Questions & Authors: The Power of Memoir

August 18th, 2010

Everyone has a story to tell. Kimberly Hill Campbell realized that adolescents in middle and high school especially appreciate reading — and writing — memoir. In this installment of our Questions & Authors series, Kimberly shares some great memoirs for reading, followed by prompts that support writing a memoir. Kimberly’s recent book Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts, Grades 6-12, explores a variety of short texts to engage a wide range of middle and high school students.

The Power of Memoir

This fall I was asked by one of the graduate students in my language arts methods class to explain the difference between personal narrative and memoir.  And I immediately thought of the personal narratives so many of my high school students had written.  Stories of experiences that were often rich in detail but missing what I so appreciate about memoir: the why of the personal story.  Personal narrative is the starting point for memoir, but it is in the selection of what to include and what it all means, that we move from narrative to memoir.  As William Zinsser, author of Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir notes, “A good memoir requires two elements—one of art, and the other of craft.  Memoir is how we make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us….Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events” (1998, p. 6)

I have loved memoir as a personal reading choice since I was in high school. And I am not alone in my appreciation of memoir.  I am on the waiting list at my local library for Mary Karr’s newest memoir, Lit, and I note Karr’s previous memoirs, The Liar’s Club, and Cherry, also have waiting lists.  But it took me longer than it should have to recognize the teaching value of memoir in middle school and high school classrooms.  What I know now is that students appreciate the wisdom and humor that can be found in a memoir.  As one high school student noted after reading a selection of memoir excerpts,  “I have been interested in how people can express their life in a book.  Everyone has had problems and gifts, and everyone has their own story to tell.” Having a story to tell is particularly true for adolescents who are in the very process of discovering themselves. As Nancie Atwell writes in her chapter, “Call Home the Child: Memoir” in In the Middle,  “Memoir celebrates people and places no one has ever heard of.  And memoir allows us to discover and tell our own truths as writers” (1998).

I appreciate how reading memoir supports writing memoir.  So the discussion that follows will first focus on recommendations for memoir reading followed by prompts that support writing memoir.  It’s my hope these ideas will support those of you who are already working with memoir in your middle school and high school classrooms. And I am counting on you to respond to this blog with your recommendations for reading and writing memoir.  For those of you who have not yet worked with memoir, I hope you’ll be willing to explore this genre with your students and share your discoveries.

In choosing memoirs for whole class or literature circle reading, I look for a mix that address a variety of topics.  I also look at the writing craft of the memoirs we read: What lessons can students learn from this author’s writing.  Typically I select excerpts from longer works, although please see the reference to a collection of short memoirs, edited by Amy Erlich in the section on “Lessons from Childhood.”   Listed below are memoir excerpts that have worked well with middle school and high school students.  Each one illustrates the power of focusing on “small self-contained incidents that are still vivid….because they contain a universal truth that …readers will recognize from their own life” (Zinsser, 2006)

Memoirs to Read

As noted above, I try to provide a mix of memoir and particularly appreciate memoirs that focus on lessons learned from childhood, memoirs that highlight the importance of reading and/or writing, and memoirs that make me laugh.

Lessons Learned from Childhood

Excerpt from Part I of Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood (1987).  Dillard describes throwing snowballs at cars and the chase that ensues when one driver pulls over and chases Dillard and her snow-ball-throwing friends.  I admire Dillard’s appreciation of the chase and her craft, particularly her use of  descriptive details.

When I Was Your Age, Volume Two: Original Stories about Growing Up, ed. by Amy Erlich.(1999) is a rich collection of short memoirs of adolescence by authors who write YA fiction. I admire the accessibility of these memoirs and the fine writing craft, in particular, compelling leads (“ In the Blink of an Eye” by Norma Fox Mazer and “ Pegasus for a Summer” by Michael Rosen) and setting details to illustrate the power of place (“The Long Closet” by Jane Yolen).

The Importance of Reading and Writing

Excerpt from Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodgriguez: An Autobiography (1982. pp. 62-72).  Rodriguez details his love of reading and its impact on his life in a distinct style of varied sentence lengths, questions, parenthetical remarks, and repetition.

Excerpt “20” from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000, pp. 55-58 (Please be aware there is profanity in the opening paragraph). In this excerpt, King shares the revisions and advice he received from the local newspaper editor in response to his sports story, “[w]rite with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.  Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out.  Once you know what the story is and it get right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it” (2000, p. 57).

Memoirs that Make Me Laugh

Opening section of the chapter “Bawlbaby” in Chris Crutcher’s, King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography (2003, p. 19-26)  In this excerpt, Crutcher shares his struggle with showing anger through crying and life with an older brother.  I also appreciate his candid passion for cookies.  It’s funny, poignant and Illustrates the power of dialogue in support of memoir.

A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Moreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel (2002)  is a delightful memoir focusing on a series of vignettes that celebrate the wisdom and humor of childhood.  In particular, I recommend “Daniel” (p. 40-45) and “Diner” (p. 167-172).

“Thinking Small” in Support of Writing Memoir

William Zinsser talk about the challenge of finding an entry point to memoir, deciding “What to put in? What to take leave out? Where to start? Where to stop? How to shape the story?”  He suggest that as writers of memoir, we are well served to “think small.”  Two memoir writing strategies that have worked well with adolescent writers and heed Zinseer’s “reduced” writing approach are described below:

Candy and Me

Hilary Liftin’s wonderful memoir, Candy and Me: A Love Story (2003) details the author’s passion for candy and other sweet treat, including canned frosting.  Excerpts from this text have inspired many middle school and high school students to craft their own candy memoirs.  The key elements of this writing workshop include reading selections from Liftin’s memoir:  I recommend the chapter on “Snickers.”  (pp. 62-64). As Liftin notes, Snickers is the perfect blend of chocolate, peanuts, nougat, and caramel.  And she goes on to describe that in a pinch, it’s the candy bar that “eats like a meal” so it sustained her on a two-week-long high school graduation camping trip that surprisingly didn’t include meals.   I follow this reading by providing students with a sampling of candy.  I know this idea of giving students candy has its challenges and may even be prohibited in some schools.   But I have watched in amazement as students (grades 6-12)  respect and embrace the idea that the candy is in support of their writing.  Some teachers have found it helpful to ask students to wait to eat the candy until the end of the quiet writing period.

Just last week, in a senior English class, students sampled candy as they wrote their candy memoirs. One student, who described herself as a reluctant writer and who had not been been willing to share any of her writing with the class, willingly volunteered to read her candy memoir about Smarties.  When she was finished reading, her peers applauded.

Six-Word Memoirs

I have read that Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in only six words. He wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” SMITH magazine ( celebrated Hemingway’s efforts by encouraging readers to write their own six-word memoirs.  The result is a magazine, website, and series of books celebrating six-word memoirs, including the original published collection: Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs from Writers Famous and Obscure, edited by Rachel Feirshleiser and Larry Smith (2006).   In this collection journalist Chuck Klosterman writes, “Nobody cared, then they did. Why?”  and Amy Sedaris offers a very different approach, “Mushrooms. Clowns. Wands. Five. Wig. Thatched.”

After sharing Hemingway’s model and excerpts from the original collection described above and the SMITH website ( words), juniors and seniors in a Creative Writing class wrote their own six-word memoirs:

            “Treading through the waters of the past” by Bradie

            “Silver lining sliding over murky puddle” by Chelsea

            “I’m fat but I am tender” by Shanji

            “Life is creating your own Stories” by Taylor

            “Internal Assessment due Tomorrow: bad words” by Vivian

            “I’m worried, thinking, twisted, and …shrinking.” by Chelsea

And as evidence that students will build on their six-word memoirs in crafting longer memoirs, Sam wrote “I need more than six words.”

A group of middle school students turned their six-word memoirs into a compelling video.  Check out Mollie Dickson’s blog to see their outstanding work.

Why Memoir?

Memoir is an opportunity for us, as readers, to experience the well-told moments of the author’s life.  It’s an opportunity for us as writers, to craft our own stories, carefully selecting each detail in an effort to discover our own truth.  As memoir author  Mary Karr notes in describing good memoirs, “they elevate experience into art and use individual lives to locate universal truths.”

Entry Filed under: Questions & Authors

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dr. Ann McGreevy  |  August 27th, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Hi..I teach a writing course and would like a review copy of this book on Memoir for use in my class anf for perhaps a text…..Course. EDU 999c Teaching Teachers and Children to Write… 15 per term….. each term it is offered…..
    Dr. Ann McGreevy
    Graduate Division
    Salem State University
    352 Lafayette St.
    Salem, MA 01970

  • 2. Susan Schow  |  August 30th, 2010 at 9:01 am

    Thank you. This is exactly what I need to inspire me in teaching memoir to my 8th grade classes.

  • 3. Leslie Popkin  |  September 6th, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    This has given me the jumpstart to get me going as I embark on another school year. Less is More is one of my new favorites. The 6th, 7th and 8th grade literacy teachers will be dipping their fingers into this text this year. I know that we will be inspired by Campbell’s words and guidance. Great resource!!
    Our units on memoir will be enhanced by the references provided. Thanks!! (And don’t forget the memoirs written by former students to be used as mentors, too!!)

  • 4. Stephanie MIlligan  |  September 8th, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    This is an amazing post. I’m a new 8th grade English teacher and can’t wait to use these strategies and this text in my room! Thank you so much for sharing!

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