The Story We Be: The Craft of Memoir & Personal Narrative

Facilitator: mia susan amir
Date: June 9th – July 18th 2014
Number of Workshops: 7 (including day-long retreat)
Registration fee: $150.00 – $350.00


This 6-week Intensive will bring together an intergenerational group of 12 writers, 18 years and older, to engage in a cross-genre exploration of the act of memoir, and personal narrative; of rendering from our lived experiences and those that we have inherited, meaning, that can foster illumination, and transformation, on the personal and collective scale; through the craft of story-writing. Through rigorous exploration of texts – both those assigned and those brought to workshop by participating writers – we will delve deep into the work of what it is to craft compelling narrative.

This Intensive takes the site of the self, as the site of the communal. We
 exist, because the world exists; therefore while our stories are our own, they are also necessarily shared, and urgent.
This Intensive takes the site of the body, of place, of the archive, of the imagination, of politics, of the land, of our ancestors, as the locations where our memories and stories live; often in narrative silence; excluded from dominant memory; but living loudly within, around, and on us. This Intensive seeks to offer a space where those memories can be excavated and find voice. Through interdisciplinary arts-based techniques, and guided creative processes, we will recover language and/or forge new language to name those silences. We will write important stories, that change us.

We will work together as part of an innovative, supportive, collaborative community, taking creative risks to:

  • Explore and write into the stories that shape our lives; towards our truths
  • Examine how our stories are part, and reflective of, the world in which we live
  • Engage story-writing and storytelling as inherently political and politicized acts
  • Develop/heighten/hone techniques in craft
  • Experiment with our “voice”, and the the aesthetics of our work
  • Participate in lively conversations and debates on the readings, themes, and craft approaches
  • Experience with the way in which our stories, can offer a luminous, and liberatory potential for a broader community

Note: Individuals interested in participating will have some level of experience with writing (journalling is great), be interested in studying some powerful texts (including memoirs in various genres, personal essays, and critical theory), and are prepared to read the equivalent of one book a week.

Themes and craft elements that we will explore:

  • Writing memory, including bio- and ancestral memory
  • The question of “Truth” in the context of memoir and personal narrative with particular attention to: emotional truth, observable truth, and verifiable truth
  • The development of narrative arcs, character and scene building, juxtaposition, pace, dialogue, and more
  • The development of the self as a character
  • Writing beyond binaries
  • The ethics of writing and sharing stories that involve and implicate others
  • The role of personal storytelling in: healing and transformation; community and movement-building; visioning and constructing a more just world
  • Oral storytelling as an entry point to the innate narrative structures that inhabit us
  • How to get our stories out into the world

Intensive Structure:

  • 6 evening workshops, 3-hours in length will run once a week for the full duration of the Intensive, starting the week of June 9th.
  • Each workshop will include a physical and writing warm-up, the investigation of assigned texts, creative writing prompts, discussions exploring theory and craft, and the workshopping of participants’ original work.
  • Intensive participants will also meet once weekly with a smaller working group of 3 individuals.
  • Each participant will have 1 one-on-one meeting with the facilitator
  • Participants will attend a 1-day weekend writing retreat
  • Participants will be invited to share new work generated through the Intensive at the 2014 Writing Institute Community Reading on July 18th 2014

Writers whose work we may explore:

Alison Bechdel, Andrea Smith, bell hooks, Chinua Achebe, Chris Abani, Claudia Rankine, D’bi Young, Edwidge Danticat, Elmaz Abinader, Gloria Anzaldua, Gregory Scofield, June Jordan, Kiese Laymon, Leanne Simpson, Lauren Slater, Linda Hogan, Michael Ondaatje, Paulo Freire, Patricia Hampl, Rigoberta Menchú, Sarah Jones, Thomas King, Warsan Shire, and others.

Participants will leave the Intensive with:

  • Prompts and exercisers to support their continuing work beyond the Intensive
  • A personal theory of writing and storytelling
  • New craft skills in creative writing and oral storytelling
  • One piece of writing that has gone through a collective workshop process
  • An experience of publicly sharing their work
  • A new community of creative minds to work with in the future

Guiding Philosophy:
Our unique and common stories often live in our bodies, our homes, the places we work, the ways that we love, where the daily impacts of the systemic forces that shape our lives are most real, and yet most individualized, isolated, unseen, and unnamed. Our narrative silences are what ultimately allow dominant social, political, economic, environmental, cultural, religious, relational and emotional stories to remain intact.

If as Thomas King says, “the truth about story is that’s all we are,” then we can consider the telling of our stories, new stories, stories that disrupt and dissolve what we take for granted, as a crucial, necessary and sacred act; because the truth about story’s power, is that’s what we become. “It is in speaking their world that people, by naming the world, transform it.” (Paulo Freire) So when we write our stories, we work to fill the abyss where narratives reliant on our individual and collective silences would otherwise operate. Writing our stories, assists us, to excavate the meaning of our experiences, helps us to see, know, and reclaim ourselves, to look beyond the perimeter of the spaces we have limited ourselves to. (Freire, Herman) What Linda Hogan writes of ceremony, can in this sense apply to the act of writing our stories:

…[it] is a part of a healing and restoration. It is the mending of a broken connection between us and the rest. The intention of a ceremony is to put a person back together by restructuring the human mind. This reorganization is accomplished by a kind of inner map, a geography of the human spirit and the rest of the world. We make whole our broken-off pieces of self and world. Within ourselves we bring together the fragments of our lives in a sacred act of renewal, and we reestablish our connection with others.

In speaking our world, we bring our stories into dialogue with the stories of others. We make communal our inheritances. (Freire) In telling our stories, to and with each other, we can find the critical spaces where our stories intersect and diverge; observe the impacts of the large world in our small lives; and strengthen our ability to build recognition across difference, by witnessing evidence of our common humanity. In telling our stories, we can stitch together, as Freire suggests, a more objective understanding of the world in which we live; increasing our ability to enact meaningful change rooted in a deep engagement with our lived experiences.

As Fenton Johnson writes, memoir, as “a vehicle for subjectivity,” offers a poignant entry point “to truth, the enduring, timeless wisdom that enables us to have and keep faith in ourselves and in each other, in our collective capacity to live in harmony with each other and with our planet.” Memoir as an act of dialogue expects and requires others who are participant to, invoked in, and implicated directly by the stories we write; and who are on their own quest to remember and name.

Telling our stories holds the potential for political shift, spiritual recovery, and social healing; where we can start to create as opposed to react to narrow framings of the world. Where expression of our truths and identities are able to emerge from a generative place. In writing our stories we leave the territory of hegemonic polarization and enter what Gloria Anzaldua terms Nepantla, “a liminal space, a space where you are not this or that […] but where you are in a kind of transition […] in the midst of transformation.”