From Memory: Writing Fiction or Memoir from Lived Experience
with Chin-Sun Lee
Pull your stories from the depths.
Our memories can be a well of creativity for our writing—if we know how to engage with them.
In this generative course, we’ll learn to stitch our own memories and thought associations into vibrant fiction and memoir. We’ll discover how to mine our memories, focusing not only on the experiences we’re recounting, but on what feelings and tactile associations they evoke in us now.
We’ll also examine how memories can be written chronologically, nonlinearly, and through jump cuts and bricolage. And we’ll study examples of texts where narrators reveal themselves through stories about others.
Each session will involve close reading and discussion from selected texts, and each week you’ll complete a short writing and reading assignment. Course readings will include excerpts from works by Joe Brainerd, Tobias Wolff, Elizabeth Hardwick, Rachel Cusk, and Laurie Stone.
You’ll learn to mine your memories and observations to create narratives that are distinct and compelling. For writers at all levels in fiction and creative nonfiction.
Learning and Writing Goals
By the end of this course, you’ll have learned different approaches of using memory and observation to write engaging prose through lists, chronological narrative, and stream-of-conscious association. You’ll also study how jump cuts, collage, and thought-in-action can make your prose more dynamic.
You will complete and receive written feedback on at least three new prose pieces that can stand alone as flash fiction/non-fiction or be developed into a larger project.
Each session will be held on Wednesdays from 6:00-7:30pm EST. The first session on February 21st will end at 8pm EST, allowing a bit of extra time for discussing the class format. In between sessions, I’ll post new assignments on Wet Ink and critique your completed assignments there weekly.
Prior to Week 1:
Review excerpts (6 pages) from Joe Brainerd’s I Remember; this will be posted on Wet Ink the morning of the first session. If you don’t have time to read it all, don’t worry—we’ll have the opportunity to read it as a group in our first Zoom.
Week 1: Free-form Association (Live Video and Text)
This first session is designed to loosen you up to let your associations flow. We’ll review selected sections from Joe Brainerd’s I Remember to see how even everyday events come to life when told through specific physical and emotional details evoking the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. You’ll learn about linear associations and also those that jump forward or backward in time, and how using varied lengths in your sentences to disrupt expected patterns keeps your reader engaged.
- Using Brainerd as inspiration, write 1 page (250-300 double-spaced words) of free-form associations, starting each sentence with “I remember. . .” let your thoughts flow from subject to subject and see where they take you.
- Also read Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain” for discussion in the next session.
Week 2: Bringing the Past to Life (Live Video and Text)
In this session, we’ll discuss how to write backstory that feels energetic, analyzing “Bullet in the Brain” for its structure, the reverse chronology of its finale, and its effective use of tenses. We’ll also discuss how to create empathy for unlikeable characters through targeted observations that convey their humanity.
- Writing prompt (1 page/2 options):
- Tell the story of your life by writing all the things you didn’t do. OR:
- Think of an event from your past where you felt wronged by someone and write about it from their POV, making them “the good guy.”
- Also read selected pages of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights and Rachel Cusk’s Outline for discussion in the next session.
Week 3: Lessons in Observation (Live Video and Text)
In this session, we’ll review the texts of Hardwick and Cusk to discuss how focusing your lens on objects, places, and other people can obliquely reveal who you are. This is a great skill to hone for writing compelling critical essays as well as fiction.
- Write a 1-page anecdote about an object, a place, or another person. Describe them as vividly as possible by hitting at least three of the five senses without using the words “I feel/felt” or “I think/thought.”
- Also read selected excerpts from Laurie Stone’s Streaming Now: Postcards from the Thing That Is Happening for discussion in the next session.
Week 4: Jump Cuts & Bricolage (Live Video)
In this last session, we’ll discuss how Streaming Now braids memoir with fiction, political commentary, and discourses about art and entertainment, often infused with humor. We’ll study Stone’s use of jump cuts, digressions, and bricolage—how she uses them to create a potent example of thought-in-action. We’ll conclude with final comments and questions. As this is our last class, I won’t give any assignments but I’ll provide supplementary prompts and reading suggestions for you to review beyond this course.
I Remember by Joe Brainerd
Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick
Outline by Rachel Cusk
Streaming Now: Postcards from the Thing That Is Happening by Laurie Stone