Memoir Craft

Stories that Happen: the Craft and Theory of Memoir

Once the purview of celebrities and literary figureheads, the memoir has burgeoned over the last ten years. In fact, USA TODAY claims that publication of memoirs now outpaces debut novels. In this course, we will survey the expanding field of creative non-fiction and delve into its literary and historical origins. We will explore the boundaries between memoir and autobiographical fiction, and we will develop our abilities to write and critique life stories in prose and narrative poetry. Ultimately, we will address the new phenomenon of memoir-writing in relation to the genres of fiction and poetry to discover how memoirs redefine the complex and quasi-contractual relationship between reader and author, and between world and word. Course texts include William Zinnsser’s Inventing the Truth; Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes; Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking; Carol Moldaw’s The Widening; Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory; Phillip Lopate’s Getting Personal; Alexis Stamatis’ American Fugue; and David Logan’s The Body of Brooklyn. Students will make a presentation based on assigned reading; write a journal of thirty pages based on class assignments; write two short essays/stories of five pages and one term paper of at least ten pages


One 20 minute presentation on an aspect of “Stories that Happen” based on assigned reading.
A journal of thirty typed double-space pages, based on class assignments.
Two short essays/stories of five pages.
One term essay/story of at least ten pages.
Note: All work handed in must be written during the semester.


To survey the burgeoning field of creative non-fiction and delve into its literary and historical origins; to explore the boundaries between memoir and autobiographical fiction; to develop abilities to write and critique life stories; to delve into our own life stories for writing material; to inculcate and develop good writing habits.


Discussion of student writing; presentation and discussion of works by established writers; discussion of various approaches to writing memoirs and autobiographical fiction.


Zinsser, Inventing the Truth; Thiel, The White Horse; Mooney, Going Out Foreign; Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory; McCourt, Angela’s Ashes; Kingston, The Woman Warrior; Lynch, The Undertaking; Logan, The Body of Brooklyn; Stamatis, American Fugue; Lopate, Getting Personal.


Class work: 25%
Journal: 25%
Two short essays: 25%
Long essay: 25%


Week 1: Stories that Happen, Zinsser, “Introduction;” McCourt, “Learning to Chill Out;” Angela’s Ashes

Week 2: The Shape of a Life, Gates, “Lifting the Veil;” Angela’s Ashes

Week 3: The Shape of a Story, Angela’s Ashes Dillard, “To Fashion a Text;” The Woman Warrior

Week 4: The Rhythm of Memory, Kazin, “The Past Breaks Out;” The Woman Warrior

Week 5: Self and Memory, American Fugue

Week 6: Self and Other, American Fugue, Conway, “Points of Departure;” The White Horse

Week 7: Self and Family, Updike, “Life with Mother;” The Body of Brooklyn

Week 8: Memory and Culture, The Body of Brooklyn, Frazier, “Looking for My Family;” Breath, Eyes, Memory

Week 9: Genres of Memory, Morrison, “The Site of Memory;” Breath, Eyes, Memory

Week 10: Memory and Fiction, The Widening

Week 11: The Deep Past, Getting Personal

Week 12: Self and Work, The Undertaking

Week 13: Memory and Ideas, Simpson, “Poets in My Youth;” The Undertaking

Week 14: Workshops/ Presentations

Week 15: Workshops/ Presentations