Teaching Memoir Class

My friend, Cheryl and I are teaching a non-credit class on Memoir at a community college. This is the third year we’ve done it. We make a good team because she is more left brained and I’m definitely right brained! She has to “herd the cats” once in a while when I go off on a tangent.

Many in the class are older people since it’s noncredit and the college offers a senior discount. Plus, many are interested in memoir since they want to leave a legacy for their children and grandchildren.

This is our 5th week of the 8-week course. Our group is small this time, which makes it fun because we have more time to “free write” from prompts and discuss memoir. Cheryl and I take turns being the “lead” instructor.

This week, I’m the lead, so I’m organizing the material I plan to go over. Having taught it a few semesters, we have our classes pretty well set. It’s good to change some things up now and then, though. The students may be different but Cheryl and I get bored if we do the exact same thing every semester. But, we stick to the same information. We just “color” it a little differently each time.

Tonight I will be talking about research. The reaction of some people is “Augh!” But we have a good time, discussing how to add setting and emotion to your memoir by researching events, trends and styles of the time. The prompt I will have the students do tonight has elicited positive responses in the past.

I have them choose from the following events and write things they remember about that event.

  • The Assassination of John Kennedy
  • The First Moon Landing
  •  The Bombing of the World Trade Center

Then I ask them to write down the answers to these questions from memory:

  1.  What was the date and day of the week of the event?
  2. What time did it happen?
  3. Where did it take place?
  4. What was the weather like?
  5. What were you wearing that day?
  6. How old were you?
  7. How old were your parents?
  8.  Who was the anchorman or reporter who broke the news?

We share the answers and people are usually surprised at what they don’t remember. I make the point that that is why we do research when we write a memoir. It spices up the story if you can add details about world events or tidbits of information instead of writing, “Grandma was born in 1956 in Omaha, Nebraska.” By relating events of the time, it puts the reader in the era that the memoir is taking place.

I will also go over how to interview Grandma or whoever the memoir is about. By asking people to tell their stories, you can add dialogue to the memoir. Written documents, first person interviews or recordings are the gold standard, but if Grandma is dead, what do you do?

You can use representative dialogue if you don’t have access to the actual words. Capturing the “spirit” of what was said and the emotion of the speaker(s), brings color to the memoir.

I remind the students that memoir is in their POV (point of view). It’s their story even if the subject is primarily Grandma. The writer’s POV gives the reader insight into the author’s relationship to the subject.

In the early weeks of the class, we talk about “theme.” Memoir isn’t autobiography where you tell your life’s story from birth to the present. Memoir is a “slice of life” and has a theme. For example, the memoir I am currently working on is about my friend, Mary, who was killed in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. My theme is “dealing with the sudden loss.”

In my memoir, I use backstory to show my relationship with Mary growing up together in small town Nebraska.  I use dialogue that is representative of what we talked about. I don’t have the actual words we said, but I know the “spirit” and the language/slang we used.

We have a lot of fun in the memoir class. Writing seems to create a bond between people. This year, two women returned to take the class again! I joked, saying, “Didn’t you guys learn anything the first time?” They laughed and said they wanted to take the class again because they had so much fun last year. Taking a non-credit class like our memoir class also motivates people to keep writing.

Each week, we cover a different aspect. So far, we’ve talked about journaling (first step in memoir! Get your thoughts down!) Mapping your story, using photographs to elicit memories. (A photograph can give you a lot of information. When you look at a photo, notice not only the people and how they are dressed, but what is the occasion? Does it look like it was summer or winter? Is there wallpaper on the walls. (Describing wall paper or books on a shelf can add to your setting.) Why do you think the picture was taken? Who do you think took the picture? All these things can add to your story.

We usually begin the class with a prompt. The prompts vary so that people can learn different ways of expressing things. In one of the first classes, we do the “Six Word Memoir” based on the legend that Hemingway was challenged to write a memoir in 6 words. He wrote: “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn.”

A later prompt is  “I am from” where we write several lines starting with “I am from…” like “I am from Floyd and Tina who took the train from NYC to North Platte, Nebraska.” “I am from small town Nebraska surrounded by alfalfa fields and the smell of livestock.” “I am from the University nursing program.” etc.

I enjoy teaching the non-credit course. I helps me hone my own writing skills as well as the joy of sharing stories with others.

Memoir is a very popular genre right now. Consider writing yours!

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“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what yo have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” Natalie Goldberg

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou

“Pirates were always going around searching for treasure. They never realized that the real treasure was the fond memories they were creating.” Humorist Jack Handey

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