Course Syllabus

Memoir and Personal Essay: Beyond the Basics

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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:

  • 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:

  • writing exercises
  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay for instructor and/or peer review (up to 2,500 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.