The Lessons I Get As a Memoir Teacher

In November 1996 I walked into my first classroom of memoir writing students. Twenty-two people circled a conference-style table, ready and eager to put their life stories down on paper and I was excited to cross that threshold with them. Since I’d graduated college fifteen years earlier with a degree in creative writing, I’d published a book, a few poems and a few articles, and I’d led creative writing workshops, but mostly I’d worked as a magazine and book editor, just me and the written word day in and day out. I wasn’t satisfied. I hadn’t found my niche yet. What really made my heart sing?

When I moved on Valentine’s Day 1996 from Oakland, California to Sebastopol, a beautiful small town an hour north of San Francisco, I knew I was on my way to finding out. My “day job” was freelance editing for a couple of Bay Area publishers, which allowed me time to explore what else I might really like to do. One day that summer I looked through the local community college catalog and happened upon “Autobiography writing,” an offering in their Older Adults Program. Helping people write the stories of their lives had always been in the back of my mind, I’d even tried to get work doing it some years earlier but there were no openings at my then-local community college. I picked up the phone immediately and dialed the number listed.

Serendipity swept me into her arms. The program director answered.

I introduced myself to Mr. Yull as being new to the area, a writer and editor, and told him I was interested in his program. I didn’t even have a chance to get the part about wanting to volunteer to teach a class before he said the magic words: “I’m looking for a teacher for a new writing class.”

Six weeks later I had read every book I could find on memoir writing, I had a lesson plan in hand, and I was ready to open a door to a classroom that would lead me to where I am today, sixteen years later. I’ve taught memoir in that program 50 weeks out of every year in four classes a week, with between 12 and 25 people attending each session. I’ve held weekend memoir intensives in the adult ed programs at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Southern Oregon University and have taught online memoir classes independently for community college in Oregon and for Story Circle Network. Today, I teach three classes in memoir, one for the junior college and two independently. I’ve read thousands of stories written by people raised in different ways in different parts of the world throughout the 20th century, guiding writers as young as 22 and as long-lived as 104. I’ve offered critique and guidance, seen people surprise themselves with what they’ve discovered about themselves and been surprised myself by what I’ve learned.

In this new blog, every first Monday of the month I will share some of those great lessons I’ve learned. They are entertaining, moving, eye-opening, sometimes simply good reminders about what’s important in memoir writing. Now and then there are life lessons, like the two I’m about to share here. One of these is sort of silly, which is why it doesn’t earn an entire blog. The other is a personal revelation I just want to share. I’ll leave you with these, and look forward to connecting every first Monday with an interesting and, I hope, helpful, story from out of class.

Lesson One: It’s impossible to ever get everything on your to do list done. You can’t get to the bottom of a pile and never have another stack to read through. At 36, when I started teaching memoir, I was sure if I had just two whole days to devote to my stacks of “read later,” miscellaneous unread e-mail and paperwork I’d be done and it would never collect like that again. Then a 86-year-old memoir student woke me up. She wrote a story about the unending stacks of paper on her desk, how one would be nearly gone when another would start growing, and I got it.

Lesson Two: Until I heard men older than my grandfather one after another choke up when they read their story about their mother dying, I realized the sorrow of that loss could last a lifetime.


I’ll be at the Story Circle Conference in Austin in April presenting on “Writing the Truth: Issues, Ethics and Poetic License.” I hope you’ll join me! I’m also offering free coaching sessions there Friday April 13, on query letters and book proposals for those of you who want a publisher. Sign up ahead for a coaching session or stop by and say hello! |

6 responses to “The Lessons I Get As a Memoir Teacher

  1. Welcome, Suzanne, to HerStories! As a writing teacher myself, I look forward to reading about your lessons learned and perhaps sharing a few of my own in response.

    • Thanks, Amber. It’s wonderful to know the learning continues no matter how long you teach. I look forward to hearing back from you and other readers as we all learn together!

  2. I love the story about stacks. Too true. Way too true. I’ve written a poem about it. Stacks of everything! Welcome aboard as a HerStories blogger. You are in for lots of fun.

  3. Welcome, Suzanne. I look forward to your anecdotes and words of wisdom.

  4. It’s a joy to hear people read what they’ve written from the heart, Suzanne. Looking forward to your presentation at the conference. That’s such an important topic. I frequently use real people in my fiction, and I’m always confronting the issue of writing truth. There are many truths, and often they are stranger than fiction!

  5. It’s so good to hear from all of you, and great to be here. Thank you for the welcome!

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