Your Story Matters: How to write memoir

gavilan memoir writing class

I recently began teaching memoir writing at Gavilan College Community Education. Last night was the last meeting of the advanced course, and I don’t know how else to say this except to get kind of woo-woo on you: Magic happened in that room.

Let me back up. These seven students had taken my intro course over the summer, where they wrote a couple of pages of a single memory that stood out to them. After those courses ended, they chose to stick around and work even harder. On the first night of the advanced class, we talked about our goals for the next six weeks. The students decided they would write the first chapters of their books.

It was an ambitious goal, but I supported it. These writers did the incredibly tough work of examining themselves and their pasts and writing them in a way that is compelling for readers. They wrote with unflinching honesty. They wrote with humor and style. They wrote with bravery.

I titled the class “Your Story Matters,” because I believe that all of us have stories to tell, and that they matter. If we write about those memories that keep us up at night, we can help someone else feel less alone. But we can only do that if we are honest and willing to be vulnerable. It’s not easy, but these students nailed it. They wrote about the things that matter. They wrote about their experiences as a child migrant farm worker, of the loss of a spouse, of abusive relationships, of leaving cults, of falling in love, of finding God.

As they read their pieces--the first chapters of their books--out loud to each other last night, the room was electronically charged with the power of story. For six weeks, we have been deconstructing our writing to make it better and critiquing and digging deeper and deeper and deeper. But last night, when everyone had finished reading their work out loud, the only thing I could say was wow.

Yes, their stories were beautiful and heart-wrenching and funny and true, but something even more powerful was going on, and that was their support for one another. The empathy in that room was so thick you could smell it. I was no longer the teacher, or even the facilitator. I was a spectator of something powerful beyond my control. All I could do was lean back in my chair and soak it up. 

I love writing, but I think what I love even more is seeing that spark turn on for someone else. And what an incredible, bonding experience it was to see that happen collectively over six weeks. The class exchanged phone numbers last night; true friendships were forged. I’m sad to let go of this group, and I hope they keep writing. Each of them has a book inside them and I intend to read them. In the spring, I’ll bring this class back for a new crop of students, and we will get to see the magic happen all over again.