seminar: the memoir

Framing a Memoir:  Being Extraordinary

This class will introduce writers to the memoir, one of most hotly debated forms of creative non fiction of our day.  The class is open to writers of varying levels of experience, from beginners to advanced, and will focus on the skills necessary to craft from the jumble of an ordinary life a compelling tale filled with narrative energy.

Class members will learn to mine their own memories and life experiences for material they will then turn into ten to fifteen page autobiographical essays with an emphasis on form and plot.  In order to more deeply acquaint ourselves with the short form memoir we will read classics in the field, focusing on Best American Essays of 2006, a volume that is almost exclusively memoir, as well as the journal Creative Non Fiction, this nation’s premier place to publish short memoir.

One of the challenges of writing memoir is transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.  Our lives, after all, on a day to day level, are filled with quotidian moments that do not seem worthy of inclusion in an autobiographical essay.  By learning to look at these moments from new vantage points, writers will gain experience rendering day to day activities in language both lyrical and compelling.

We will hone our skills by keeping a daily journal/log in which we will explore the themes that most speak to who we are, and then practice casting those themes into full length autobiographical essays.  While a class member has the right to keep portions of their journal private, there will also be the expectation that we share, within and only within the seminar, the insights we glean from undergoing the daily practice of keeping a journal.  The class will focus to some degree on how to successfully build one’s journal keeping skills, exploring the dream journal, the free writing journal, the morning journal, the memory journal, and other forms of recording one’s life, all for the purpose of churning up material suited for the short memoir.

We will learn how to create a map of an autobiographical essay before we begin writing, so that we have a guide as we go about the business of composing our own lives.  Emphasis will also be placed on revision, a necessary part of the art and craft of any writing endeavor and especially so for the memoir.  It is during the re-visioning process that we learn to look anew at our lives and recast scene and image so that they better suit the essay at hand.

Class members will share their written work in a seminar style.  Work to be discussed will be xeroxed and handed out the week before. Class members will be expected to carefully read their colleagues’ essays and to hone their abilities to render insightful comments that forward the writer’s intentions in terms of the essay at hand.  The goal of feedback will be to first understand the writer’s intentions and then to suggest alternative strategies that might bring the writer closer to his or her goal.

All class members will learn how to construct a scene, a theme, and a plot, these the three seminal elements in any form of narrative writing.

The class will be divided up into three phases.  Phase one will be focused on reading autobiographical essays and on learning to keep a writers’ journal, with class discussion focusing on both of these things.  In this segment we will become reacquainted with our own lives and will  come to see how our ordinary day to day activities can in fact be mined and honed so that they resonate in any essay.

We will learn, through the act of discovery what all writing is, what themes are closest to our hearts, and we will use this knowledge in phase two.  The second segment is where we begin to compose our own short memoirs, using the insights gleaned from journal writing and class discussion, as well as our own on going self knowledge, to construct powerful stories of self-in-society.

Phase three will focus on how to market one’s work.  We will explore the market for the short memoir (a market that is very active right now, with many literary magazines looking for personal essays), and learn how to write query letters that get editors’ attention.  Every student will research the magazine market and cull from his or her research at least one magazine or journal that seems to best fit with that student’s output, and then make a submission.  We will also have a visit from a literary agent and an editor in phase three so that students can learn what it is they are looking for in submissions from unknown writers.

By the end of this class students will be able to:

  • journal in three different forms for the purpose of self discovery that feeds the autobiographical essay
  • discover themes that are currently resonant in a student’s life
  • use these themes to build the short form autobiographical essay or short form memoir
  • create a map of an essay prior to writing it
  • construct scenes with narrative tension
  • construct effective dialogue
  • construct a plot with a firm beginning, middle and end
  • understand the role of conflict and tension in the creation of any narrative work
  • revise work based in part on the suggestions of others
  • critique work in a constructive fashion
  • better understand the publishing world and how it works, specifically vies a vies the short form memoir
  • submit work to an appropriate publication
  • write a successful query letter to accompany the submission
  • understand the difference between the individual and the simultaneous submission
  • identify published short form memoirs of power and resonance

Class length:  12 weeks, 90 minutes 1x per week, day of week TBA

Class to begin in late January

Class size:   limited to 14

To register contact Laura Vilain at

Class Instructor:  Lauren Slater who has published eight books, six of them memoirs. Slater’s book Lying, a Metaphorical Memoir, set off a firestorm of controversy and was named one of the three best memoirs of 2000 by The Washington Post Book World and one of the ten best memoirs of 2000 by

Slater’s work has been translated into 17 languages and her autobiographical essays appear frequently in O, Self, Elle, Vogue, Harpers and many other publications.  She is the recipient of a 2004 National Endowment For The Arts grant and a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT. Her book Opening Skinner’s Box, Great Psychological Experiments Of The 20th Century was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Award for excellence in science writing and won The Bild Der Wissenchaft Award in Germany for the most groundbreaking science book of the year.  Slater is co-founder of inkK, a literary and arts initiative in Harvard, MA.  Please make suggestions for literary/arts programs you would like to see in Harvard.