Course Syllabus

Thirty-Minute Memoir

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Manageable daily writing assignments will help you break down the task of writing a memoir.

Patterned after our popular Boot Camp course, this class is designed to help break the potentially overwhelming task of writing a memoir into manageable daily writing. Each week will focus on a different aspect of memoir writing, from opening chapters to scenes involving dialogue. Monday through Thursday, you will be encouraged to post 300 words of new writing, and at the end of the week you will choose 800 words from the week’s work (or elsewhere) to submit to your instructor for comment. This course will help you tackle your memoir by providing firm deadlines, writing exercises, and weekly feedback. Along the way you’ll also develop the habit of writing regularly. After 10 weeks, if you’ve completed the minimum number of assignments, you’ll have written between 4,000 and 8,000 words.

In order to receive instructor feedback each week, you must complete the following activities:

  • post 300 words per day on at least 3 weekdays
  • post a paragraph of comments on the work of at least two fellow students at some point during the week or weekend

Week 1: Find Your Focus

A memoir needs a focal point on which the writer can build, but many writers dive into their first draft without knowing what their focus is. During Week 1 you will identify the focus of your book (or think of ways to fine-tune that focus on an existing project). The writing this week will help identify and hone the central idea of your memoir.

Week 2: The Shape of Your Narrative

A book-length memoir offers many possibilities for structure: should the narrative be chronological, braided, retrospective? You will explore possible shapes for your memoir, and this week’s writing prompt provides options for trying out (or polishing) different structures.

Week 3: Points of Tension

A memoir needs an overall story arc, but it must also have points of tension throughout that keep the reader hooked from chapter to chapter. This week’s lecture and writing will explore ways of creating tension at different points in your larger narrative.

Week 4: Summary & Reflection

Two of the most pivotal elements of nonfiction are summary and reflection—this week, we’ll study the difference between the two, as well as how to use them effectively.

Week 5: Scene

Scene, in memoir, is both necessary and challenging. We’ll study how and when to use scene instead of summary to both illustrate and engage the reader. We’ll also look at descriptive detail.

Week 6: Time Travel

As we enter the second half of the course, we delve into “time travel”—the intriguing literary elements of flashback, flash-forward, and foreshadowing. These devices provide context to the narrator’s state of mind and contribute to narrative flow, but they also help shape a memoir’s theme.

Week 7: Writing about People

People are the most important element of a memoir, in that a reader’s interest in all the book’s events is founded on his or her interest in the people who lived through those events. During this week, we’ll consider how to write about people in ways that readers will find engaging.

Week 8: A Sense of Place

The setting in which your book takes place can be an essential part of the story you want to tell; in many cases, the setting can be a character in and of itself. This week, you will learn how to create a sense of place in your memoir.

Week 9: Research

While personal experiences are the core of any memoir, research can play an equally important role. Memoir research can range from information gathering on the internet to in-depth discussions with friends and family, and we’ll look at ways to gather research information and use it in your memoir.

Week 10: Revision and Your Story’s End

In the final days of the course, you will learn strategies for revision and revise some pieces from earlier in the class. We will also address the essential question: How will your book end? Writing without any sense of an endpoint often causes authors to get stuck halfway through their book, so during this final week, we’ll discuss some possibilities for endings.

Q: What if I have a busy week coming up (or I’m going out of town) and can’t post 300 words during any of the days during the week? Can I post everything on the weekend?

A: You must post 300 words per day on at least 3 weekdays in order to receive feedback, so posting everything at the end of the week is not an option. However, if you know that you have a busy week coming up, you can complete your minimum 3 posts during the preceding weekend and post them all at the beginning of the week. Simply ask the instructor for the upcoming writing prompts.

Q: Do I have to post my work at any particular time of day?

A: No. You can post your work at any time of day or night, but you must post on 3 separate weekdays to get credit for posting 3 times in the week.

Q: What if I get caught up in a writing session and write more than 300 words?

A: Great! You can post as much material as you write on a given day. Keep in mind, however, that your classmates may not have time to comment on these longer posts. And, at the end of the week, you will still need to choose 800 words for your instructor and classmates to comment on.

Q: What kind of feedback will the instructor give?

A: Your instructor will provide feedback on the 800-word post that you submit each Friday. She will also be engaged in class discussions during the weekdays to supplement that week’s topic.

Q: What if I don’t want to write about the topic assigned for a given week? 

A: No problem. The goal of the Thirty-Minute Memoir is to help you make progress on your book. If you want to write some parts of the book other than what is being discussed that week, you are always welcome to do so.