When we set out to write an essay, we often feel compelled to construct it chronologically toward an internal change for the better—an “aha!” moment. However, our lives rarely lead to such a neat resolution. Our memories are fallible, fragmented, and sometimes atemporal. If we embrace this truth, we can discover unique ways of telling personal stories. Ideally, the structures we employ in our writing mimic the meandering, exploratory process of reflecting on the past without losing the reader’s interest or confusing them. Some stories are better told as lists, or in fragments, some are best told in a more traditional, chronological way.
This workshop will introduce students to a few basic personal essay structures—some conventional, some more inventive, which participants may draw on in shaping their memoir or personal essay manuscripts. These essay structures may also be applied to book-length projects.
Together we will be deconstructing texts to see how they’ve been put together and completing in-class writing exercises to be continued at home. Some of these exercises are designed to generate ideas and uncover new memories. Some are intended to help you try out new shapes and forms.
Participants will leave with different models they can adapt, as well as a deeper understanding of autobiographical writing. We’ll discuss ethical questions of accuracy as well as how and when to take liberties with dialogue, imagery, and sensory details. This class is suitable for both beginners and experienced writers. Some reading and analysis will be assigned in advance.
Shayna Goodman’s essays have appeared in the Cut, Salon, Refinery 29, Jewish Currents, and The Takeout, among other places. She received her MFA in creative writing from Hunter College in New York City. She currently teaches creative nonfiction for The Loft Literary.