Teaching Memoir: Memoir Writing Classes in NYC

March 23, 2010

By definition, anyone can write a memoir: “a narrative composed of personal experience.” Our lives are already narratives. People who write memoirs make a conscious decision to put their narrative on paper to share with the rest of the world.

But what should come first: the desire to write a memoir or a particularly jarring moment in one’s personal narrative?

With the recent rise of classes offering to help people write their own memoir, it would seem the former.

Fordham University offers a class called “Writing Autobiography/Memoir.” It is a class open to both undergraduate and graduate students and the course description states:

“It’s been said that the memoir now has the authority once accorded to fiction. True or not, periodical publications have expanded the space they devote to personal writing, often contracting the space once accorded to the short story. It is increasingly common for fiction writers to write personal essays. This class is a workshop in the personal essay where we will spend most of our time critiquing your works in progress. Since the techniques of memoir are indistinguishable from those of fiction, we will concentrate on dialogue, exposition, scene, character, managing narrative time (past, present, future) and, most of all, the development of a persona.”

Photo: Oprah

I happen to love memoirs by people who aren’t famous. A memoir doesn’t need to be filled with high-profile celebrities to catch my attention or Oprah’s (don’t worry, I’ll devote a whole post to James Frey). But can one be taught how to write a memoir? Are the people taking these classes only searching for fame, similar to people who sign up for reality shows?

Fordham University isn’t alone: New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies offers “Writing Your Memoirs,” a 12-week class, where, for $450, students can learn to, as the title hints at, write their own memoirs. The class description states:

You don’t need to be a writer to craft a memoir. The core of writing a memoir is the idea that we each have an individual, meaningful story to tell through a process involving remembering, reimagining, and recording the past. Students work on developing a style, presenting an authentic voice, and elevating personal experience into compelling prose. Learn how to bring focus and clarity to a memoir through writing exercises, analysis of memoirs, and guidance as well as through discussions of plot, structure, description, point of view, and dialogue.”

You don’t have to be a writer to write a memoir? Something about that doesn’t seem right. Do you need to have published other works to write a memoir? No, but you do need to be able to write to write a memoir. By emphasizing that you don’t need writing experience to write a memoir, are these classes only providing students with false hope?

I honestly don’t know the answer to that question or the others I posed, but I’ll find out tomorrow. Tomorrow evening I’m taking the subway out to Brooklyn to attend a free memoir writing class offered by Gotham Writers’ Workshop and hosted by Melissa Febos, author of the memoir “Whip Smart.”

If you don’t hear from me, it means the class was a success and I’ve given up blogging to write my memoir.

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