Due Date: Wednesday, October 5
- Experience creative-writing boot camp to develop strategies to carry you through this session and on to your artistic vision.
- Create a 1000-1200 word Memoir/Magazine Article that satisfies your need for honest self-examination and offers a compelling read for an audience.
Your Grade for This Assignment
- Score on the Memoir assignment. Please review this score sheet before submitting your final draft. The best surprise is no surprise.
- "The New Normal" by Shumaita K, available in the Course Content link in Blackboard (look for the link in "Course Content" on the left side bar. Read it first.
The Brief Lecture
I want to offer a word about the approach presented here in these ten steps: if you do this work correctly, you will need the allotted two weeks to prepare this assignment. I take for granted that a piece of writing takes multiple days to perfect, but this may be genuine news to some folks, and those folks can sometimes get into trouble right here by underestimating how long it takes to make a good piece and overestimating how polished they are as writers.
Please don't make this mistake. Since you chose this class, I can only hope that this is work you'll find both challenging and fulfilling. If you're serious about creating a life as an artist for yourself, take the techniques seriously. If you're a dilettante jonesing for an easy A, we'll both know soon enough.
For the greatest chance of success, print this post and do one step per writing session. Then you will know what it feels like to create a piece the way professionals create. It feels pretty good, in case you were wondering. Good luck--and enjoy.
Remember the advice from those ten awesome memoirists in the previous post? Now is the time to show what you have learned. Adair Lara urges you to use the form to see the value and meaning in your experience; Bill Clinton cautions you not to use the form to get even with the wrongdoers in your life; and Stephen King reassures you that the fear you feel is good and natural--and then he tells you to get over yourself.
A memoir may develop from an essay, but there are key differences between the two genres. For one thing, essays tend to stay more on the surface of the experience, emphasizing the external historical elements; they express life lessons about common experiences. Memoirs, on the other hand, although also unrelentingly honest, are vehicles for a deeper, more personal truth.
You will find two handouts for this assignment at Blackboard in the "Tests and Assignments" link. Print them out and read them thoroughly. Also, you will upload the final copy there.
For your first writing assignment, select a topic from the list below:
A time you almost almost died
A time you stole something
A time you found out something you didn't want to know
A time you let something slip that you never intended to reveal
A gift you gave that went unacknowledged
A gift you wanted and got--and regretted getting
A hard thing you had to do
The list is just a place to start, so if none of these topics speaks to you and you have your own idea, feel free to run it by me.
The most important thing is to tell the story of how you dealt with conflict, and how that experience changed you. Good memoirs require a struggle, either with one's self or with an insurmountable external obstacle. Most importantly, they offer a profound story arc.
Look closely at our models in the previous post. Choose wisely. You might consider adapting the same source material through all the genres we experiment with this session.
Once you have made your choice, get started. There is no reason to feel nervous about freezing up or having nothing to say because this is how you start.
The fastest way to open the doors to your own creativity is to examine an artifact from that time in your life: letters you kept, concert ticket stubs you held on to, a ring you might still have but no longer wear, your hospital discharge papers. This really works. When I look at cancelled checks from my own college days and see what I spent money on, I zoom straight back to that first apartment and can draw it with my eyes closed. I can even see the parking lot right off Archer Road, smell the diesel exhaust from the campus shuttle bus, and step off in front of Turlington Hall all over again.
So: put your hands on an artifact from that time in your life. Feel those feelings--the sweetness and the loss.
Here are some suggestions from the Memoir website about how to further enhance these artifacts:
1. Call someone familiar with the situation or at least the time you are writing about. Invite him or her share perceptions and memories. Do not correct what you hear. Be open.
2. Pull out old files and records, photos, home movies, letters or postcards, diaries, even bills or bank statements from the time.
3. Look at marriage or birth certificates, grant deeds, or car purchase papers.
4. Go back to the place it all happened, if possible.
Set up your writing area. Select a quiet spot. Arrange your favorite pen or pencil and a notebook you really like and aren't intimidated by. I like to rough out a discovery draft in a large sketch pad like one:
I tend to avoid beautiful, expensive numbers like this handmade Turkish leather notebook because I don't have a thought in my head worthy of such a showcase:
Start writing--wherever the words want to start. Let it all pour out of you without judgment and without worrying about how all the pieces will come together. You MUST open these doors. This is the part that starts hard--but then, all at once, you will get so deeply into the memory that your pen can't keep up with your thoughts. Hemingway referred to this moment as "the story writing itself," and it is what you had hoped Creative Writing would feel like and be. Good job! Stop for the day, say 'thank you' to the genius assigned to you, and go play outside for a while.
This is what writing the Discovery draft feels like:
Notice how the "track" appears just as the "car" gets close to the edge? Isn't that a visual metaphor for how the words just appeared as you tore through your discovery draft?
This step is very satisfying. During the next writing session, type your handwritten material into a Word document. As you type, you will see magic happen as moments that were already good take on depth and color. Spend about forty minutes on this step. And then let yourself be done. Go watch a football game or something.
This is where the rubber hits the road. Read over what you have written. Now, you must write the story and assert order and control over the material. This may be a shock. The drafting material has felt so good to write that you might be tempted to believe that it must actually be good.
But you'd be wrong. So wrong. You'll be seeing that for yourself soon enough.
You needed that open, unjudging experience to know what you wanted to write about, but you won't create anything anyone else wants to read until you step back from that awesome raw material, give it a day or so to rest, and then shape it. By "shape," I mean that you must compose the material now to fit the prime directive of any writing for a creative-writing class: you must tell a story. And that means your piece must have a very clear beginning, middle, and end.
Here is an example of what I mean. This first student-written paragraph was conjured during a session where the writer felt like every word came to him on wings. The experience of crashing into the tree and nearly killing himself was fresh in his memory, and he felt compelled to write about it. Here is the paragraph:
The perspiration had swallowed my white T-shirt. My heart was pumping furiously and my hands were tightly gripping the handlebars. The chrome on my bicycle glistened as the beads of sweat bounced off it and disappeared on the scorching pavement. As I raced down the street, the wind became my opponent and it beat against me like the waves on a beach. The anticipation of the victory grew as I managed a tense smile with the thought of a record time. With the race half over fatigue began to set in. The tree that marked the finish line mocked me as it seemed to move farther away. All of my energy was being used up. My legs were churning and the fire inside was about to engulf them. So I lowered my head, as I had seen on TV, to focus all of my energy on the finish.
When he wrote it, he was in the moment and loved the writing. That was appropriate. But he gave it to me without shaping it, and I did not love the reading. What a mess! The metaphors are so mixed that there is no hope of subtext, the verbs are flaccid ("was pumping, was gripping"), and the organization is nonexistent. Think about it: how can perspiration swallow anything? Wouldn't the shirt disappear? And if you tighten the verbs to "gripped" and "pumped," aren't they more powerful?
This is, in its current form, about a C-. You may think that the piece is better than that, and that I am harsh. I assure you that I am not. It may well be that you don't notice the problems because this is what you currently do--and that is what the class is here to help you correct.
Four days and three rewrites later, I got this version:
Perspiration soured my white T-shirt. My heart pounded. The oak tree marking the finish line beckoned. My hands gripped the handlebars. The chrome on the bicycle glistened. Beads of sweat rolled off my face onto the shiny surface and then evaporated on the scorching pavement below. The wind whipped my arms and face. I stole a glance behind. The nearest cyclist was easily fifty feet away and dropping fast. I managed a tight grin at the thought of a record time.
The race half over now, fatigue gnawed at my smugness. In my blurring vision, the old oak seemed to swim away. All of my energy waned. My legs quivered. The breath I drew in ragged gasps turned to fire inside my lungs. I lowered my head, as I had seen on TV, to focus all of my energy on the finish.
Isn't it now more focused, organized, and fun to read? From a series of scattered, disconnected sentences, the writer has produced a sleek moment that has the all-important beginning, middle, and end.This is what you must ruthlessly do to your own piece. And this is just the first draft. Stop for today.
Now the hard work actually begins. Read over the work from the day before. Ask yourself: why am I writing about this? What is the insight I hoped to achieve?
You must answer these questions in order to move the piece from "very good essay" to "compelling memoir." Look at the memoir pieces I assigned you, particularly the last four paragraphs of Peter Orner's wonderful "Writing About What Haunts Us."
Slice away any material that was fun to read but does not contribute to the overall direction of the piece. With your insight in mind, you will now know what you must cut and what you must keep. Make those choices. Scrape away any words that don't serve the story. If I see a fifteen-page submission, I will know that you made no artistic choices and that the piece will bore me.
This is a visual metaphor of how the drafting process sometimes feels!
Carefully proofread your work. Here are some common errors you can avoid:
1. If you question the spelling or meaning of a word, LOOK IT UP!
2. Eliminate any connector words like "and" and "as."
3. Eliminate as many -ly adverbs as possible; edit your verbs accordingly.
4. Keep the action as close to chronology as possible.
5. Don't use you [or any other second-person pronoun].
6. Remember that you are writing a memoir, not sending a text, so use language and punctuation accordingly
Produce the final draft of your piece [a minimum of 1000 words, maximum of 1200]. Follow these format guidelines:1. In the top left corner of the first page provide the following information:
CRW 2001 Online
In the top right corner, type your last name, key word from your title, and page number, like this:
2. Double space the memoir. Do NOT add extra space between the paragraphs.
3. Indent all the paragraphs
4. Have a one-inch margin on all four sides of the page.
5. Use a 12-point font.
To avoid late penalties, I must receive an electronic copy submitted to Blackboard by Wednesday, October 5
If you miss the assignment submission window in Blackboard and must submit your piece via Atlas email (with attachment), please remember to include a polite note that follows Professor Leddy's example. Late pieces submitted without the polite email note will receive an additional five-point penalty.
Upload your polished memoir to the assignment posted at Blackboard. Make sure that you see the title.docx that indicates the attachment went through.
Email me through Atlas if you have any questions.