University of Iowa

The Literary Memoir

Weekend June 16 to June 17 2018

Once upon a time, long before the Age of Oprah, writers who had lived through something fascinating or terrible or both would turn their experiences into exaggerated works and call them fiction. Nowadays, however, these experiences equally take the form of memoir—ruminative, retrospective narratives that comprise a sub-genre of the diverse and expansive genre we typically call creative nonfiction. What does this mean? It means, for one, that the artful, lyrical rendering of personal narratives is increasingly considered valuable and, as luck would have it, marketable in the literary world; experiences once deemed so humiliating or painful that people hid them are now so remunerative that some writers even make them up. But what makes a memoir literary, how do these works best function, and how are they differentiated from autobiography, anecdotal prose, or simple recollection? Considering the flood of memoir manuscripts on the market—the Nielsen BookScan reports a 400% increase published between 2004 and today—how can we elevate our own personal narratives into artful, meaningful work worthy of readership? In this class, we’ll study and discuss excerpts from some of the most successful and surprising literary memoirs on the market. We will work to engage and understand the idea that memoir is less interested in the past than in the act of remembering and identifying the many ways past selves continue to inform who we are in the present. Perhaps more importantly, students will develop ideas, a conceptual framework, and key excerpts through extensive in-class and take-home exercises, which we’ll read aloud and consider while offering thorough, critical feedback. This course will especially emphasize the evocative and lasting nature of brevity, the significance in subverting a reader’s expectations, and the power inherent to memoirs that invert conceptual and chronological order. You’ll leave, in other words, with all you need to tell, and sell, your story.