Memoir assignment


Target length: 750–1000 wds

As its name implies, the memoir is rooted in the writer’s own lived experience, his or her memories and observations. The memoir, or personal essay, may focus on a significant event in your life, a meaningful relationship, an important object or place, or some pattern, thread, or theme that weaves through your life. The tricky part about this particular version of the memoir assignment, though, is that you’ll need to choose a part of your life that connects to your chosen theme.

BRAINSTORM: Spend a good deal of time meditating on a germ, kernel, core for this essay. Think about all of the different ways that this theme has played out in your life, the objects and activities and people and events that in some way connect to this theme. For example, if I had chosen business as my theme, I could write about any one of several jobs I’ve held: working in the dish room in college and what it taught me about the satisfactions of manual labor, the challenges of strategy in what may seem like mindless work; working at the salad factory one summer, when I sometimes spent eight hours boiling and peeling eggs and learning the social conventions of the break room; later in my adulthood working as an at-home freelance editor and the difficulties of balancing work and motherhood.  Or I could write about family finances, contrasting my mother’s penciled monthly budgets with my own more “amorphous” accounting methods or how the allowance question was handled when I was a child vs. now that I’m a parent. Or, as a third alternative, I could write about myself as a shopper; since books are my most important purchase, I could explore how my book-buying experience has changed through the decades. We will be spending time in class discussing options and, hopefully, inspiring each other. Once you decide on a topic, collect up some details, and think about how you can narrow it down enough so that you have room to make your experience come to life through some of those details.

DRAFT: In your rough draft, concentrate on getting down the details of the experience (or person, place, thing, idea). Your task is much like a fiction writer’s: to capture lived experience in concrete detail, so that your reader feels almost as if he or she is living it as well. Describe setting, develop character (dialogue is often a particularly good way to do this). Write not a hazy, hasty pencil sketch of an idea, but rather fill in your picture with detail and color.

FOCUS: As you are writing (maybe before or after as well) think about the “point” of this essay. Think about your reader. How does your experience connect to something more universal, to something your reader may have experienced or care about. What are you finally trying to say about this hacked-off corner of your experience? How do you view this experience from your present-day viewpoint? You may not have a neat little lesson to impart, but your sense of the meaning of the experience should have clarified at least a little in the writing.

REVISION: See the revision section under the Writing tab for some info about revising, editing, and proofreading.

GRADING CRITERIA: I will evaluate your essays on the basis of

  • the sharpness of the details you use to evoke experience
  • the thoughtfulness with which you reflect on the experience
  • the grace of your language
  • the mechanical correctness of your prose (for this essay focus in particular on avoiding sentence boundary errors).

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