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. This course will help you tackle your memoir by providing firm deadlines, writing exercises, and weekly feedback. Along the way you'll also develop the habit of writing regularly.

How it works: Monday through Thursday, students 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.

Each week provides:

  • daily prompts to help you generate new writing
  • instructor feedback on 1,000 words
  • opportunities for feedback from peers
  • written lectures and a selection of readings
  • discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor

In order to receive instructor feedback each week, students 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


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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 you will identify the focus of your 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? You will explore possible shapes for your memoir, and this week's writing prompt provides options for trying out (or polishing) different structures.

Week 3: Points of Tension
A memoir needs an overall story arc, but it must also have points of tension throughout 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: Summary & Reflection
Two of the most pivotal elements of nonfiction are summary and reflection—this week, we'll study the difference between the two and how and when to best use them.

Week 5: Scene
Scene in memoir is both necessary and challenging. We’ll study how and when to use scene instead of summary to both illustrate and engage the reader. We’ll also look at descriptive detail.

Week 6: 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 7: 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 you will learn how to create a sense of place in your memoir.

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 you will learn strategies for revision and 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 students 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 on 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]