University of Iowa

The Literary Memoir

Weekend June 22 to June 23 2019

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 rendering of personal narratives is increasingly considered valuable and, as luck would have it, marketable in the literary world. But what makes a memoir literary, how do these works best function, and how are they differentiated from autobiography, anecdotal prose, or simple recollection? Perhaps more importantly, considering the flood of memoir manuscripts on the market—the Neilson 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, discuss the elements that comprise a memorable literary memoir, and work to engage and understand the idea that memoir is less interested in the past than the act of remembering and identifying the many ways past selves continue to inform who we are in the present. Students will develop ideas, a conceptual framework, and key excerpts through in-class and take-home exercises. You’ll leave, in other words, with all you need to tell, and sell, your story.


In this workshop we will generate new writing through guided exercises and prompts.

Hybrid Forms