General info:
How it works
Too Many Emails?
Listserv Settings
Contact Us

Critiquing Lists:
Child/Young adult

Discussion Lists:

The IWW Blog Writing Advice

Other Topics:
Our administrators
Other writing lists
Books on writing
IWW History
Showcase of Successes

IWW Practice-W Exercise Archives
Exercise: Memoir

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/).

Exercise: Memoir
Prepared by: Carter Jefferson
Posted on: 10/15/2006

Exercise: In 500 words or less, show us a scene you remember that includes your feelings and what you learned from the incident. It should include a beginning, middle, and end.


Memoirs are big sellers these days.

Vivian Gornick, whose Fierce Attachments has been considered a classic of the genre, says a memoir should "shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom." It's not a resumé, a simple record of someone's life, but a narrative, like an old-fashioned novel. Writers must produce scenes in which they relive important moments, showing not only "what happened" but how they felt when it happened, what they learned from the experience, and how it affected their lives.

Almost nobody thinks it's right to spend one night in jail and write a "memoir" that tells readers the writer lived through six months in prison, but how "true" must a memoir be? Critics, scholars, and readers debate this fiercely. Few of us can recall exact words spoken in the past, so nearly everyone is willing to accept dialogue that amounts to the writer's best recollection. Whether one may conflate experiences, that is, take parts of several conversations and make them one, or relate a trip to the riverbank that's actually a combination of several such trips, is at the heart of the argument. When you write your memoir, you'll automatically choose a side in this controversy. You don't have to say which, but you do have an obligation to the reader and to yourself to understand the reasons behind your choice.

If you learn something from an experience, and let the reader vicariously live that experience, the reader will understand your feelings and may learn something as well. In your memoir, telling us you shot a rabbit is not enough. You must show us your feelings, and make clear how this event affected you. The experience doesn't have to be earth-shaking; it can be something as ordinary as learning to ride a bike or roller blade. Or it could be as life-changing as adopting a child.

Memoirs, like novels or stories, are made up of scenes. A scene has a beginning, a middle, and an end--it follows a narrative arc. It includes a setting, at least one character, and some sort of action.


Exercise: In 500 words or less, show us a scene you remember that includes your feelings and what you learned from the incident. It should include a beginning, middle, and end.

In your critiques, let the writer know whether the scene rings true; whether you know the writer's feelings, and can understand them; and whether you can see any part of what the writer may have learned about life, and about herself or himself. Did the scene meet the requirements listed in the exercise?

Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.