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Writing the Memoir (Moxley): Introduction

How to write a memoir

Introduction to Writing the Memoir

Teaching and Writing the Memoir 


            A memoir can be one of the most meaningful essays that a student can write and one of the most engaging essays for a teacher to read.  The spirit generated by the memoir can create class fellowship less attainable through subjects requiring pure analysis, description, or narration.  More than any other subject, a memoir demands that a student bring his sensibilities and experiences to school, and when that happens, it is virtually impossible for anyone to accept a mediocrity of passion.  Students and teachers are likely to treat writing as an experience in itself, a means for writers to understand their lives and for teachers to understand their students’ worlds.

             In Terrains of the Heart, Willie Morris writes,

 If it is true that a writer's world is shaped by the experience of childhood and adolescence, then returning at long last to the scenes of those experiences, remembering them anew and living among their changing heartbeats, gives him, as Marshall Frady said, the primary pulses and shocks he cannot afford to lose. I have never denied the poverty, the smugness, the cruelty which have existed in my native state [Mississippi].  Meanness is everywhere, but here the meanness, and the nobility, have for me their own dramatic edge, for the fools are my fools, and the heroes are mine too.

 As a young editor who left his native state for New York City, Willie Morris wrote prolifically about his hot Mississippi youth from the cold Northeast.  His essays on home preserve a way of life in the Delta—a complicated history marked by romance and violence—while he lived in a New York far removed from this past.  We sense when reading Willie Morris’s carefully crafted memories that he is coming to know himself through his writing and, in a broader sense, has resurrected a world that can help others understand their own lives.

            To both student and teacher, this is what I hope teaching and writing the memoir will give you:  a chance to investigate your past, your culture, and your lives in general, and in so doing, create a community of authors who delight in the struggle to write clearly, meaningfully, and correctly.

The Rationale

             By clicking here, or by opening the above tab, Annotated Memoirs, you will go to a list of six types of essays, each of which is hyperlinked to a sample essay and a discussion of it. 

             Each sample annotated essay will have the following:

1.  an introduction that comments on the type of essay and how it may generate good writing from young students;

2.  a link to the essay so you can open or print it;

3.  a discussion of the essay, called “The Craft of the Essay,” which explains the strategy in each paragraph or “part” of the essay so that the teacher and student can see how the memoir was crafted from the bare memory.  This section should encourage teacher and student to scrutinize the essay together during a read-aloud session to determine how they think the memory was turned into memoir;

4.  an “Assignment” section that gives the student some specific questions to answer that might help them see the further craft of the particular memoir.

Teaching Strategies

             As with any assignment, the teaching strategy depends on the size of the class, the amount of time allotted for the assignment, how much it is weighted, and so forth.

            Ideally, teaching the memoir should take 6-7 nights of homework.  These nights could be spaced over the course of two-three weeks.

            You could also make it a lighter assignment and cut it to 3-4 assignments, with only one rough draft, instead of the two I suggest.


Homework Assignment #1: 

             The teacher/class decides which category of memoir they will read together as a class to introduce the assignment.  For example, you may choose from the Annotated Memoirs to read the Writing about Death and Mortality assignment and its sample annotated essay “Death of a Pig” by E. B. White.  For this night’s homework, the students should print out the assignment and essay at home to bring to class as their text.  They should read the essay, read the “Craft of the Essay” discussion, and then answer on paper the questions under the “Assignment” section. 

            In class the next day, read the essay aloud (or as much of it as possible), go over the “Craft of the Essay” and finish the day having the students explain their responses to the “Assignment.”

            If there is any time left, you might get the students to discuss the topic, “Where does memory begin?” (Click here for a passage from Willie Morris's Taps to get the ball rolling.)

 Homework Assignment #2:

             Open the Sample Topics and Essays tab to find numerous topics and sample essays.  Decide whether everyone is going to write the same type of essay or whether the topic will be open to a variety of memoirs.  Then read a few sample essays for the topic you choose. 

Written homework is to sit for 40 minutes and do a “fast write,” in which the student writes about half of the first draft of the memory, paying no attention to grammar, style, syntax, or organization. This assignment is to get the student to write or type 2-3 pages of his memory with some, but minimal, revision (the revision should take place after the fast-write).  Click on the tab, Tips for Writing the Memoir, for some help getting started after the fast-write.

            In class the next day, students will read aloud what they have written.  The object is to hear one or two inspiring accounts so that each student can “get the hang of the assignment.”  The teacher should be pushing everyone to develop his “voice.”   Again, see Tips for Writing the Memoir for a discussion of voice and other terms.

 Homework Assignment #3: 

             Continue where the students left off in Assignment #2 and try to write 4-5 handwritten, or 3-4 typed, pages.  If someone does not like what he/she did in Assignment #2, then start anew.

            In class the next day, have the students read aloud their work.  By the end of this day everyone should have read his/her essay at least once, either on this day or the day before.  The teacher should keep track of who has read.  Again, note how distinct the students’ written voices are, and who is putting in moments of self-reflection and not getting hung up on chronological retelling.

 Homework Assignment #4:

             By this time the students should know the focus of their essay (in other words, what wisdom, revelation, or general idea that their essay is revealing) and should begin “crafting,” or creatively organizing, the memory to become a memoir.

            It is crucial that the student realize that facts are not solely important.  Good memoirs are a blend of fact and creation; this concept will be tough to defend, but the writers of memoir have flexibility regarding the facts of the memory, since it is the “truth” of the memory they are creating; sometimes the facts are too confusing or pallid to have the needed color to make a memory vivid.  For a memory to become memoir, it needs a larger-than-life appeal.  (Click here for some comments by Dorothy Gallagher on fact versus truth in memoir.)

To craft the essay, for homework (5-10 minutes) try having them draw a timeline of the way the memory works; in class the teacher can draw the timeline of other successful sample essays.  They will see that many essays about a lost loved one starts at the funeral, flashes back to the life, and at the end returns to the funeral.  Flashbacks are crucial to building characters, dead or alive

            Also ask them to outline what they have written as best they can (10-15 minute assignment).  Then, looking at their outlines, they may see a way to restructure the telling of the memory to get the most out of it. 

            The students should be encouraged to imitate the structure of essays that resemble the one they are writing.

            With all this in mind, they should go back and begin writing a new draft for 30 minutes.  In class the next day, have them report on what they’ve changed and have them read some first paragraphs aloud.

   Homework Assignment #5:

             Finish draft number 2.  The students should be keeping track of their rough drafts, as their grade will be based as much on effort and process as on final product.  By now the essays should have incorporated a number of ways to build character, place, and their focus:  short dialogue, concrete descriptions, anecdotes, and moments of reflection.

            Have each student read his or her first 3-4 sentences.  Urge everyone to listen intently and decide which of these sentences should be the first one in the essay.  Frequently, the first paragraph or two can be cut.  It takes most writers about 100 or more words to get warmed up.  Remind them of the Truman Capote Rule:  “I believe more in the scissors than I do the pencil.”

 Homework Assignment #6:

             The final essay is due, approximately 4-5 typed pages.  The student should turn in at least two verifiable rough drafts and the final draft.  The teacher will have heard every student’s paper at least once and should have encouraged each student to drop by for 5-10 minutes during the last 4-5 days to discuss the progress of the memoir.


            The process of this assignment should be weighted as heavily as the final product.  I usually check that the student has written two drafts, contributed to class workshops, and has revised carefully by showing he has learned: 

 (1) to start strategically;

(2) to create the various characters through description, action, anecdote, and brief dialogue;

(3) to create place and atmosphere through concrete description, temperature, climate, and telling details;

(4) to build a strong focus through moments of self-reflection;

(5) to organize strategically, dividing his essay into many paragraphs, some short, some long;

(6) to unify his essay so that, although it may wander, it ultimately returns to some unifying point or image;

(7) to punctuate and write solid sentences that create a pleasing variety and rhythm.