Writing Personal Essays Memoirs

If you’re interested in sharing your personal experiences through writing, consider learning more about the memoir essay. The following excerpt is taken from Crafting The Personal Essay by Dinty W. Moore. You’ll learn what exactly a memoir essay is and three essential tips to writing one of your own.

What is a memoir essay?

Memoir, obviously, has to do with memory, and though that might mean writing about an event in your childhood, it is well worth remembering that you are by no means so limited. A successful memoir essay might be written about the two years you spent just out of high school working in a small town five-and-dime (back when every small town had a five-and-dime), or it could relate the story of your successful two-year battle with cancer at age forty. You could write a memoir at age seventy looking only at the previous five years and the adventure of building your perfect retirement beach house on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. Memoir simply means it happened in the past.

Often, when nonfiction is taught or studied, memoir and the personal essay are placed apart, as separate genres, but the truth is that these two strands have considerable overlap. In theory, one might write memoir and not essay; if, for instance, all that you did was re-create previous events from memory, with absolutely no embellishment or reflection. In practice, however, writers almost never do this. They re-create the past and then reflect on what they have learned, or haven’t learned, about what now makes sense or what continues to be a mystery.

This use of personal experience for reflection—not just “this happened to me,” but “this happened and it gave me occasion to ponder”—distinguishes that thin line between pure memoir and the memoir essay.

Or as James Baldwin reminds us, we are always writing from our own experience, but it is up to us and indeed, our responsibility as writers—to squeeze from our experience “the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give.”

Three Quick Tips For Writing A Memoir Essay

  • When writing your memoir essay, remember the crucial importance of details. Don’t tell us what happened, show us. Don’t just claim that Uncle Clem was a kooky prankster; show him blowing up your family’s garbage cans on the Fourth of July. Don’t assert that your grandmother’s lasagna was the most savory meal ever served, show us the lasagna, layer by layer, and let us smell the tomato sauce, see the flecks of oregano in the ricotta cheese. More importantly, let us see your grandmother, her eyes, her hands, the stoop of her back, the pattern on her apron, and the days she spent preparing ahead for the holiday meal because she believed, as if it were her religion, that food was love.
  • Do your research. Historians can go to the collected papers of famous politicians when they want to re-create the past, but perhaps what you are writing about is so obscure that no one kept a record of any sort. Goodness knows if you are old as me, there are no videotapes of every childhood event, just occasional, out of focus black-and-white photos. But there is still research to be done. First, ask people. If family members are alive, ask them what they remember. Even if the memories seem faulty, they will spur you to remember your own versions. Ask friends from the old neighborhood how they perceived your family. Tell them to be honest. Even if your family no longer owns that small farm out on Butter Churn Road, you can perhaps drive out there, park across the street, and let the contour of the landscape and the placement of the trees jog your memory. Sit a while with those old blurry photographs. The more you remember, you will find out, the more you remember beyond that. Each small memory is a string; pull on it, and something new comes up out of the fabric.
  • Don’t be a hero or a victim. If the story you share is all about how wonderful you are, why should the reader believe you? And why, other than self-flattery, are you even exploring it on the page? Likewise, if you are pure victim, the dish towel tossed around by unfair family and fickle fates, then what is there to be learned? In truth, most of us are flawed folks who try our best, and on some days we do pretty darn well. On other days? Well, maybe it is best to just go to sleep and start over tomorrow. The struggle! That’s what’s interesting.

Buy Crafting The Personal Essay now!

For more information about writing a memoir, take an online writing workshop.

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Advanced Memoir & Personal Essay // Curriculum A

Complete Syllabus

This class is designed for those who have already explored the basics of personal writing and wish to move on to a larger project or more challenging forms. You can choose one of two paths, working either on sections of a memoir or on personal essays in a variety of styles. You will learn how to structure chapters or essays, how to incorporate research into personal writing, how to develop character, how to use descriptive language effectively, and more. We will examine personal essays and memoir chapters from published authors to analyze their writing techniques, and discuss ways to use those techniques in our own writing. If you wish to submit work that does not strictly fit the assignments given you can arrange to do so with the instructor.

How it works:

Each week provides:

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

Some weeks also include:

  • 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 expected to participate weekly in class discussions to receive instructor feedback on your work.

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Week 1: Planning Your Writing Project
We will set firm goals for the course, outlining the work you will complete during the 10 weeks, and your ultimate objective for this writing once it is completed. Those who do not already have an extended project in mind will choose one; those who have already started working on a project will plan their next steps. You will consider how your work fits into the larger writing market, but also learn when to leave the market behind and focus exclusively on the art.

Week 2: Intertwining Narratives
Combining or counterpointing two different narratives or streams of thought can allow you to emphasize elements of both storylines that would not otherwise be apparent, or to create an extended metaphor by choosing to compare two seemingly unrelated elements. This can result in juxtapositions that the reader finds surprising, moving, and thought-provoking. The lecture and readings for this week will explore techniques for writing an essay that braids together two or more storylines, and for incorporating intertwined storylines into the memoir.

Week 3: Writing with Multiple Storylines
You will submit a writing sample to the instructor, either a memoir excerpt or a personal essay that uses the “braided storylines” technique from Week 2, with the option of participating in peer critiques. We will take a close look at some of the class readings to analyze the authors’ writing techniques, and continue to discuss the topics from Week 2 as they relate to our own writing.

Week 4: Conducting Research
Research adds depth to a memoir, and allows a personal essay to move beyond the purely personal. Even an ordinary story can become interesting when it is artfully combined with the right research. During this week we will discuss ways to obtain information that will embellish a piece of personal writing, and how to gracefully incorporate that information into your prose. 

Week 5: Non-Narrative Elements
Most memoirs and personal essays are based on a personal narrative. While a good story is essential to creating a compelling piece of nonfiction, non-narrative components such as reflections, informational passages, dialogue, and so on are also important in creating an interesting piece of writing. This week you will explore techniques for integrating these components into your writing projects.

Week 6: Writing with Research
You will submit a writing sample to the instructor, either a memoir excerpt or a personal essay that uses the research and non-narrative techniques from Weeks 4 and 5, with the option to participate in peer critiques. We will take a close look at some of the class readings to analyze the authors’ writing techniques, and continue to discuss the topics from the preceding weeks as they relate to your own writing.

Week 7: Revision
Revision is an essential part of the writing process, but one that some writers find tedious. During this week we'll discuss strategies for revision, both by yourself and with a writing partner, and ways to remain invested in your project during the long revision process. 

Week 8: Non-Chronological Structure
The traditional way to tell a story is to start at the beginning and go to the end, but rearranging the events of a narrative allows you to highlight certain connections between events that happen at different times, and also to manipulate the reader's understanding of a series of events. This week we will explore techniques for writing an essay that uses an unusual chronological structure, and strategies for moving back and forth in time in the context of the memoir.

Week 9: Writing Out of Order
You will submit writing to the instructor, either a memoir excerpt or a personal essay that uses the non-chronological techniques from Week 8, with the option of participating in a peer critique. We will take a close look at some of the class readings to analyze the authors’ writing techniques, and continue to discuss the topics from Week 8 as they relate to your own writing.

Week 10: Preparing for Publication
After all the planning and polishing, structuring and revision, you want to share your writing with the world. During this week we will discuss the steps and best practices for submitting work to agents, literary journals, and magazines.

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

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