Creative Writing Memoir Assignment

Here are a collection of ideas for prompts to get you writing (or drawing or doodling or list-making). We will do some of these in class, but feel free to look over and try some of them on your own. Once you pick a prompt, give yourself ten minutes or so and try to do some freewriting. For another prompt maybe try to make a list of details. If you haven’t done clustering before, try that out. If there are other topics that you’re itching to write about, go right ahead.

  • Click here for a short essay by Sherry Simpson in Brevity that gives a little exercise that invites you to think/write about what you are an expert at; remember to consider things you mastered as a child. (The Craft essays in Brevity might also give you some inspiration, as might a general browse through their current or past issues.)
  • Write about something that you collect: a general class of things which you have found, made, or purchased specimens of (CDs or DVDs, ticket stubs, notes from friends, rocks, baseball cards, teacups, shoes, shades of lipstick, books, photographs, autographs, friends on facebook, whatever). You might write about a few of yr favorites, how and why you started collecting these things, how you judge whether or not to add something to yr collection, how you store yr collection, what all of this reveals about who you are.
  • evocative object (in the practical version: useful tool): Think about the objects you have values and tools you have used in your life. (My show-and-tell examples may have included my slide rule, my block plane, and my great-grandmother’s pastry wheel.) Consider the activities you do that require or produce objects: gardening, cooking, sewing, and other household activities, carpentry and auto repair, hobbies and sports of various sorts. Make a list or do some free-writing. Pick an object that tugs at you, catches your interest. It may not be the most important object in your life, but somehow it opens a window on some event or person or theme that seems worth thinking and writing about. Collect some details about the object. Pull it out of the drawer or garage (or wherever you keep it) and look it over. Describe it. Where did it come from? How did you learn to use it? What person do you associate with it? What events? Can you remember something that happened in which it played a featured role? How has your use or appreciation of it changed and evolved over time?
  • transitional scene: List times in your life of transition, change, times of endings and beginnings. This may be in term of where you live, work, or go to school, or changes in family relationships or social connections, some deliberate change of image/identity, some recognition of psychological issue or disability or abuse problem. Rewind the reality film of your life to find one scene that best captures this time of transition. Try to restrict yourself to one relatively short period of time (a few hours maybe or even shorter). Try to imagine yourself back to that scene, and write about what you see, hear, what the place looks like, what other people (if any) are there and what they do/say.
  • significant person: Write about someone who has influenced your life in some important way. (I suggest that you stay away from writing about romantic relationships unless you have some fresh perspective or interesting twist beyond the usual.) Show this person in action. Let us see and hear him/her. Focus more on making the person come to life on the page, rather than going on and on in the abstract about how you feel about him/her. You might want to respnd to these more specific prompts:
  1. describe this person’s physical appearance (including clothing, way of moving);
  2. describe this person’s most significant personal space (what details reveal things about this person’s character?);
  3. what lessons have you learned from this person (not necessarily positive), or how has he/she shaped who you are or were?;
  4. list five character traits of this person and an example of evidence (something he/she said or did) for each;
  5. listen to the sound of this person’s voice in your head and write down what he/she is saying;
  6. in the reality show of this person’s life, what clip of film would best capture who this person is

Here are some shorter ones adapted from Natalie Goldberg’s recent book Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir:

  • Pick a color (or a smell or taste or texture or sound), and list memories connected to that sensory image.
  • Write about a time when you washed the dishes or performed another household chore.
  • Write about the end of a relationship (not necessarily a romantic breakup).
  • Write about doughnuts or ice cream or pancakes or peanuts.
  • What would be the theme song of your life? Why?
  • List the things you can’t live without. The things you can’t forgive. The things you can’t forget.
  • Write about two places (or people or things) that pull you in different directions.
  • What did you learn from your father (or mother or grandparent–pick a relative)? Remember that not all lessons are positive, and some are learned by example not instruction.

The site This I Believe contains many thousands of essays written by people to explain how they came to believe certain things (some important and some, at least at first glance, not so important). The browse by theme section gives a good way to find some ideas you might be interested in. Spend a little time reading some essays and jot down any ideas you get for your own essays. Pick one and write for ten minutes.

The Personal Memoir


These resources discuss some terms and techniques that are useful to the beginning and intermediate creative nonfiction writer, and to instructors who are teaching creative nonfiction at these levels. The distinction between beginning and intermediate writing is provided for both students and instructors, and numerous sources are listed for more information about creative nonfiction tools and how to use them. A sample assignment sheet is also provided for instructors.

Contributors:Kenny Tanemura
Last Edited: 2010-04-21 08:09:36

Because the personal memoir is more demanding than the personal essay, for both writer and reader, it doesn’t fit into introductory courses as well as the personal essay. An intermediate level course is a good place to introduce the memoir. However, if the instructor takes the time to explain and introduce the memoir form, it can be adapted for introductory courses.

Difference Between the Personal Essay and the Memoir

While the personal essay can be about almost anything, the memoir tends to discuss past events. Memoir is similar to the personal essay, except that the memoir tends to focus more on striking or life-changing events. The personal essay can be a relatively light reflection about what’s going on in your life right now.

Where the personal essay explores, free from any need to interpret, the memoir interprets, analyzes, and seeks the deeper meaning beneath the surface experience of particular events. The memoir continually asks the following questions:

  • Why was this event of particular significance?
  • What did it mean?
  • Why is it important?

In this sense, the memoir is heavier than the personal essay, and it mines the past to shed light on the present. The memoir seeks to make sense of an individual life. The questions that are left unanswered in Wole Soyinka’s essay from the personal essay resource, Why do I Fast? are answered in the memoir.

Generating Ideas for Personal Memoirs

Moore’s memoir exercise from The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction is useful in both beginning and intermediate courses:

“Make a list of six to ten events or circumstances in your own life, or the lives of those very close to you, that still provoke your curiosity. Mine your own life for the events and circumstances that still raise questions in your mind. Once you have the list (and this list should be private - don’t share it with others - and don’t hold back because you think someone else will be looking), pick one of the questions on the list that you are willing to explore.“

The potential questions Moore asks in this exercise are meant to be answered in the memoir. While the memoir tries to make sense of experience, it also shares something in common with the personal essay - the exploration of the question, and the process of trying to arrive at an answer, is at least as important as the answer or resolution you may arrive at.

Writing the memoir is not a simple Q & A with yourself; rather, the complicated process of trying to seek the answers is what makes the memoir engaging to write, and read. Here is an example from Carlos Fuentes’ How I Started to Write:

What happened to this universal language, Spanish, which after the seventeenth century ceased to be a language of life, creation, dissatisfaction, and personal power and became far too often a language of mourning, sterility, rhetorical applause, and abstract power?

Fuentes is constantly questioning and answering, interpreting and analyzing his experience, trying to make sense of why and how he did what he did in order to become a writer. He seeks answers and tries to make sense of his life by interpreting his own experience, the cultural and political life of his time, the meaning of language and literary influence, and by stepping over imagined nationalist borders.

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