Memoirs are almost a cheat when it comes to slipping nonfiction into a curriculum. Yet they serve as something more than just a true, personal narrative. They also teach students that what is essential in writing all essays is significance, that sense that an event is being written about not merely because it happened but because it matters.
Lesson One: What Is a Memoir?
It is essential for students to deconstruct and define a memoir, before they begin writing. To help them, the first lesson asks them to read some memoirs and to create a criteria chart.
Students were asked to read at least three of the following texts, and at least one was to have been a professional piece.
When I Was Puerto Rican (PDF) by Esmeralda Santiago (from Literary Cavalcade).
Swimming to Antarctica (PDF) by Lynne Cox (from Literary Calvacade)
Living to Tell the Tale (PDF) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (from Literary Calvacade)
The Alexandra Fuller excerpt from Writing the Senses (PDF) (from Literary Cavalcade).
Hot Combs, Watermelon, and Hello Kitty Backpacks by A’Rynn Davis
One Step at a Time by Anant Vinjamoor
Vueltas by Jessica Colom
After reading the memoirs students created a chart to answer these questions:
• What are the defining traits of a memoir? List at least three things in a memoir.
• What must a memoir have?
• What can it include?
• What is the purpose of a memoir? Why did this person write about this specific event?
We charted answers on a paper that would remain up for the duration of the genre study. This chart would later become a criteria checklist, or rubric. It’s vital to make sure that students recognized not only that memoirs were an actual event, but that the event had to depict a change in the writer’s feelings or ideas and usually focus upon a specific life-changing event, instead of upon an entire life.
The question about author’s purpose is essential because memoirs have to be evocative and writers are most moving when they write about something that is significant. If students understand why an author chose a specific memory to convey a specific experience, then they will carefully select a memory about which to write.
It was at this point that I brought in other examples, some long and some short, of memoirs, including Anne Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, Augusten Burroughs’s Dry, Alice Sebold’s Lucky. As students read these books, they were asked to continue to add to the class chart.
Lesson Two: How Do Memoirs Work?
Going back to the excerpt from When I Was Puerto Rican, I asked students to reread with the eyes of a writer. Now it was time to think more specifically about craft. Students read and listed the most important events on the left side of a t-chart. For each event listed, I asked students to find out why Santiago included the information. To help them focus, I started with these questions: Why does Santiago include this? What is she trying to show by including this event?
It’s important to push my young writers to see that writing has to reveal something. Often, emerging writers choose to depict events because they happened, rather than because they expose the emotional core of the memoir.
After we look at how the memoirs work, we add some more criteria to our original chart from Lesson Two by answering, “What else needs to be in a good memoir?” What I want added, and what I try to encourage my students to see, is that each event has to have a purpose. We need to see what happened before and then after each event in order to understand the impact of the event upon the person writing the memoir.
Lesson Three: Prewriting and Drafting
Using Nancie Atwell’s list of starting questions for memoirs and adding a few of my own, I posed questions to my students and asked them to do a quickwrite on any three that spoke to them.
The questions we used were:
• What is your earliest memory?
• What is the most important thing that has ever happened to you?
• What is the worst thing that ever happened to you?
• What is something you will never forget?
• What is the moment where you were 100% happy?
• What was a time when you felt brokenhearted?
• What memory shows something important about your family or your friends?
• What was a time when you’ve laughed harder than you’ve ever laughed before?
• Who is the one person who has motivated you to do something that changed your life?
• What one object can you show others that would tell them exactly who you are? What does it tell?
After writing, I asked students to work in pairs and to share any of the writing from their quickwrite. Together, the students were to try to identify why the event chosen mattered to the author and to see why this is important to write about. Once they had the significance of the moment, the “so what?” identified, they were ready to write.
Lesson Four: Looping
Though my students will never get the reference, so often student-memoirs are mere watercolors of an event and the organization of many memoirs often is similar to scattered photographs. To help them focus, clarify, and organize, we use a looping technique.
After students complete a draft, they are asked to reread them and underline the line they love or the line they think is strongest. Turning to a clean sheet of paper, students write their favorite line at the top and begin to write again. This act of identifying a strong line and writing from that line often forces students to redraft and revise with a different focus, and, in fact, it actually gets them to focus on either significance or on quality of language. It’s also possible that by beginning with a strong line, students will begin to play with organization. Looping is an idiosyncratic way to revise because it is a strategy that is deeply personal, so be aware it will look different depending on each student.
Students then share the second piece aloud to a partner. They and the partner choose the strongest line. It may be the same line as used previously, or it may be a new line. They repeat the looping and write again.
When they finish, students share all three pieces with a peer or small group. Working together, they begin to identify either what pieces to use from all three drafts, or they select the draft that they believe is strongest.
Finally, ask the students again to reread their piece. Using the criteria chart, ask students to be sure that their piece meets the criteria listed. Also ask students to underline the place that addresses why this entire moment matters. If it is not there, then students should begin to think about how the memoir is showing something significant.
Memoirs are not the end of nonfiction writing, but they are bridges to other less personal pieces. As students continue to read nonfiction, the ideas of significance and purpose will take on greater meaning. But as a starting point, memoirs allow students to share their experiences in a meaningful and beautiful way.
Kathryn Gullo is a National Board Certified teacher who works with other secondary teachers as a UCLA Writing Project fellow. She currently teaches secondary English and history in the Los Angeles Unified School District.