Photo Illustrated and Provided by Juliette Borda

When I attended the free Gotham Writers’ Workshop almost two weeks ago, I sat next to a woman who caught my attention when she asked about writing a memoir for children. Juliette Borda, 42, an illustrator and Brooklyn resident, recently answered some questions for me about her views on memoir:

1. Define memoir.

One’s recounting of what they consider to be pivotal or transformative events in their lives; the story of the struggles that built their character. It’s the writer’s job to turn the random series of events in their life into a story and to find meaning in the events.

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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?

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