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.

Sweet Little Nothings

Always make your past self jealous chocolate

When Sarah went back in time,
she faced herself at age 17,
but the young Sarah
didn’t recognize the older Sarah.
The older Sarah,
now Sarah R.,
wanted to tell the young Sarah
that it would be 20 years
before she figured it all out.
She wanted to tell her not to wait—
to do what she’d missed out on the first time
all those years ago,
until she realized that to change a minute
might change everything.
Had her child not been born,
she could’ve done just that,
but she had to let then Sarah B.
find her own way—
just as she had.
This old Sarah who was the young Sarah
looked her way once more,
& the newer but older Sarah saw
a gleam of admiration in that brown-eyed girl
she once was.
And it was then
that the 37-year-old Sarah
suddenly remembered
seeing a woman who looked like her
all those years ago.

Micropoetry Monday: Strong Women

She was Miss before she married
& took,
upon herself,
by her own free will & choice,
her husband’s name.
When people called her Ms.,
she didn’t bother correcting them,
for her husband had been a Mr.
before her,
& was a Mr. still.
But when someone addressed her
as Mrs. Jameson Adamson,
she did not answer to it,
for her identity was not
in who her husband was—
it was in who she was.

She was stripped of her pride,
but not of her dignity,
which she wore like a mink coat.

The graduate learned in her thirty-seventh year
that life was not about balance but priorities,
for the former was an unattainable ideal;
she learned that there was a season for everything,
for everything was beautiful in its time.
There was a time to learn
& a time to apply what one had learned.
There was a time to read
& a time to write about what one had read–
just as there was always a time to write,
a time to edit,
a time to share,
& a time to read what others shared.
There was a time to speak what she knew
& a time to listen to what she did not.
There was a time to go
& a time to stay,
a time to be something,
but more importantly,
a time to be someone.
There was a time to rise up
& a time to be content,
& it was in that latter time she would stay
until she mastered the tasks entrusted her
so that she could move on
to master
something else.