9 Things I Learned in Megan Stielstra’s Memoir Course

March 1, 2022 § 7 Comments

By Marisa Russello

When I read The Wrong Way to Save Your Life by Megan Stielstra, I knew I had to apply for her intensive year-long memoir course, the first of its kind offered through Catapult. These intensive “generator” courses are offered every so often for writing memoirs, essay collections, novels, and poetry. There are even generator classes aimed at specific populations, such as queer and trans writers or writers of color. Although the price is steep, they offer need-based scholarships, and for me, the course felt like an excellent alternative to an MFA. I consider it the best investment I’ve made in my writing career—and I promise I’m not earning a commission for this!

Ask anyone who knows Megan and they’ll tell you she’s not only an amazing writer but an amazing human. What I love most is her passion for sparking uncomfortable conversations, her empathy, and her dedication to her students. I grew exponentially as a writer during that course, and in addition to the skills I learned, I feel more confident about the quality of my writing. For the first time, I have instincts as a writer, whereas before writing was a guessing game.

Here are some of my favorite insights on writing from Megan’s class: 

9. This is not the last time you’ll write. New authors often try to cram everything that’s ever happened to them and every idea they’ve ever had into their book. You’ll write other pieces in your lifetime, so you don’t have to fit everything into your first memoir.

8. You’re actively living the book you’re writing. Ask yourself how the world is running parallel to your pages. If society changes, are you modifying your story accordingly?

7. Write that down! Megan shouted this phrase at us during every class whenever she heard something she liked. Keep your ears open for beautiful language or intriguing lines, and write them down immediately so you don’t forget.

6. Less is more. Include only the specific details that serve the story and must be included. When deciding if you should use something in your book, ask yourself: why is this here? Does this raise more questions than it answers?

5. Show AND tell. All of your writing doesn’t need to be dramatized in a scene. Some parts of a story are better told through exposition, which is also useful to break up scenes. You decide what needs to be summarized and what should be shown happening in real time.

4. Pay attention to what’s not said. There is so much conveyed through all the things you’re not saying: the way the body feels, gestures, facial expressions, what you wanted to say but didn’t, etc. What’s not said is equally as important as the words said aloud.

3. Likable characters aren’t necessary. It’s more important to make someone human than to make them likable. Human characters are relatable because of their flaws, not their perfection. We should see people who are multifaceted in our writing: ones who get hurt and who hurt others.

2. Be curious. Approach reading others’ work with curiosity not judgment. You can’t hate something just because you don’t understand it.

1. The answer is on your bookshelf. If you want to learn how to do something new, just study your favorite books. As a writer, you should always be reading and it’s okay to be influenced by others.

___

Marisa Russello is currently at least six feet away from you and working on a memoir, Everything You Can’t Control. She writes fiction and nonfiction from her home in upstate New York and also works as a peer recovery specialist at a local not-for-profit where she supports individuals in improving their mental health and wellness. Her passion for advocacy and past experiences with discrimination inspire her to speak openly about her disabilities. Find her at Instagram: @marisarussellowrites or Twitter: @russellowrites.

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