The Body and Soul of Your Memoir: Shape, Focus, and Write Your Memoir

with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

The body and soul of your memoir | memoir writing course

June 5, 2024
8 Weeks


$545.00Enroll Now

The calling to share our lives in memoir form brings many of us to the page. How then do we find what the memoir most wants to be? Unearthing the soul (the main focus and calling of your memoir) and the body (the organization and structure) takes careful discernment, attentive writing, and wild abandon, all of which we’ll do in this class.

Through innovative writing prompts, readings and reflections, and sharing ideas and plans in progress, you’ll learn ways to home into your main focus, map out scenes, shape chapters, and bird-by-bird, build a strong and flexible outline that gives you freedom and structure. Along the way, you’ll explore the art and practice of creating enduring settings and characters. You’ll also write at least 50 pages of your memoir, whether you’re just beginning, continuing, or close to finishing your manuscript. By doing the actual writing at the same time you’re developing your focus and structure, you’ll continually be able to integrate the book’s evolution into your writing process. 

All of this writing travels hand-in-hand with investigating how other memoir writers put their books together. Weekly online lessons will include excerpts of powerful memoirs, annotated outlines of how the writers organized and developed their memoirs, and interviews (videos, podcasts, articles) with memoir writers. Featured memoirist will include: James McBride, Linda Hogan, Stephanie Mills, J. Drew Lanham, Sharon Butala, Joy Harjo, Kim Stafford, Chris Offut, Anne Lamott, Fenton Johnson, Gregory Orr, Sloan Crosley, and others. 

Each week, you’ll share and receive encouraging feedback on a scene, excerpt, or other material from your memoir. Weekly online discussions on how to best sustain your writing process will help you continue to write, finish, and revise your memoir after the class. This class also includes weekly resources for the Care and Feeding of the Writer.

This Course is for Anyone Interested In:

  • Writing or finishing a memoir, whether you’re in the dreaming-it-up stage or two thirds of the way through a draft.
  • Strategies and practices to find and evolve your book’s focus, organization, and development.
  • Deepening your non-fiction writing experience, whether you’re just dipping your toes in or have been at it for eons.
  • Honing your understanding and practice of creating enduring and vivid settings and characters as well scene-building and chapter-shaping.

Learning and Writing Goals

Learning Goals

In this course, you will learn:

  • How to find and stay true to the focus of your memoir.
  • Effective ways to structure your whole memoir, each chapter, and each scene.
  • Ways in which other memoir writers organize, focus, and develop their memoirs.
  • Techniques and approaches for creating vivid settings and compelling characters (especially when writing about real places and people).
  • Ethical considerations of writing about real life and actual humans.
  • Best practices to clear away doubt, perfectionism, and other barriers and instead embrace your best path ahead.

Writing Goals

In this course, you will have the opportunity to:

  • Write 50 or more pages of your memoir at an average of six-to-seven or more pages each week.
  • Create a strong statement of your memoir’s focus.
  • Craft an open outline that gives you both freedom and structure to guide your writing and map out chapters and scenes.
  • Share positive and encouraging feedback with several fellow students weekly on a short scene or excerpt.
  • Write in a response to weekly topic on strengthening and sustaining your writing practice.

Zoom Schedule

There will be two Zoom sessions to get to know each other at the start and celebrate our writing at the end. These meetings will be held on Thursdays June 13th and August 1st from 8-9:30 PM Eastern. 

Weekly Syllabus

Each week will include written mini-talks; examples of how other memoir writers create powerful books through excerpts, annotated outlines of their books, and interviews (including podcasts, videos, and articles); Care and Feeding of the Writer reflections and discussion questions; and an opportunity to share an excerpt or other aspect of your memoir-in-process.

Because we are tending emerging and vulnerable first drafts, we will not be critiquing each other’s work but instead sharing feedback based on what works well and draws us deeper into the writing. Additionally, everyone is encouraged to write at least six-to-seven pages weekly of their memoir (some of which may be excerpted for our weekly sharing). While you are only expected to comment on two or three of your peers’ writing weekly, I will share encouraging comments on all your writing each week.

Week One: The Soul of Your Memoir

On the premise that a memoir is one integrated and in-depth story rather than many stories we’ve lived, we’ll explore how to sort through possibilities and land on your guiding story. We’ll also learn ways to create a shelf for what you may or may not include so that you’re not encumbered by too many possibilities. You’ll look at book summaries about other memoirs to give you greater context for writing a statement about your own memoir’s focus, which is also good practice for envisioning what might be on the back cover of your book. And we’ll talk about how to set up a healthy and generative memoir-writing practice. You’ll share writing on the focus of your memoir.

Week Two: The Body of the Memoir

A big picture view of your memoir can help your book come into focus and give you greater clarity on how to write it. This week focuses on how organize or re-organize your memoir, including chronologically, thematically, by characters or places, or other frameworks. I’ll share annotated outlines of some fantastic memoirs out there to give you more examples. We’ll review how maps are not the territory, and it’s important to see your outline as in-progress, or as Ted Lasso once said, “in prog-mess.” You’ll have a chance to share some of what you’re discovering in mapping out your memoir.

Week Three: Vibrant Scenes

By weaving together action, dialogue, description, and other elements, you can create compelling scenes that show rather than tell what is happening. At the same time, strong scenes go a long way in developing your characters and setting through their words, gestures, and movement. We’ll look at examples and ideas for making each scene its own micro story that contributes to unfolding the whole memoir. We’ll also strategize on what to do with scenes you’re not sure yet will be part of the book and how to write more challenging scenes. You’ll share a scene in process.

Week Four: Real Life People

Writing vivid characters can be all-the-more challenging when you’re working off real people. We’ll dive into approaches for making your characters three-dimensional so that writing about them not only illuminates your story but shows you new layers of experience and meaning. What’s more, your setting (even if it includes multiple locations) is its own character, and we’ll talk about how to convey the depth of where your story takes place. Throughout this week, we’ll peruse plenty of examples of people and places as characters. We’ll also discuss how to write about real people ethically and in line with your values and ongoing relationships. You’ll share a scene focusing on a character or several characters.

Week Five: Shapely Characters

Chapters bring together scenes in such a way that both creates an arc for each chapter and contributes to an overall arc for the whole memoir. We’ll look at what make a shapely chapter, including, through examples and resources, how shorter, longer, or medium-sized chapters might unfold. We’ll also consider how to mold the chapter to make it engaging, have just enough tension, and move along the whole story of the memoir. You’ll share some or all of a chapter.

Week Six: Compelling Beginnings, Enduring Endings

Every scene, every chapter, and every memoir needs a welcoming beginning and evocative ending. We’ll look at how other writers open and close scenes, chapters, and their overall books, and how you might experiment with various approaches. It can also be advantageous to write the ending of a chapter or scene (or even of your whole book) first while keeping an open mind about making changes later on. Likewise, sometimes it’s helpful to write the beginning of a memoir last or in the middle of drafting the memoir. You’ll share some of your beginnings and endings from chapters or scenes.

Week Seven: Bringing Body and Soul Together

Throughout the writing process, it’s essential to go back and forth between the macro (the outline and big picture of the book) and the micro (the specifics scenes and moments) to garner guidance for writing the next paragraph, scene, and chapter. We’ll explore how to toggle back and forth between the focus, outline, and specific moments, and in the process, prepare yourself for moving to Revision-Land after your first draft. You’ll share an excerpt from your writing.

Week Eight: The Ride and Writing Ahead

Writing a memoir is always a road trip into mystery and surprise, sometimes with long stretches of confusion on back roads that get you lost and occasionally on giant highways at high speed. We’ll immerse ourselves in strategies, inspirations, and rituals to keep the faith along the way, even if the book and road ahead changes. We’ll also talk more about Revision-Land and how to prepare for your time there while you’re still drafting the book.


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Student Feedback for Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg:

I have fallen in love with your writing instruction within the last year. You make us all feel fulfilled and artistic in our striving to express ourselves. Your class has, indeed, saved some lives! – Georgia Copeland

Caryn’s skill, talent, wit, and wisdom have shown me the way to begin writing again, which is a restorative healing process. Caryn has taught me to reach deep within and unabashedly, without apology or shame, to tell my own story. – Julie Flora

Beyond being detailed, caring, and brilliant in her editing, teaching, and consulting work, there is something about Caryn’s warm, authentic, empowering, Inspiring, and joyful presence that I have rarely observed in other leaders. – Harriet Lerner

After each class I recognize the peaceful place the class creates in me. My response to listening to others and hearing your responses to our work fills me with contentment, joy ,and satisfaction. The level of trust that we experience opens us to heartfelt honesty even as deeply painful experiences are shared.  Thank you for the sparks your words create. –  Patricia Durkin

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing and working with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg for the past decade, and have rarely encountered a more insightful, compassionate, or integrous teacher and coach. – Mark Matousek

To work with Caryn is to open your mind to the creative power within, and to show and better appreciate the creative power of others. – Tracy Million Simmons

You are truly one of the best facilitators I’ve ever seen, and your ability to create a safe space for all of us is so magical. — Beverly Stewart

Having taken several classes with Caryn, I find her expertise and thoughtful critique helpful to my writing.  She is a teacher I want to continue studying with, and I am grateful for her work. – Jan Stanton

I have taken two online classes with Caryn and have enjoyed them very much. She encourages a very positive online community atmosphere, provides an inspirational variety of readings and writing prompts, and gives useful and supportive feedback on student writing. – Anne Marvin

Caryn’s workshops provides both hope and a distraction from the issues of those suffering. – John L. Swainston

I found the course to be a gentle invitation to probe one’s life experiences and bring them to the present in a nurturing and kindly way. I especially liked how the course was structured from the immediate to the universal and opportunities for growth. Readings were relevant and inspiring, and it was refreshing to interact with the other participants. – Jennifer Pratt-Walter 

Caryn provides a wealth of material for her students, introducing us to a variety of poets and poems. Her teaching style is generous and nurturing. – Ruth McArthur

I was not expecting your course to change my life, but I was very eager to have the immersion now in more poetry, as well as a structure (which I need) to start up writing again. I also appreciated your very inclusive approach to teaching online, including acknowledgement that people could engage with the material at any level they wished, up what you called “living in it.” – Jan Hitchcock

As a once upon a time educator before my disability, I recognize superlative teaching. And I just want to say that your hand out, the poems you chose, the prompts, the way you hold space for your students, and the rhythm of the workshop you offered all demonstrated that you are a top notch teacher. Your kindness and understanding was like a salve to my hurting and struggling writer self. And I just want to say that aside from your mastery of teaching, who you are shines loving kindness into the dark and difficult spaces. – Marya Summers

June 5, 2024
8 Weeks


$545.00Enroll Now


Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is the 2009-2013 Poet Laureate of Kansas, a long-time transformative language artist, and the author or editor of 24 books, including poetry, memoir, fiction, non-fiction, and anthologies.  As a poet, fiction and non-fiction writer, teacher, mentor, and facilitator, she explores and celebrates how the spoken, written and sung word can help us live more meaningful and vibrant lives. The founder of Transformative Language Arts, she values social and personal transformation through the spoken, written and sung word.

Caryn brings to her classes over thirty years of experience teaching at the college level (including coordinating a master’s program at Goddard College) and facilitating community workshops and retreats around the country. As a beloved workshop facilitator with extensive experience she has led workshops for adults in transition, people living with physical or mental illness, intergenerational groups, and multi-cultural communities. She also offers writing and singing workshops and performances with singer-songwriter Kelley Hunt through their business, Brave Voice. With Kathryn Lorenzen, she co-leads Your Right Livelihood, a training to help people discern and plan their creative livelihoods. Along with Joy Roulier Sawyer, she has been teaching workshop and retreat facilitation through The Art of Facilitation. She also offers writing coaching to writers of poetry, memoir, fiction and mixed genre works.

Caryn’s book include: How Time Moves: New and Selection Poems, Miriam’s Well (a novel), Needle In Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Right Beat the Odds and Found Each Other (nonfiction), Chasing Weather: Tornadoes, Templest, and Thunderous Skies in Word and Image with photographer Stephen Locke, and The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body. 

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