The Thirty-Minute Memoir

Complete Syllabus

Patterned after our popular Boot Camp course, this class is designed to help break the potentially overwhelming task of writing a memoir into manageable daily writing. Each week will focus on a different aspect of memoir writing, from opening chapters to scenes involving dialogue. Monday through Thursday, participants will be encouraged to post 300 words of new writing, and at the end of the week they will choose 1,000 words from the week’s work (or elsewhere) to submit to their instructor for comment. You must post at least two times per week (during the Monday- Thursday span) in order to receive feedback from me for your Friday 1000-word post—ensuring that you’re motivated to stay on task. By writing for 30 minutes a day (or longer, if you choose), you’ll finish the class with 60 pages of a memoir draft.

How it works: During the course participants will be assigned to post 300 words per day of new writing, Monday through Friday. Though the goal is to write every weekday, students will still receive instructor feedback as long as they post on 2 out of the 5 weekdays. Participants can write based on the weekly writing prompt, but are also always welcome to work on a different part of their book if they are so inclined. 

On Fridays participants will choose 1,000 words from the writing they have completed during the week and send it to the instructor for feedback. During the weekend participants will comment on each others’ work. Written lectures about memoir writing and recommended reading for each week will also be provided.

In order to receive instructor feedback each week, participants must complete the following activities:



  • Post 300 words per day on at least 2 out of the 5 weekdays.

  • Post a paragraph of comments on the work of at least two fellow students at some point during the week or weekend.



Note: Each section will be limited to 10 participants due to the course workload, allowing participants to focus on their own work as well as provide timely comments to their peers.

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Week 1: Find Your Focus
A memoir needs a focal point on which the writer can build, but many writers dive into their first draft without knowing what their focus is. During Week 1 participants will identify the focus of their book (or think of ways to fine-tune that focus for an existing project). The writing this week will help identify and hone the central idea of your memoir.

Week 2: The Shape of Your Narrative
A book-length memoir offers many possibilities for structure: should the narrative be chronological, braided, retrospective? Participants will explore possible shapes for their memoir, and this week's writing prompt provides options to tryout (or again, hone) different structures.

Week 3: Points of Tension
A memoir needs an overall story arc, but also must have points of tension through the book that keep the reader hooked from chapter to chapter. This week’s lecture and writing will explore ways of creating tension at different points in your larger narrative.

Week 4: Scene & Summary
Two of the most pivotal elements of nonfiction are scene and summary—this week, we'll study the difference between summary and scene and both how and when to best use them.

Week 5: Writing About People
People are the most important element of a memoir, in that a reader’s interest in all the book’s events is founded on his or her interest in the people who lived through those events. During this week we’ll consider how to write about people in ways that readers will find engaging.

Week 6: A Sense of Place
The setting in which your book takes place can be an essential part of the story you want to tell; in many cases, the setting can be a character in and of itself. This week participants will learn how to create a sense of place in their memoir.

Week 7: Incorporating Detail
Detail is what separates a dry recounting from a vivid scene, but too much detail can also create writing that feels heavy and slow. This week’s lecture and writing prompt will look at ways to incorporate fresh and telling details that will capture a reader’s imagination throughout your book.

Week 8: Research
While personal experiences are the core of any memoir, research can play an equally important role. Memoir research can range from information-gathering on the internet to in-depth discussions with friends and family. During this week we’ll look at ways to gather research information and use it in your memoir.

Week 9: Revision
Sentence-level revision is where writers turn the raw emotion of their first draft into the sparkling, polished prose of the final version. This week participants will learn strategies for revision, and will revise some pieces from earlier in the class.

Week 10: Where Are You Going?
You’ve identified the story you want to tell, but where is that story headed? How will your book end? Writing without any sense of an end point often causes authors to get stuck halfway through their book, so during this final week we’ll discuss some possibilities for endings, and participants will write a sample last chapter (or at least a chapter that would come near the end of the book).

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Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about this class (general FAQs are here)



Q: What if I have a busy week coming up (or I’m going out of town) and can’t post 300 words during any of the days during the week? Can I post everything on the weekend?

A: You must post 300 words per day for at least 3 out of the 5 weekdays in order to receive feedback, so posting everything at the end of the week is not an option. However, if you know that you have a busy week coming up you can complete your minimum 3 posts during the preceding weekend and post them all at the beginning of the week—writing prompts will be provided ahead of time so that you can work ahead.



Q: Do I have to post my work at any particular time of day?

A: No. You can post your work at any time of day or night, but you must post on 3 separate days to get credit for posting 3 times in the week.



Q: What if I get caught up in a writing session and write more than 300 words?

A: Great! You can post as much material as you write in a given day. However, at the end of the week you will still need to choose 1,000 words for your instructor and classmates to comment on.



Q: What if I don't want to write about the topic assigned for a given week?
A: No problem. The goal of The Thirty-Minute Memoir is to help you make progress on your book. If you want to write some part of the book other than what is being discussed that week, you are always welcome to do so.


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