What I Learned from a Memoir Writing Independent Study

2003 (2)

Dad, me, my brother, and Mom (circa 2003)

Memoirs are autobiographies for those who have a story to tell, not for those whose story has been told.

Last year, a friend and coworker from the Writing Lab mentioned that she had taken a memoir writing class. Though I’ve written a few novels, several short stories, and numerous poems, as well as a handful of personal essays, I had never, to my knowledge, written a nonfiction piece that read like a fiction piece, in which I was the protagonist.

My teacher, whom I’d had for Fiction Writing and Careers in Writing, agreed to do an independent study to meet the two-class requirement I needed for financial aid. Despite the pandemic, online options were still limited. 

Though I didn’t get feedback from other students on my pieces (which can be a hit or miss kind of thing), I got feedback from someone who has been doing this awhile—who doesn’t just teach about writing but is a writer herself. 

I’ve always struggled with coming up with essay-like stories about my life: I’d written about my summers in Poplar Bluff, when I was a live-in nanny in Montana, and when I left the Mormon Church, among a smattering of others, but these were all significant events, not everyday ones. Through this class, I learned how to take something small and write about it in a way that highlighted its significance.

I learned how to write a literary piece of nonfiction and improve my essay writing skills (and the differences between them). For literary nonfiction, I learned how to dig deep and remember things that were said, maybe not precisely (like you’d have to for a journalism piece), but close enough. This class inspired me to pay more attention and jot down things people say.

We discussed publishing for our last meeting, and there are many markets (not blogs or platforms, but paying markets) seeking personal nonfiction. I decided to avoid markets that prioritized authors who fit a certain demographic over stellar content. I am an average person writing for ordinary people, and I write about my life as an individual, not as a member of any special interest group. 

I learned more about myself through this process and felt more comfortable writing about myself in a way that made me human rather than the ever-sympathetic character. I was just thinking tonight that even though I don’t want people to think I’m not a nice person, I’d rather them think that than be a virtue signaler (and an obvious one at that). It is much more intrinsically rewarding to do something good in private. Before I post anything on social media, I question my motivations. Usually, it’s nothing more than just to entertain, show off my wit, or engage in a fun conversation. Once in a while, I share something that shares my values because I think it’s important not to be ashamed of what you believe. (Just don’t let yourself get into a long Facebook conversation about it. Ain’t nobody got time for that.) 

Though I came up with a dozen ideas for stories, I wrote about what it was like living in a shelter and being an expectant mother during this pandemic. I also wrote a humorous piece on growing up with avid genealogists for parents—a suburban Hillbilly Elegy but in a stable family environment. 

The last I consider one of my finest pieces of work. 

Though I love blog writing, most blog posts don’t have the timeless quality that memoirs do, for memoirs tell a story; they don’t try to convince you of anything (and they’re certainly not a rant). You get information from a memoir, but it isn’t informational, and it is something I will do more often—now that I know how to do it well.

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