Finding & Shaping Your True Story

Finding & Shaping Your True Story

Many of us have important personal stories to tell, but how do we transform interesting anecdotes or fragmentary episodes into fully realized pieces of writing that will engage and move readers? Join instructor and memoirist Nancy McCabe in exploring techniques to find the story you’re really trying to tell.

Storytelling principles dating back to Aristotle’s time still inform our creative nonfiction and fiction and can help us bring our experience to life and make it meaningful to readers. Through discussion, examples, writing exercises, and critique in a supportive setting, we’ll work on telling the truths of our lives using these storytelling principles as a framework. Participants are welcome to bring a work-in-progress or to start a new piece from scratch.

During this workshop you will:

  • EXPLORE your experiences for moments of transformation;
  • REVIEW the principles of narrative structure by discussing some short professional models and focusing on conflict, complication, and change;
  • IDENTIFY inciting incidents, conflicts, questions, and issues at stake for the narrator;
  • GENERATE sections, scenes, and an outline of your narrative arc; and
  • SHARE portions of your writing with the group in a supportive critique session.

The workshop is open to writers of all levels. Read on for the schedule overview.

Saturday, December 8, 2018
10:00 am – 4:30 pm

Advance registration strongly recommended.
The workshop is limited to 16 students.



Opening // Brainstorm
The workshop will begin with a brainstorming session on the turning-point moments of our experiences. We’ll explore the ways those experiences changed us, our understanding of others, our perspective on the world, or our visions of our lives. Through a series of activities, we will examine the meaning and significance of those experiences and trace backward to look for possible entry points to our stories.

Morning // Principles of Structure & Memoir Openings
By examining some flash nonfiction, we will develop/review vocabulary for discussing narrative structure—the narrative arc, conflict/inciting incident, rising action, climax/turning point, denouement/resolution. How do these concepts, which were first described in relation to ancient drama and evolved to encompass fiction as well, inform the shape of the story in creative nonfiction? We’ll also identify how authors create tension and establish conflicts or questions from the start, and then we’ll engage in exercises that will help us create our own beginnings that clearly signal the stakes for ourselves as narrators.

Mid-Day // Establishing & Complicating the Inciting Incident
Generative exercises will help us carve out narrative arcs, negotiate the relationship between external and internal conflicts, and work on scenes, sections, and outlines for the middle parts of our work in progress.

Afternoon // Transformation
Looking at some concluding passages from published personal narratives, we’ll talk about techniques for developing our transformative moments and crafting memorable endings. We’ll draft final scenes, trying out different possibilities for wrapping up our own stories.

Closing // Discussion & Feedback
Sharing portions of our work, we’ll consider what new insights we’ve gained from exploring our material, offer feedback, and discuss future directions for the memoir pieces. Participants will leave with rough drafts and lots of ideas for continuing to revise and shape those drafts into polished memoir pieces that will offer new perspectives on their experience and speak meaningfully to readers.

Location // 5119 Coral Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15224

The lower level of our workshop and gallery space is wheelchair accessible. Free on-street parking is available.

Doors open at 9 am, event begins at 10 am. Breakfast and coffee will be provided. The workshop schedule includes a mid-day break for lunch at local restaurants. A kitchenette, with refrigerator and microwave, is available onsite for packed lunches or snacks.

Nancy McCabe is the author of a novel and four memoirs, most recently From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood. She has published in magazines and anthologies such as Prairie Schooner, Fourth Genre, Michigan Quarterly Review, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Oh Baby: True Stories about Conception, Adoption, Surrogacy, Pregnancy, Labor, and Love. Her work has received a Pushcart and been recognized seven times on Best American notable lists. She directs the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville, KY.

Questions?  Please call us at 412-404-2975 or email our events manager, Hannah Waltz at