Begin Writing Your Memoir: 5-Week Online Course

Memoir Class

This class is not currently available.

Memoir, as William Dean Howells said, is the “most democratic province of the republic of letters.” Indeed, the genre is evidence that every person in the world has a worthy story to tell, that it’s not what the story is but how it’s told that engages a reader. This five-week course is designed to introduce students to this generous genre and to start them down the path of putting their own stories to paper. Students will explore everything from how to select a subject and structure to the pivotal role of narrative voice, the impact of pacing, and the benefits of research.

We will also discuss ethical questions: What does it mean to write about one’s family? How does one approach inevitable lapses in memory? Whose truth is being told? Why write memoir to begin with? Along the way, students will read excerpts from full-length memoirs and be given a list of Further Reading recommendations.

Finally, students will be given writing exercises and assignments designed to inspire their own projects. By the end of the five weeks, students should have a solid grasp of memoir’s basics and be well on their way to having a story that has long been in their heads emerging onto the page.

Who should take this course

  • Those who have long been wanting to start their memoirs but never quite gotten around to it.
  • Those looking for fresh approaches to factual material and in search of new models for inspiration.
  • Those who have a story to tell and are looking for a reason to sit down and tell it in a supportive environment.
  • Those hoping to develop their observational, descriptive, figurative, and narrative muscles.
  • Those wanting to think deeply about how their past selves became their present self.
  • Those with a story to tell. Which means anybody.

About the InstructorNell Boeschenstein

Nell Boeschenstein has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University and a BA in English from Dartmouth College. She currently teaches essay, memoir, personal essay, and feature writing at Sweet Briar College.

Prior to Sweet Briar, she taught writing for two years at Columbia, and before she began teaching, Nell worked as a producer for the public radio programs Fresh Air with Terry Gross and BackStory with the American History Guys, and as a writer and editor for weeklies and magazines.

Her work has appeared The Guardian, Ecotone, Newsweek, The Believer, The Rumpus, The Millions, Guernica, and The Morning News, where she is a contributing writer, among other places, and her essays have been featured by Longreads and Longform.

Her writing has been anthologized in Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living and The Rumpus Women, Vol. 1 and her radio work has been featured on 99% Invisible. She has received residency fellowships from the Ucross Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Albee Foundation, as well as numerous college grants. She is at work on a collection of essays—personal, reported, and lyric—themed to the idea of “lost colonies.”

Nell most definitely challenged me and my writing by always encouraging me to "push it a bit further." She is a great teacher!

Student at Sweet Briar

The way Nell teaches is very rich and unique. Her class made me a more confident, and a better writer.

Student at Sweet Briar

Nell teaches in a way that is both engaging, amusing and educational. She had a lot of patience and always demonstrated her interest in teaching her students how to be better writers. I highly recommend her courses.

Student at Sweet Briar

Basic Registration ($125)

  • Weekly slide-based lectures, each examining a different approach to the genre through examples that offer insight into how to approach subject and structure. Incorporated throughout the lectures are basic writing tips intended to help you draft two or three of your own personal essays.
  • Two weekly recommended readings, one to reinforce the lecture of the previous week and one to introduce topics that will be covered the following week.
  • Short examples of work that illustrate the lessons of each lecture and provide fodder for emulation.
  • Weekly writing assignments for completion at your own pace and designed to help you find your writing “voice” and identify the stories and ideas about which you are passionate.
  • Writing prompts to help jog the memory and exercise and strengthen the muscles of observation.
  • Weekly online office hours (1 hour) where you can chat with Nell in real time via Zoom (video, audio, and text).

Advanced Registration ($175)

Everything in the basic package plus:

  • A critique of your writing at the end of the course. Nell will give you a written critique of up to 3,000 words of a work sample you choose.
  • 30-minute one-on-one meeting at your request (via phone or Zoom), where you'll discuss the critique. Nell will help you understand your strengths and provide direction and encouragement, while looking at both the style and content of your writing.

Technology Platforms Used for This Course

  • This course is conducted entirely online, so you'll need a reliable internet connection.
  • Course materials, lectures, and assignments will be available to view and download through a private course site hosted by Jane Friedman.
  • A private, invitation-only Facebook group will be created so you can receive course updates and information about weekly office hours, as well as interact with other students and the instructor. To participate, you must have a personal Facebook account.
  • Live office hours with the instructor will be conducted through Zoom, which works on virtually all types of devices (Mac/PC, tablet, and mobile). You can join using a webcam if you have one, or you can join with audio only. If needed, you can also join by phone.
  • One-on-one meetings will be conducted through Zoom, Skype, or phone—to be arranged based on your preferences and instructor availability.
  • Written critiques for advanced students will be delivered privately via email.
Example of what the course site looks like—click to enlarge
Example of PowerPoint lecture—click to enlarge
Example of what the Zoom meeting room looks like (without people)—click to enlarge

Weekly Schedule (Subject to Change)

Week 1: Introduction and Deciding on Your Story. The first week offers students an overview of memoir. We’ll start with some historical context, then tackle some pros and cons of the genre before delving into the process of identifying a story to tell and the themes that will imbue it with universal relevance. Finally, we will explore how to begin mapping out one’s story so that – hopefully – the blank page will begin to feel less intimidating than inspiring.

Week 2: The First Person Voice and Structural Approaches. We will tackle the importance of the writer’s voice as a unifying device and discuss the critical roles honesty and vulnerability play in building a convincing self as storyteller. We will examine the way the author’s voice must balance elements of narration and reflection, past selves and present self. We will then turn to a discussion of structure and, using memoir excerpts as models, lay out possible approaches– chronological, thematic, associative. Finally, we will look briefly at graphic memoirs and consider the storytelling possibilities that emerge with the marriage of text and image.

Week 3: Narrative Arc, Building Tension, and Constructing Character. We’ll start to look more closely at how to map a story in a way that allows for maximum narrative momentum while also allowing room for elements such as setting and the evolution of themes. Familiarity with the self-as-storyteller from the lessons of Week Two under our belts, we will expand the discussion to include how to introduce and develop the other people who populate the world of one’s memoir. Where to begin a story, detail selection, and the benefits and drawbacks of working within the constraints of reality are all additional territory we’ll cover in this third class.

Week 4: Memory and Filling in the Gaps with Research. The search for truth is eternal, but we’ll do our best to locate what we can of it as it pertains to one’s memoir in our fourth class together. Given the slippery nature of the human memory, we’ll explore ways to augment that fragile organ with research. This could mean anything from diving into the microfiche at the local library to interviewing one’s family members. We will also discuss how and why it can be beneficial to weave social and historical context throughout one’s personal story.

Week 5: Risks, Rewards, and Where Do I Go from Here? In our last class together, we will look at some of the ethical concerns of memoir writing, asking ourselves the tough questions about where our stories overlap with other people’s stories and what it means to tell someone else’s story from one’s own point of view. We’ll be honest about how the airing of family secrets can injure loved ones and damage relationships. At last, we will end with mapping out a plan for moving forward with the memoirs students have begun to write over the past five weeks.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do I have to show up at a specific time? No, all course lectures are available to read and study at your own pace, on your own schedule.
  • When does the course officially start? It officially begins with the posting of the first lecture on Monday, April 17, but you'll have access to the course website upon registration, as well as the private Facebook group shortly after you register.
  • How long will I have access to the course lectures and materials? Indefinitely. The first lecture will be made available on Monday, April 17, and each new lecture will appear on subsequent Mondays. After the course ends on May 21, you will continue to have access to the course website. 
  • Will I get feedback from other students on my work? Peer critique and feedback is not a requirement or key feature of this course, but you will be invited to share and comment on small samples of each other's writing in the Facebook group.
  • Must I have a Facebook account to join the course? Not necessarily, but you'll miss out on conversations and discussion among other students and with the instructor. But you'll still have access to all course curriculum (at the course website), and receive information on how to join office hours with Nell.
  • What if I can't make office hours? Office hours are optional and will be recorded for those who can't attend. You are welcome to send questions to Nell in advance of office hours, to bring up for discussion, if you can't make it.
  • If I sign up for the advanced registration, how long do I have before I must submit my material to the instructor  for critique? You have until the last day of the course (May 21), but you may ask the instructor for an extension if needed.
  • Will this course be offered again? Possibly, but no future dates are set. It would likely be another 6 months before another session is offered.

If you have a question not answered here, email Jane.