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Giving the Memoir Workshop Structure. Winging It Doesn’t Work

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Editor’s note: In the previous post, I wrote about the birth of the workshop idea. In this post, I write about giving the developing memoir workshop structure.

If you missed the first post, go here to read it before going on. (The sequence will enhance your experience.)

After my third presentation to her Foster Grandparents, Mary and I wrote a grant to submit to the Maine Humanities Council. It was for three 30-hour workshops at each of the three facilities where I had done my presentation on What Became Of Them, my collection of autobiographical short fiction. The workshops were to be free to the participants.

To our great delight, the grant was funded, and Mary and I set a schedule of memoir workshops. We each did our part in promoting the workshops which were to be open to members of the public. The workshops filled up nicely even a bit on the large side for a memoir class—15-20 members or more in each group.

Creating the memoir workshop structure

Having been a trained teacher with an MA in Education, I began with that experience as a background. As I conducted the workshops, I kept notes of what had worked and what had not. The first group was something of an experiment as I implemented the best curriculum I could come up with, but since I did not have actual students when I did so, there was a bit of guesswork. When I was actually teaching a workshop, I sometimes concluded that I needed to change or eliminate things the next time around. This is not different from how these things are usually done.

By the time the third group started to meet, I had already refined much in the curriculum. I was clearly working at giving the memoir workshop structure. By the time I was nearing the end of the time frame of the grant, apparently, I was doing well enough because the auditor whom the Maine Humanities Council sent to evaluate whether their money was being well spent—or not!—wrote a very favorable report.

Subsequently, the Council invited us to submit a second grant for more funding over more venues. A great vote of confidence!

Again we were successful with our application and received funding for a second series. What ensued were eight 30-hour workshops. We returned to the first three venues and added five new sites. I asked venue directors to limit enrollments to 20 writers. At one site, the director was so enthusiastic in her promotion of the program that 28 people signed up!

As I continued working with these older people who were the age I am now, I felt I was coming home. These were my people even though I was then the age of their children. Intellectually and emotionally we were peers.

I loved working with them. What’s more, for the time I was with them, I loved them. I have always felt that a necessary ingredient of teaching is falling in love with your students for the duration of your association. At no time teaching adolescents, had I felt so comfortable with and so attached to my students.

To be successful at memoir teaching, you must understand your material (writing), be able to manipulate your format (the curriculum), and have an appreciation and respect of the potential of your students to go from where they currently are in their skills to another level of mastery.

Goodwill and good intentions are not enough.

During this second round of workshops, I continued to hone my curriculum. I became aware that when I did this rather than that first, the students caught on faster but, if I reversed or mixed the order, there was a higher level of lack of understanding.

When I saw “Hunh?” on too many faces, I knew I had to tweak something.

When the student does not grasp what has been taught, the teaching has not been a success!

Thankfully, the grant-funded workshops provided me with 330 hours of contact time with new writers. In that time, I had 175 to 200 writing students. In addition, knowing (in the second round if not the first) that I would be audited at some time helped focus me on creating the most effective curriculum I could.

What a great opportunity I had to develop a memoir workshop structure without worry about finances as the grant took care of my income! I was very fortunate.

As you can imagine, the writers came from all sorts of educational preparation—hence the necessity to create a curriculum that was challenging to the best prepared and still doable for the least. I evolved a group process based on my experience with high school students to respond to this challenge. It worked!

By the time, I had finished the eleventh workshop in the series I was perhaps 8o% done with the curriculum that eventually became the core of Turning Memories into Memoirs workshop. In the next years, I would fine-tune it until in 1996, I wrote it up as the Curriculum Manual which focuses on the memoir workshop structure.

Continuing on my own

From 1990 on, I was not supported by grant money and I so started to charge tuition. In doing so, I became a memoir business. I went on to deliver the tuition-based workshops in 8 of the 11 previous venues. Then I branched out all over—even attracting writers both nationwide and internationally (Canada, Israel, Japan, Jamaica, etc.)

The memoir workshop structure is sound.

One day in the early 2000s, I walked away from a first session of a workshop sensing that I had not delivered what the students needed. By that time, delivery was almost automatic. I had done it so many times, but even so, I found that I could mix things up. Afterwards, I opened my Curriculum Manual and read through what I had outlined as a best technique for a first-session curriculum. Sure enough, I had mixed the process and omitted part of the step.

This was humbling, but deservedly so as I had not done the practice I usually engage in: to review the appropriate section of the Curriculum Manual to be sure that I was following the process.

In my next post, I will write about how I began to take on editing, coaching, and ghostwriting as well as doing book production in order to assure both that I was providing services people needed and wanted and to shore up the income-potential of my memoir business. The services I developed need to be part of a memoir business for the business to thrive.

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