding what distinguishes your family from all the other families in the world. What makes your dad specifically weird? What makes your aunt distinctly generous? These exercises will push you toward more effective use of specificity of detail and unexpected language.

Week 4: Workshop and Revising For Figurative Language
This week, the second half of the class will have their pieces workshopped, through the same method of questioning as last week. 

We’ll also leave time to engage in some revision exercises, this time focusing on revisions that elevate creative writing through figurative language. These exercises that focus on imagery, metaphor, and musicality help to make all your writing sing, and are some of the essential tools that put the "creative" in creative nonfiction.  Metaphor-making and lyric language are skills that will help you add artistry, depth, and complexity to your work in this class and beyond.

Week 5: Submissions, Performance, and Publication
Where do you submit your work? What happens when it’s published and people from your family can read it? What are performance techniques that can help you best present your story orally to audiences? How do you balance the desire to tell your story versus the fear of exposing private stories? What are the self-publishing avenues available for preserving your family stories beautifully for the next generation? These are the questions we’ll answer in our last week together, along with any other lingering questions you have about individual pieces, or the work of writing the family in broad terms.

Location // 5119 Coral Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15224

The workshop space is wheelchair accessible. Free on-street parking is available. Coffee, tea, water and light refreshments will be provided each week.

Sarah Shotland is the author of the novel Junkette and a playwright whose work has been produced in theaters nationally and internationally. She is a 2017 writing resident at the Santa Fe Art Institute's Equal Justice Initiative, where her residency will be focused on finishing a collection of flash creative nonfiction. She is the Co-Founder and Program Coordinator of Words Without Walls, which brings creative writing classes to jails, prisons, and rehab centers in Pittsburgh. Her work there has been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She has more than 15 years of experience teaching creative writing in and out of academic settings, and currently teaches at Chatham University.

Questions? Please call us at 412-404-2975 or email our events manager, Lauren Boehm, at