Book order forms.

Book orders are due! I don't want to be delinquent.

Since my own book order is due to the bookstore by April 15, I need to start thinking hard about my own choices for the course I’ll be teaching in the fall. So here is one more syllabus to study.

Every time I look at a syllabus created by Richard Gilbert I want to sign up! The only books I’ve read on this list are Barrington’s and Cameron’s, so I want to read the others. But what I really want to do is sit around a seminar table with students and see how Richard guides the conversation. He’s such a skillful blogger that I know his classes will also be stimulating.

 Writing Life Stories: The Power of Narrative

Required Course Texts

Barrington, Judith. Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Cameron, Julia. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

Klinkenborg, Verlyn. Several Short Sentences About Writing

Martin, Lee. Such a Life

Moore, Dinty. Between Panic and Desire

Strauss, Darin. Half a Life

Other readings will be available for download from Blackboard.


The memoir has become an exciting, emerging literary genre—and a bestselling one. According to memoir scholar Ben Yagoda:

Total sales in the categories of Personal Memoirs, Childhood Memoirs, and Parental Memoirs increased more than 400 percent between 2004 and 2008.

A memoir, whether one essay or an entire book, focuses on a resonant slice of a life. A dramatic incident. A moment when something happened or came into focus. A journey of some kind that changed you. One key to making a personal narrative interesting is what you discover in the process of writing. The most effective stories usually explore what we can’t stop thinking about but can’t fully grasp. In writing we both relate incident and discover meaning. According to memoirist and memoir theorist Patricia Hampl:

Memoir seeks a permanent home for feeling and image, a habitation where they can live together. It can present its story and consider the meaning of the story.

Hampl alludes to a dual voice or perspective—you then, you now—that is a signature feature of memoir and one of its great appeals for readers. We’ll focus on emulating that double viewpoint as well as on learning the tools of dramatized narrative, some of them first noted by Aristotle. These include scenes, narrative suspense, rising action, dramatic act structure, summary, and reflection. We’ll also read some classical essays (largely expository and meditative) and some recent experimental ones (graphic, collage, lyric), and you’ll have the opportunity to experiment as well.

Every week I will assign readings intended to stimulate discussion on a particular element of craft or process. These will be accompanied by writing exercises that will introduce new ways of thinking about your subject and will generate new material—new essays or parts of longer essays.  Ultimately our collective goal as a class is to read thoughtfully, write regularly, experiment fearlessly, and start a writing practice.

Class Goals  

• to read carefully as you analyze specific writing techniques and gain insight into how writers structure stories;

• to engage in what you read through class discussion, through modeling examples in your own writing, and through reflective journaling;

• to work from an idea to freewriting and through a first draft to discovery, revision, editing, and proofreading;

• to use writing techniques such as scenemaking, character development, sensory details, metaphor, exposition, and reflection as you explore your own history;

• to be part of a conference group with classmates to assist them and receive feedback yourself while you improve your analytical and editing skills;

• to write clearly, correctly, colloquially, and effectively at the level of the sentence, paragraph, section, and document;

• to develop a portfolio of diverse writing in length, content, structure, and style.

Course Basics & Preparedness Policy

As there are no tests or exams in this class, in order to do well you must complete all of the assigned work, in and out of the classroom, including writing exercises, essays, peer critiques, participate in class discussions, and successfully upload and download documents to and from Blackboard. Bring books and printouts to class per instructions or schedule.

To be eligible for credit, assignments must be present or uploaded, as specified, at the beginning of the class session on which they are due. I will not accept late assignments unless you have talked with me in advance. Although this syllabus is a general guide and contains major assignment due dates, these can shift; you are responsible for class announcements and for checking updated assignments on Blackboard. All current assignments will be uploaded to Blackboard as the semester proceeds; follow these updated and complete assignments.

Note: It is imperative that you have a computer and software (latest Chrome or Firefox browser and Microsoft Word) compatible with Otterbein’s Blackboard 9.1 system. Most Blackboard problems stem from using an old browser and having a full computer cache. If you have a current browser and have problems try emptying your computer’s cache and then clearing cookies to remove internal conflicts. Also, make a bookmark directly to Blackboard instead of going through Ozone.


Assignments & Grades

Classwork, Participation, and Attendance: 15%

Participating means you help further the community of this class: you take part in discussions, complete in-class writing exercises, and share your insights about our readings and your writing. We meet only once a week, so please plan on attending each class. If for some reason you do have to miss class, you have a maximum of one absence without penalty. After one absence, for each subsequent absence (“excused” or “unexcused”) your overall grade will be lowered by five percentage points. (Tardiness can result in a point penalty as well.) This reflects the fact that you contribute and participate when you are present and moving forward with the class; absences are correlated with poor performance, confusion about assignments, and late work.

Reading Journal: 12%

This will consist of your response to our readings, which shows you’ve done the assigned reading, thought about it, and have an opinion—I want to see you think on the page. These posts to Blackboard are half a single-spaced page—about 250 words—and are handed in at the end of the semester as hard copy.

Reading Journal responses are to be uploaded to Blackboard by midnight Sunday. And by classtime Tuesday you must respond to at least three classmates’ entries.

Writing Journal: 24%

Producing quality work consists largely of having quantity to choose from. For your Writing Journal, you will write one single-spaced, computer generated page per week as specified—500 words—due as hard copy each Tuesday. This will consist of a response to writing exercises that employ the skills being emphasized that week and in many cases will serve as building blocks of your two major memoir essays or be some part of them. In some cases all or part of an entry will be uploaded to Blackboard by class time on Tuesdays, as specified.

Note: These journals are a place to relax and explore. I will not grade them on grammar or punctuation, though I’d appreciate fairly clean copy for readability’s sake, but instead want to see you thinking and trying out new material. You can write more than 1.5 pages for the two journals but must write at least 1.5 single-spaced pages each week to receive full credit. There are twelve journal entries in the course of the semester. I won’t accept late journal submissions.

Note: Attendance and the Journal count for fully 51 % of your grade. This is because both elements are so important to your progress as a writer: participating in class and reading, thinking, and writing outside of class.

Life Stories Essays: 40 %

During the semester, you’ll write two complete memoir essays, each of which you’ll rewrite at least three times. You’ll write a short proposal, then a first draft, receive feedback from your group, revise, and then submit to me for a grade. You’ll then rewrite the essay, after you’ve had my feedback, and receive a second, final replacement grade. These essays will mostly grow out of your Journal entries and classroom exercises.

The first essay will be approximately five to six pages, the second eight to ten pages. Essays can be shorter than the suggested page length if they work at that length; the upper suggested limit is mostly to help make all of our reading and workshopping manageable, though in some cases a student might submit up to fourteen pages. I will encourage, but not require, that the first essay be set in your childhood—through about age twelve, say—and the second be set in your teen years or early adulthood.

A Note on Grading: I will give essays two grades that are added to achieve the total points: a grade for Content and another for Style—spelling, grammar, punctuation. Again, the final draft grade replaces the grade on your previous draft.

Oral Reading: 4 %

You’ll share one of your life stories with the entire class for critique and will read about two pages to the class. You’ll upload the essay to Blackboard a week before your time slot (I will circulate a sign-up sheet) so that everyone can print out, read, and mark comments. After your reading, the class will give you feedback, and I will use your draft to discuss writing techniques.

Story Research: 5 %

For this assignment you’ll find a situation where people in a group—at least two people, not counting your—such as family, friends, coworkers, fellow dorm rats, student peers are telling stories. Note what kind of stories they tell. What appears to be their motive? Is there a theme? Dramatic structure? Prevalence of humor? Are the stories continuous or are there resonant breaks? How do the stories reflect principles we’ve learned in class? What do the stories appear to do for the group? For the teller?

Note: In rare instances, you can eavesdrop on strangers—a coffee klatch, say, that you know about at Panera on Thursdays—but this is risky in terms of getting what you need versus family or friends who are cooperative. In either case, you may want to avoid taking notes openly, instead jotting down notes right after, unless you are confident your note taking won’t influence the storytelling adversely or make it untypical.

Write two double-spaced pages of analysis and discussion—an essay!—and prepare a five-minute oral report. We will hear each other’s results at our final class meeting.

Style for All Writing Assignments—Essay Proposals, Essays, Journal Entries

Use Times New Roman 12 pt. font. In the upper left corner, single spaced:

[your name]

IS4030/Gilbert [class, section]

Memoir Essay 1, Final Draft [assignment name]

March 12, 2013 [due date]

Crash on the Levee  [your title, centered]

Body copy, single or double spaced depending on assignment, begins below title. Use one-inch margins, left and right. Indent the first line of paragraphs 0.25 inches. On following pages, put the page number in upper right corner. For hard copy assignments, staple the pages of the paper together.

Tentative Schedule & Key Dates

This schedule emphasizes major due dates and workshop nights. Pay attention in class and consult Blackboard online for complete, updated reading and writing assignments.

Week 1

Tuesday, Jan. 29—Defining the Genre: What is Memoir? Your Situation, Your Story

—Read the Syllabus. Note requirements, deadlines, class format for all assignments.

—Write a Childhood Memoir Proposal.

Week 2

Tuesday, February 5Narrative Persona: You Then, You Now

—Childhood Memoir Proposal Due.

Week 3

Tuesday, February 12—Scene: Dramatized Action, Sensory Details

—Memoir draft for peers due.

Week 4

Tuesday, February 19— Summary: Covering Ground, Passing Time

—Peer Workshop

Week 5

Tuesday, February 26—Discovery & Thinking About Theme

—Childhood memoir draft two due to instructor

—Student readings from work.

Week 6

Tuesday, March 5 Reflection: Making Sense of the Story for You, for Others

[Note: There’s an open class session in Roush 114 from 1:15-2:45 with Alison Bechdel]

—7 p.m., class goes to Riley for Bechdel reading

—Write your Proposal for your second memoir, rewrite Memoir 1.

Week 7

Tuesday, March 12: Narrative Persona Redux: You Then, You Now

—Proposal due on second memoir.

—Essay 1 final draft due to instructor

—Student readings from work.

Tuesday, March 19—NO CLASS: SPRING BREAK

Week 8

Tuesday, March 26—Plot & Structure: Braiding, Framing, Chronology.

—Write your Personal History Memoir and upload to BB for your peer group.

Week 9

Tuesday, April 2Dramatic tension, foreshadowing

—Second memoir draft due for peers.

Week 10

Tuesday, April 9—Dramatic tension, foreshadowing cont.

—Guest: Such a Life author Lee Martin

—Peer workshop

Week 11

Tuesday, April 16Language, Tone, Style, Humor

—Second memoir draft due to instructor.

—Student readings from work.

Week 12

Tuesday, April 23—Language, Tone, Style, Humor

—Rewrite memoir based on instructor feedback

—Student readings from work.

Week 13

Tuesday, April 30—Editing & Developing Theme

—Memoir 2 final draft due

—Student readings from work.

Week 14

Tuesday, May 7—Polishing & Developing Theme

—Story Research reports.

—Turn in Reading Journal

What do you want to know from Richard about his choices here?  I’ll start with a few questions of my own. You can chime in too!

1. You don’t seem to be assigning particular books to particular days of class. How does that work out in practice?

2. Are the students in this class taking it for general education or for departmental credit?

3. Have you taught these books before? What responses from past classes have guided you in these selections and course structure?



Shirley Showalter


  1. Marian Longenecker Beaman on April 1, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    You have a tall reading list already, but on a cursory view I don’t see Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas. As an experienced memoir writing teacher, you may already be familiar with her work.

    I like the book because it is filled with great writing prompts, and it’s a skinny book–only about 100 pages. She starts off with a recommendation for the first week of class (gasp!): “Take any ten years of your life, reduce them to two pages, and every sentence has to be three words long–not two, not four, but three words long.”

    Another one: Write two pages that end with “Ha ha.” The book ends with nearly 8 pages of prompts–fresh topics every time you teach the course!

    • shirleyhs on April 1, 2013 at 6:56 pm

      I do have that book, Marian. Thanks for suggesting I take a new look at it. I’ve never used it as a teaching tool. One the things I am trying to decide is the relative weights of reading, writing, revising, and testing.

      I take it that you’ve used her book? Did students write well using these prompts?

      Thanks for sharing your wisdom. Do you have a memoir class syllabus of your own to share?

    • Richard Gilbert on April 5, 2013 at 7:19 pm

      I got this little book today and it appears excellent. I love the prompts. It would be great with seniors, beginners, undergrads. The prompts are wonderful and requiring two pages, while giving a choice of which two she offers after each passage, means about 500 words if double spaced, which is reasonable. My students seem to be doing fine with 500 words a week.

    • Richard Gilbert on April 9, 2013 at 9:27 am

      Having now read the book, I think it’s better for adults than undergrads—except for the prompts. Those I’ll use! So many great ones to choose from. It’s a real “the medium is the message kind of book,” so great for older learners who’ll “get” that but a bit riskier for younger students, perhaps. While they don’t necessarily warm to strict how-to, they may need more structure to feel they understand what’s being said.

  2. Marian Longenecker Beaman on April 2, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    My colleague Sally introduced me to the book, which I use to jump-start my own thinking about memoir. As I’ve taught only college composition and literature courses, I have no memoir course syllabus to offer. From the samples I’ve seen so far though, yours will be a slam-dunk!

    • Richard Gilbert on April 3, 2013 at 1:00 pm

      Thanks, Marian. I will have to check my bookshelves for that one—sounds familiar. It is getting hard to keep up with all the great books on memoir, let alone with the memoirs.

      The reading list for this class is extensive, but I should say that The Artist’s Way is a holdover from part one they took of this class, which was geared toward the visual arts. Lee Martin’s Such a Life has been a big hit, as has Half a Life and Fun Home. We have not yet read Between Panic and Desire, which I think they will like.

      Barrington and Klinkenborg are great but I am not sure how many of the students are keeping up with those readings, keeping up being a challenge for me, too. I am gravitating to the place of giving them not more reading than I also can do in a week, with other classes, etc. If I am not reading a book myself, even though I have read it many times, I do not feel I am teaching as effectively. For undergrads, most of whom are not writing majors, I might pare my list down next time to just the memoirs and rely on my own experience and handouts for craft.

  3. shirleyhs on April 4, 2013 at 9:54 am

    Richard, it’s a relief to hear you say that you are considering dropping the craft books. I may keep a short one, and might even select Thomas’ because of its brevity and practicality. But I would rather have students reading books that really engage them.

    I don’t have your expertise in craft, but I think it might be possible to concentrate on one aspect, such as scenes, sensory-rich descriptions, beginnings, endings, etc. in particular assignments. Obviously, I’m still thinking.

    Thanks again for this enormously helpful resource. I know other teachers/professors will benefit. I’ve ordered all the memoirs that I haven’t read before.

    • Richard Gilbert on April 4, 2013 at 12:50 pm

      Breaking down craft into various elements and focusing on them can be great. Scenes, for instance. Teaching them the difference between scene and summary usually results in much better scenes, which convey experience so well. Often I start there. Then maybe introduce the concept of the retrospective narrator, a second layer in the essay.

  4. Sharon Lippincott on April 6, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    Oh, my, this syllabus has me wanting to take the class, for sure. Even reading the outline is instructive in knowing where to look to shore up personal skills and help students, if only on the fly. Thank you, thank you for posting these Shirley, and thank you to Richard for sharing yours. This is what I love about the memoir world. Everyone is so transparent and willing to share. 🙂

  5. shirleyhs on April 8, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    Thanks, Sharon. I think Richard’s syllabi are works of art. They illustrate his dedication to his students and to other writers. I can hardly wait to read his own memoir.

  6. Kathleen Friesen on April 9, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Although I do not teach memoir, I have appreciated each of the examples you have posted. And, I am using the ideas to improve my own syllabi.

    One successful experiment that I tried first three years ago was to have two required texts; and, then a list of 12 to 15 books from which each student was required to choose the one that most interested them. Students love (word chosen intentionally) the opportunity to discover the book that speaks most to their situation and / or goals. And some students with choose to read more than one book after their classmates offer personal recommendations.

    Thank you for continuing to curate useful and provocative information,

    • Richard Gilbert on April 9, 2013 at 3:04 pm

      It’s a great idea to give them choice, Kathleen. That’s always worked great when I’ve done it. Next time I might make that an option.

  7. shirleyhs on April 9, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    Thanks, Kathleen and Richard. I too have used a “recommended” list and asked students to pick one or two favorites from the list. I could even ask them to teach a lesson using one or more of their favorite passages from the book over one of the craft topics we have studied earlier in the class.

    I’m also considering a developmental approach–choose one from each era of life.

    childhood: Zippy, Little Heathens, The Liars’ Club
    young adulthood: Just Kids,
    adulthood: Wild, Lit
    older age: The Year of Magical Thinking

    Logistics can get a little complicated, but students love the choice.


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