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Project 1: Memoir Writing

Project 1: Memoir

Your first writing project will be to produce a memoir about your life. Memoirs strive to find a “truth” or new knowledge from a painful experience or a similar experience that produces a change in our lives. A memoir seeks to do four of the following things:

1) Say difficult things, including difficult facts hard to admit to.

2) Be harder on yourself than you are on others. The “Golden Rule” is not much use in a memoir. Inevitably you will not portray others just as they would like to be portrayed. But you can at least remember that the game is rigged: only your are playing voluntarily.

3) Try to accept the fact that you are in company with everybody else, in part, a comic (or tragic) figure.

4) Stick to the facts of the experience (s).

---Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction. Random House, 2013.  


General Guidelines

1)   Write the paper in Times New Roman 12-point font with one inch margins.

2)   Write for a minimum of 2-pages but as many as 4-pages, if you are so inclined.

3)   Use the English you already know and do not worry so much about grammar at this point. I am more concerned that you can put emotion in feeling in the writing even if it is slightly imperfect. Always use spell check. Paragraphs are typically 5-8 sentences in length.   

4)   Visual Images or Texts: If you have an image or photo that dramatizes your life experience, please feel free to include that in the in paper. This image can be anything you desire, as long as you believe it applies to the memoir.

5)   Words as Drama: Quite possibly you might wish to reveal your memoir in the form of a play or skit, with actors entering and leaving, while providing the words each speak. This concept is only to be used by those who feel comfortable creating such a work. If you choose to write your memoir as a play or skit, you must include descriptive scenes or changes in scenery. 

6)   Poetry and Proverb: If you have some poem that you wish to include in the paper because it highlights your experience, then please include it. If the poem is in Chinese, do translate it into English, but you can use a Chinese poem or proverb.

7)   Music: If your memoir can be dramatized with a specific piece of music, you can include either the lyrics, in writing, or include a CD with the music copied to it. If the music is in Chinese language, you will have to provide an explanation of the song’s content. The sound of the music itself is revealing. The CD is not a requirement.

8)   Have fun, use your creativity. Our real life experiences are legitimate and worth telling! For example, when I was a little girl, I was always tall and big, eventually becoming quite plump. Of course people made fun of me, but the pain from the jokes only made me stronger. For example, I learned that I was not only a bit fat, but very strong, much stronger than even of most boys. I won front-stroke swimming records, was a captain of a volley ball team, and could run obstacle courses in competition with grace, speed and strength. Big, yes I was, but I had been given special strength to make me an athlete.

9) Pay attention to both sentence and paragraph structure. All paragraphs begin with a topic sentence, or new idea, followed by supporting information or ideas in the remaining sentences. Generally there are a minimum of 5-sentences for each paragraph. Use the Purdue Owl link to help you with sentence and paragraph structure. Beware of fragmenting sentences.

10) Use the spell check on MSWord frequently because it not only helps with spelling, it emphasizes subject-verb agreement problems and misuse of contractions. 


Tips and Websites to Help You Write a Memoir



How to Write a Memoir with Multiple Intelligence Connections

·                            Verbal-Linguistic:write a poem to accompany the memoir

·                            Spatial:create a visual illustration of the memoir and frame it within a clock-face cut-out, conveying it as a special moment

·                            Bodily-Kinesthetic:write a skit based upon the memoir and dramatize it for the class

·                            Logical-Mathematical:graph an autobiographical timeline of your life and note the memoir experience with extra-special images

·                            Musical:select a song to play that matches the theme of your memoir

·                            Interpersonal:create a photo montage of the important persons mentioned in the memoir

·                            Intrapersonal:create a painting that illustrates how this moment in time changed you

·                            Naturalist:if the experience took place in a natural setting, bring in souvenirs of that time and place: polished river stones, dried leaves or flowers, etc.

·                            Existential:create an illustration of how this experience has changed your thoughts about life


2) Generating Ideas for Personal Memoirs

Moore’s memoir exercise from The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction is useful in both beginning and intermediate courses:

“Make a list of six to ten events or circumstances in your own life, or the lives of those very close to you, that still provoke your curiosity. Mine your own life for the events and circumstances that still raise questions in your mind. Once you have the list (and this list should be private - don’t share it with others - and don’t hold back because you think someone else will be looking), pick one of the questions on the list that you are willing to explore.“

The potential questions Moore asks in this exercise are meant to be answered in the memoir. While the memoir tries to make sense of experience, it also shares something in common with the personal essay - the exploration of the question, and the process of trying to arrive at an answer, is at least as important as the answer or resolution you may arrive at.

Writing the memoir is not a simple Q & A with yourself; rather, the complicated process of trying to seek the answers is what makes the memoir engaging to write, and read. Here is an example from Carlos Fuentes’ How I Started to Write:

What happened to this universal language, Spanish, which after the seventeenth century ceased to be a language of life, creation, dissatisfaction, and personal power and became far too often a language of mourning, sterility, rhetorical applause, and abstract power?

Fuentes is constantly questioning and answering, interpreting and analyzing his experience, trying to make sense of why and how he did what he did in order to become a writer. He seeks answers and tries to make sense of his life by interpreting his own experience, the cultural and political life of his time, the meaning of language and literary influence, and by stepping over imagined nationalist borders.


3) From Wikibooks:

Memoir is a specific type of narrative. It is autobiographical in nature but it is not meant to be as comprehensive as biography (which tells the entire life story of a person). Instead, a memoir is usually only a specific "slice" of one's life. The time span within a memoir is thus frequently limited to a single memorable event or moment, though it can also be used to tell about a longer series of events that make up a particular period of one's life (as in Cameron Crowe's film memoir Almost Famous). It is narrative in structure, usually describing people and events that ultimately focuses on the emotional significance of the story to the one telling it. Generally, this emotional significance is the result of a resolution from the conflict within the story. Though a memoir is the retelling of a true account, it is not usually regarded as being completely true. After all, no one can faithfully recall every detail or bit of dialogue from an event that took place many years ago. Consequently, some creative license is granted by the reader to the memoirist recounting, say, a significant moment or events from his childhood some thirty years or more earlier. (However, the memoirist who assumes too much creative license without disclosing that fact is vulnerable to censure and public ridicule if his deception is found out, as recently happened with James Frey and his alleged memoir, A Million Little Pieces.) Furthermore, names of people and places are often changed in a memoir to protect those who were either directly or indirectly involved in the lives and/or event(s) being described.

Common Approaches

Below you will find some typical writing prompts that will allow you to begin writing a narrative or memoir. Remember to stay focused and to tell a story when writing in this genre.

  • "Write about someone significant in your life."
  • "Write about the worst/best, most significant/exciting/boring day of your life."
  • "If you had a chance to talk with a historical/famous/legendary/etc. person, what would you talk about? Explain why."

Sample Assignment

There is not one right or best way to write a narrative or memoir. However, there are certainly better ways to write in this genre than others. Read the following short samples of an "excellent," "needs a little work," and "needs a lot of work" narrative writing assignment! Because it should be a narrative, remember that the writer should be telling a story. All grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors should be cleared up when editing. See Basic Writing/Editing for more help. So the focus will be on content.

Assignment: "Write about someone significant in your life."

Needs a lot of work:

My mom is a significant person in my life. She has always taken good care of me. She looks after my family and does a lot of hard work. My family couldn't make it without my mom. I really love my mom a lot because of all she has done for me. She's a great person. I tell my mom everything. She is probably my closest friend.

*This narrative needs a lot of work. There are very few specific details. Questions that need to be answered are: How does she take good care of you? What kind of hard work does she do? Why is she a great person? What kind of a person is she? What does she do with the information you give her? What kind of sacrifices has she made for the family?

Answering these questions will really improve the writing. The audience wants to know as much interesting information as you can tell them about this topic. Think about all the details you see and hear in a movie or really good book. You don't need to reach that level, but that should be your goal. Giving some specific, personal examples will help the audience understand the writing and enjoy reading it. See the next example for a better response to this assignment.

Needs a little work:

When I was young, I didn't get along very well with my mom. We used to fight a lot and I just didn't understand her. She always seemed to be in my business and trying to snoop around. I've always had really dry eyes. Sometimes they water to compensate or get really red because they're so dry. My mom used to think I'd been crying and bug me to death asking me if someone had hurt my feelings at school! I was a teenager!

But now me and my mom are best friends. I tell her everything and she tells me everything. Sometimes we still disagree, but we've learned to understand and respect each other. We're very different people, but I don't know what I'd do without my mom. She has always supported me and stood behind whatever I've wanted to do or be. She's my biggest fan. In my mom's eyes, I could be the next great world leader, or a famous ballerina, or the first astronaut to live on Mars. It took me a while to realize just how significant my mom is to me, but now that I know, nothing will ever change the way I feel about her.

*This narrative is better than the first one because it has more details and gives some specific examples regarding the writer's relationship to her mom. However, it still needs a little work because even more details could be provided to give the reader a clearer picture of their relationship. For example, the reader doesn't know what has changed in this relationship that led to the two of them becoming like "best friends."


When I was a teenager, I didn't get along very well with my mom. It seemed like we fought on a daily basis and we rarely if ever understood where the other was coming from. I felt so seperate from her and it was impossible to tell her about my problems because all she would ever do is freak out.

I remember one particular fight in perfect clarity. We were having one of our good days - that should've been the first warning sign. I was helping her weed the flower beds, telling her about a conversation that I had had with my boyfriend's mom the previous night. When I was finished telling her about the advice that Janice shared with me about how to reconcile with a friend of mine, my mom grew very quiet. I asked her if something was wrong but she continued to stare at a stubborn dandelion in the middle of her peony bed.

Finally, she looked up at me. Frustration and anger filled her face and tears spilled down her cheeks. "How come you never come to me anymore?" she spat. "Why do you have to go to other moms to talk about your problems? Am I not good enough?"

I didn't really know what to say. I tried to reason with her, explaining that it's normal for teenagers to talk to other parents about personal problems, but all she did was storm off.

That was the day that I realized how much my mom actually meant to me. I knew from her reaction that she felt devalued and even though we had our issues, I also knew that I had a great mom. She had always taken care of me, provided for me, and as a young child, she was my best friend. I wanted that back and from that day on, the two of us worked on communcating better and getting to know each other all over again.

*This is an excellent example of a narrative because it provides necessary details to help the reader understand the relationship between the mother and daughter. In the "needs a little work" example, the writer did not explain how the mom and daughter became "best friends." This is an important and significant detail. It is important to explain the important details as much as possible in a story. To continue this writing, the writer will probably give another example of how things were after they began to understand each other better. This will give the audience a clear picture of the progress of the relationship.


Have you always wanted to write a memoir, but you aren't sure how to start? Well, here's a list of tried-and-true formulas for how to do it.

1. The Victim Memoir

Did your mother give you away as a child to her crazy psychologist? Were you sucked into a cult as a teenager and married against your will to an octogenarian? Did a former lover toss acid into your face, disfiguring you for life? All of these are truly horrific things, and if they happened to you, I certainly don't want to make light of your experiences.

If you did go through something traumatic or unusual, writing your memoir could be incredibly profitable. Real-life tragedy sells, and many have not only survived trying circumstances, but have gone on to write memoirs that inspire the rest of us. If she made it through that, I can do anything, we think. After you write this kind of memoir, expect a phone call from Oprah.

A classic example of the victim memoir is A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer, in which he describes growing up with an exceptionally abusive and sadistic mother.

2. The Survivor Memoir

This is a little different than the victim memoir, because the victim memoir places the author in a situation he or she can't control but simply must endure. Survivor memoirs, on the other hand, describe scenarios in which the author performs feats of strength, intelligence, heroics, or sacrifice to survive. The term "survivor memoir" can also refer to books written about surviving the Holocaust, although not many folks from this time period are left to tell their stories.

If you have survived some sort of terrible natural disaster like a volcano eruption, or you've ever been caught in a bear trap in the wilderness and had to saw off your own leg with a pen knife, you could write a survivor memoir.

A great example of a survivor memoir is Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, which tells the story of an ill-fated mountain climbing expedition. Although Krakauer and others survived to write about it, five members of their climbing party died on Mt. Everest during a terrible storm.

3. The Celebrity Memoir

Are you Madonna? No? That's okay, because celebrity is a relative term anyway. You can write a celebrity memoir for just about anything these days. Were you a child star? A former hand model? A school board president or local judge? Do you hold the world record for eating the most safety pins in three minutes? Are you the child of a famous author, movie star, or athlete? Everybody's got a claim to fame; you just have to find yours to write a celebrity memoir.

A pretty good example of a celebrity memoir is Cash by Johnny Cash. An example of a celebrity memoir that is more exploitative than informative is I Walked the Line by Johnny Cash's first wife Vivian.

4. The Insider Memoir

Perhaps you work in a unique industry or you witnessed something of historical significance. If you have a story to tell that can only be told by someone who was there, you should write an insider memoir. Did you fight in the Sandinista Revolution? Were you employed by Enron in its final days? Have you worked in New York's most exclusive, five-star hotels? Ever been a call girl? You get the picture. If you frequently get asked a lot of questions about your unique perspective at cocktail parties, it's time to write a memoir.

5. The Love Story Memoir

Maybe you can't think of a darn thing that makes you unique enough to write a memoir. But what about love? If you've had a great love in your life, now's the time to write it. Everyone loves a love story, particularly if the lovers have to overcome obstacles to be together.

Check out Love in Condition Yellow by Sopia Raday as a very contemporary example of what makes a love memoir work. The memoir details the marriage of a California liberal to a conservative military man before and during the Iraq War.

1)     Graves, Robert. “Goodbye to All That.”

2)     Johnson, James Weldon. Outcasts in Salt Lake City.







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