Teaching Brevity in Memoir

July 16, 2021 § 10 Comments

By Linda Downing Miller

I’ve taught a weekly memoir and creative writing class for more than six years through the Center for Life and Learning, in Chicago. September to June, the CLL offers a variety of educational programs for adults 60 and older. Each meeting of memoir brings about a dozen participants together to read their writing aloud. Their life stories fill and enrich our sessions. Writers get to know one-another as they deepen their understanding of how writing engages an audience.

My job during class is to keep the process moving so everyone has time to be heard, to lead and guide follow-up comments that help writers learn and improve, and to offer a prompt at the end of each meeting that sparks their creativity for next time. Good prompts help writers unearth, explore, and find meaning in memories they may not have thought about for years.

I took on this role without thinking much about how I would come up with new prompts. The friend who taught the class before she connected me with the opportunity seemed to find ideas all around her. Fresh from a low-residency MFA program where I relished our in-depth writing discussions, I was eager to share the passion.

For my first class, I brought an old New Yorker piece by John McPhee called “Silk Parachute,” in which he remembers his mother and a toy she once bought for him. (As with all wonderful essays, it can’t be summarized.) Sharing the piece in class, I tried not to let my voice catch at the perfection of the ending. Then I offered this prompt to the writers in the room: write about a childhood toy, or an object or piece of clothing from your childhood, that has stayed in your mind. Writers returned the next week with their “homework.”

I quickly realized the constraints of our 90 minutes together meant teaching was more like coaching, a little bit here and a little bit there, around the main event of their work. But by sharing examples of published writing each week and creating prompts inspired by that writing, I could call attention to different features, styles, voices, and forms. It wasn’t long before Brevity became a regular resource for me.

Write about where you were and what you were doing when something “big” happened in the world. (Read “In Orbit,” by Brenda Miller.)

Write about something you did on a regular basis on one particular day. (Read “Solstice,” by Joanne Lozar Glenn.)

Write about a fight or a time when you said something you wished you hadn’t. (Read “Girl Fight,” by Joey Franklin.)

Write about yourself at 18. Begin “in scene”—in a place where you spent time with others. (Read “Ten Years Ago,” by Sarah Beth Childers.)

Write about a dance, date, or relationship from your past that you have not thought about in a long time. If you’d like, speculate about that person’s view of you then. (Read “Invisible Partners,” by Ira Sukrungruang.)

Ah, romances of the past! And the opportunity the author demonstrates to enter the imaginary in literary nonfiction. I remember this prompt bringing particular energy to the room.

No surprise, each Brevity example I share also models concision. To make time for everyone’s stories, memoir class members aim to limit the length of their pieces to about 500 words, a parameter established by the previous teacher. (Beth Finke has since written a guidebook about her process.) I allow some length leeway and try to rein it in when inspired writers approach Brevity’s 750-word cap.

Last fall, participants wrote personal ghost stories, with Maggie Smith’s “Ghost Story” for inspiration. (Have you ever encountered a ghost? Felt like a ghost? Been “ghosted” by someone?) Class members conveyed the trepidation of staying in an allegedly haunted room, the strange sense of a lost loved-one’s presence, the remembered mystery of a ghostly object sliding across the Arizona sky, and more.

Haunted by memories of your own? Put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Employ whatever tools you use to capture words. As I tell the writers in my classes, let yourself write as much as you want on your first draft. Then see what you have, and revise from there.

Seeking more writing prompts, for yourself, for students, for others? Pick a Brevity piece at random and see where it leads you. I’ve found a wealth of inspiration in the Brevity archives, and I’m thankful for the new material that arrives with each issue. The connections and creative energy built in a memoir class can keep writers—and their coach—coming back, year after year.


Linda Downing Miller has led creative writing classes in Chicago at the Center for Life and Learning, the Newberry Library, The Clare, and elsewhere. Her stories and essays have appeared in literary journals and other publications, including Chicago Quarterly Review, Water~Stone Review, The Florida Review, and the Chicago Tribune. She received an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.

§ 10 Responses to Teaching Brevity in Memoir

  • It’s been years since I was given a writing prompt. Thank you for this. My 50-year high school reunion has finally been rescheduled for next month. A person I once cared about appeared on the list of attendees, someone I was relieved to learn was still alive—write about a “relationship from your past that you have not thought about in a long time.”

  • Beth Finke says:

    Thanks to you (and now Jan, above) for the writing prompt ideas — and for the shout-out to my guide book! Keeping the idea of sharing alive, here’s one of my prompts inspired by the first line of an essay one writer penned during our last six-week session: “I Am Not Supposed to Be Here.” Great essay, Linda. You inspire us!

  • kperrymn says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed, mired in revisions of my book-length memoir. After reading your essay I feel energized and equipped with a doable, fun way to get at what I am trying to say. Your students are lucky to have a gifted and generous teacher like you.

  • Birte says:

    Inspirational… Great prompts to get ‘back to’ writing after a long pause.

  • This reminded me of a Public Speaking class from many years ago. I go to the front of the room when called, five minutes is my time to speak on ? Pencil, remember it well. Another time Telephone was my challenge. I got an A, tummy gremlins still pop up after 50 years when I speak to groups.

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