The University of Iowa

“Why Would Anyone Be Interested in My Story?”: Making the Ordinary Extraordinary in Memoir & Personal Essay

Weeklong June 14 to June 19 2020

Perhaps the biggest anxiety that memoirists have is whether or not readers would be interested in the personal experiences they wish to share. It is true that there are plenty of memoirs out there about extreme events—dramatically tragic or uplifting personal experiences, stories of overcoming major obstacles, wild professional successes and/or failures, thrilling adventures, and so forth. But as I like to say, every memoir doesn’t need to be about wrestling polar bears in the Arctic. In fact, most memoirs—and the memoirs that people want to both read and write—are, at least in part, much about everyday lives. People are interested in reading about other people who are just like them as much as people who have lived through unusual, dramatic experiences. We seek meaning from others in the everyday as much as we do from the exceptional. What makes a great memoir is how you tell your story, even if it’s one that you think is ordinary. Chances are, there actually is something unique in your life experience that you see as merely ordinary. Even so, there is always something powerful—and often transcendent—about the ordinary, whether it’s the trials and tribulations of your family, everyday routines and interests, or small moments in life. Students of all levels are welcome in this workshop, as are students interested in working with short personal essays, full-length memoirs, or both. Through exercises, readings, and workshopping your own writing, this class will explore techniques of making your story (or part of your story)—no matter how ordinary it is—compelling, even extraordinary, to readers. Students can either bring previously written work for the workshop or write new material during the week.


In this workshop, we will generate new writing through exercises and assignments; critique writing you bring from home; provide feedback on writing you produce in our week.