Reading some memoirs

NOTE: The rough draft of your memoir will be due week 3 or 4  (as always, check your Assignments page for deadline).

For most people, writing starts with the personal, and the closest subject matter for writers consists of  happened to them, what they observed directly, their own experiences and emotions. One of the main genres of this type of writing is the memoir.

Why should anyone care about your life?

For any piece of writing, for all writers, purpose and audience are crucial considerations. Why are you writing this? What are you trying to say? What does your reader already know? What new information or new way of looking at things are you bringing to your reader?

In a memoir your material is drawn from your own private experience, but you are writing for a public reader who may well not know you and probably has no particular interest in your trip to DisneyWorld or your car accident or your romantic breakups. You may write journal entries and letters or poems that you don’t share with anyone to help preserve your joys and deal with your pains. But the fact that it happened to you, though reason enough to write it down for yourself, does not necessarily make it a good topic choice for a personal essay.

The memoir writer should consider how his or her individual experience connects to the experience of others. Yes, your readers won’t (generally) have shared your particular experience but they have all dealt with relationships to parents, friends, romantic partners; with feelings of loneliness and disappointment, pride in accomplishment and pleasure in delights of the senses; difficulties of reaching independence and setting one’s moral standards. As you start to consider ideas, to gather memories, to draft an essay, think about what more universal issues are imbedded in your personal experience. By writing about how you dealt with one or more these issues, you invite your readers to connect: to experience vicariously a small portion of someone else’s life and in doing so to examine their own lives.

Here’s an interesting post with some quotes from memoir writers on Why We Write about Ourselves.

The first essay for this class will be a memoir, and to tie to the theme of the course you will be writing a memoir that touches in some way on your experience of home.

THE CHOICE OF TOPIC IS A CRUCIAL DECISION FOR A WRITER. It’s important to give yourself time to think about some of the possibilities. (One other thing to keep in mind as you start to consider subjects: make sure that you choose something that you’re comfortable sharing with others. I have had wonderful essays on abuse and addiction and other very personal topics and readers have been uniformly supportive when classmates have been brave enough to write about such things, but not everyone is willing or able to reveal such painful parts of their lives. As a writer you want to think about choosing subject matter that you care deeply about, questions and puzzles in your life that you want to untangle, but you also need a certain distance on the material to be able to write about it effectively. Please feel free to email me if you want any advice on topic choice. Or you may want to post a comment below if you’d like some feedback from either me or some of your peers, especially if you;re torn between two ideas for an essay.

In this type of writing we can see this interplay between the specific and the general. As a memoirist your goal is twofold: to describe your individual experience in enough detail that the reader feels as if he is sitting on your shoulder (and getting inside your head) as you went through this experience and to connect the individual experience to something  more universal that will cause the reader, perhaps, to remember and question his own experience. In order to do this, you will need to focus on a particular event that occurred over a fairly limited time frame; another option is to write a sort of mosaic, where you weave together fragments of memory (this is a more challenging and experimental sort of memoir, but I’m open to whatever creative structures you’d like to play with.)

Here are several sample essays from previous semesters:

Elizabeth

Cam

Edith

Kristen

Jennifer

For anyone that’s interested, you may want to read through this segment (click the blue download button from the Dropbox page) from my own memoir-in-progress, which (coincidentally!) does fit the assignment, though it’s much longer than the 1000 or so words the assignment suggests.

Reading response 1. (See Assignment tab for deadline for your class.) Here are some professional samples from you to look through. Pick one that appeals to you.

Read through the essay, thinking about how the essay uses the specific experience of the writer to connect to a more universal experience. On a sheet of paper (for a change!; Face-to-face students will do this on paper to turn in; online students should post their response on their blog. Be sure to give the title of the essay you read along with the following information: in a sentence or two, what seems to be the “theme” (or universal aspect) of the essay?; list the three specific details that seemed most successful (either because they gave a sharp image or conveyed strong emotion or some other criterion you specify).

One thought on “Reading some memoirs

  1. I am really confused on a topic to pick for this. I’m not sure how to start or what world even make a good topic. Please give me some ideas.

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