In Your Own Words: Transforming Life Into Memoir and Fiction

with Margo Perin


Writers are often told “Write what you know.” But most writers are motivated to write about what they don’t know, or understand, about what they know. In this 8 session course, you will learn how to draw inspiration and material from your life experiences or those of people you know, or want to know, to craft compelling, publishable memoirs, personal essays, autobiographical novels and short stories, and/or narrative poetry.

At the end of the course, you will have examined a range of personal narratives in the long- and short-forms of book-length memoirs, personal essays, autobiographical novels and short stories. You will also have a deep understanding of the essential elements of craft, including plot structure, conflict and transformation, sensory imagery, characterization and character motivation, dialogue, “real” vs. “story” time, voice, and point of view. Poetic forms will also be explored as a way to create personal narratives. Students will learn techniques to awaken the creative muse, write with emotional honesty, discover the “authentic” vs. “cultivated” voice, dramatically reconstruct true events, characters, and dialogue, and take creative risks to enhance and further the story. Included are techniques on how to become closely attuned to what makes you write the best you can, how to become your own best editor and discussion about the ethics of writing about people one knows and doesn’t know.

This was an excellent class and one that gave me a weekly opportunity to flesh out ideas and get real-time responses. Margo is knowledgeable and compassionate, with a keen eye for strengths and areas of growth.
—Tom Lorio

Course Purpose

To bring all students, at whatever level, to a higher level of skill and confidence in their writing, through instruction, discussion, exploration of craft and writing process, critical reading of student and published texts, and weekly writing exercises.

Learning objectives for students

  • To understand and become familiar with writing as a process
  • To critique writing (one’s own and that of others)
  • To develop an authentic, individual voice
  • To understand basic elements of “good writing”
  • To apply the tools of the workshop in editing and revision
  • To cultivate and explore ideas on paper with greater assurance and precision

Recommended (not required) text:

Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories

Recommended Authors:

Jamaica Kincaid, Mira Bartok, Nawal El Saadawi, John Cheever, Aleksander Hemon, Claudia Rankine, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kate Braverman, Patrick Modiano, Tony Hoagland, Sherman Alexie, Valerie Mejer Caso

Course Outline

Writing assignments, student critiques, and discussion of craft and texts are included every week.

Week 1: Introductions/Long-Short Term Goals

Course Overview/Guidelines; Critique Sign-Up and Guidelines; Discussion of “Good Writing,” Style and Taste

Week 2: Conflict/Drama

Engaging the Reader. An exploration of different kinds of conflict and transformation in memoir, and how to walk the tightrope between drama, melodrama, and no drama.

Week 3: Imagery/Intuition

Pulling in the Reader through the Senses. How to create the most visceral, multi-dimensional experience on the page for your reader.

Week 4: Characterization/Clinchers/C’ in Action; Orchestration

The Inner Monster; How to Write the “Who”. The range of aspects that make up character, from the physical through to the cultural. How to silence the inner critic.

Week 5: Points of View

Who’s Telling the Story? Is it I, you, or s/he/they? Can it be one or two or three points of view? Offstage or onstage?

Week 6: Voice

Importance of Process. Explore techniques and strategies to identify what makes you write (and edit) the best you can.

Week 7: Setting

Time and Place. In addition to the who, the what, and the how, how do you frame and hang together the episodes in your memoir?

Week 8: Fleshing out the Story/Deeper and Broader

Adding Depth and Breadth. Checking whether your memoir offers an experience for the reader as multilayered as the experience itself.

Course type:

Student Feedback for Margo Perin:

Margo is a fantastic teacher!  She gave so much attention to every single piece of writing including all the critiques.  I was extremely satisfied with the class content. I was sorry to see the workshop come to an end. I would absolutely recommend it. Madlyn Springston

This was an excellent class and one that gave me a weekly opportunity to flesh out ideas and get real-time responses. Margo is knowledgeable and compassionate, with a keen eye for strengths and areas of growth. Tom Lorio

Margo was attentive and understanding as an instructor. She provided useful critiques and wise guidance. She was also kind in giving criticism, a skill not mastered by all instructors. All the lessons were adequately described and the lecture notes and supplemental readings were very detailed and clear. The assignments were challenging and interesting... I would and I have recommended your classes to many friends... Your attention to and care for your students is admirable. I am very happy to have found your website. Sia Corrina Durocher

Margo had great feedback, and all her responses to students' writing were thorough, positive, and extremely helpful. She was encouraging and kind during all interactions, and all her comments were very meaningful. Rebecca Schechter

I found Margo to be highly sensitive to our abilities, both in terms of our gifts as well as challenges as writers.  I really appreciated her attention to subtle but powerful details.  Her suggestion of what seemed like a simple one-word change were profound and helped me see my writing process in new, advanced ways. Terilee Wunderman

I was very happy with the class content. Margo gave truly helpful comments and was extremely supportive.I would and have extolled this program to many people. I got exactly what I'd hoped for, and I think it's a really high-quality operation. Molly Cheek

Margo is an excellent teacher, great critiques, motivational and sincere in her feedback. I found this class a perfect fit for me to assist me with my short story writing. The assignments were spot on, the plot, point of view and scene building assignments were eye opening to me. Also, the online classroom was great. I will take another class.  Mike Karpinski

[Margo] has a way of bringing out the best in each of the writers. She always provided constructive feedback. I looked forward to hearing what she had to say and learned a lot from her feedback, not just for me but for everyone. I thought the class lectures and assignments really helped me think about what I wanted to say and how I should say it. They were the right mix of challenging but not overwhelming. I am impressed the course offerings provided by I am currently taking another class and plan to take others.  Abigail Aguirre

Margo Perin


Margo Perin’s publications include The Opposite of Hollywood, Only the Dead Can Kill: Stories from JailPlexiglass, and How I Learned to Cook & Other Writings on Complex Mother-Daughter Relationships. She is the poet of San Francisco’s permanent memorial Spiral of Gratitude. A nominee for the Pushcart Prize, she has been featured in numerous national and international media, including Heyday/PEN’s Fightin’ WordsThe San Francisco Chronicle Sunday MagazineO, The Oprah Magazine, Mexico’s El Petit Journal, Holland’s PsycologieKRON 4 TVNPR’s Talk of the Nation, and KALW, KPFA, and WAMC. Her passions are teaching and writing, especially memoir and autobiographical fiction and poetry. She has taught for more than thirty years, including M.F.A. and M.A. Creative Writing at USF and New College, at UC Berkeley Extension, California Poets in the Schools, and in the U.K., Mexico, and Italy. She is pleased to be back at after a hiatus when she focused on teaching personal narrative to adults and youth incarcerated in California jails and prisons. Please visit her at and see her work at–poetry.html, and view her interview on autobiographical writing.