For Students – Memoir

The vast majority of assignments in English composition courses are defined within the borders of the nonfiction genre. Memoir is no different. Memoir is, among other things, a personal story based on facts, the raw material of life, and capital-T Truth. The writer Vivian Gornick claims a memoir achieves Truth “not [simply] through a recital of actual events… [but] when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand” (Gornick 91). From the beginning of a memoir to the end, the narrator and first-person I will be shaped by experience, transformed by events, and, hopefully, deliver some wisdom along the way (Gornick 91). Ultimately, the memoirist tells a personal story that resonates far beyond the first-person singular.

Works Cited:

Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Questions for students:

  • What specific events are recounted in the memoir you’ve read?
  • What principles and / or assumptions seem to guide the author in choosing those events?
  • How does the author develop the events, or make them come to life?
  • How do the authors ascribe meaning/significance to these events?
  • What moments seem most true, most authentic, in these essays? How do you know? Can you know?
  • At what point did you find yourself connecting with the author’s story? Why?
  • Based on these readings, what might you conclude about how to organize a memoir?

Brief and bullet-pointed, this guide emphasizes key moves (show don’t tell, theme, etc.) and audience awareness. Links to various professionally written memoirs are included.

Sure, it promotes a self-publishing school, but also neatly lays out some excellent tips for process: among them, ‘write your memoir truthfully’ and ‘write a memoir you want to read.’

Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays’ is a compelling overview of the challenge of writing strong memoir.