University of Iowa

Shaping the Memoir and Personal Essay

Weeklong June 09 to June 14 2019

The late 19th-century American novelist Frank Norris titled one of his critical essays “Fiction Is Selection.” The same holds true for memoir. When we tell stories from our lives—whether it’s in a short essay, a series of essays, a memoir, or even a full-blown autobiography—we must be selective in what we tell in large part to give our story a shape. What that shape might or should be is one of the biggest questions memoirists and essayists wrestle with. The “shape” of a memoir encompasses a range of issues: Where should the memoir begin and end? What should the overall organization of the work look like? Should I tell my story chronologically or use some other organizing principle—and what should that be? Does everything need to be tied closely together? Do I need to have a thematic arc? Should I focus on selected representative incidents, or should I try to be as comprehensive as I can? To what extent should I use narrative? Is my writing more about my personal character or about my life events? Our week will help you work through such questions and in so doing help you determine how your own story can best be told and how the decisions you make form the larger shape of your writing. Workshop activities will include exercises, discussion of readings, and workshopping your own writing. 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 guided exercises and prompts; provide feedback on writing you bring from home or produce in our week.