The Alchemy of Memoir: How 10 Strangers Change Their Work and Each Other

A funny thing happened earlier this year, when my agent sent my book out into the world. Because I was fortunate that the book met with success, I got to spend a very enjoyable two weeks on the phone with editors, listening to them talk about my work. Writers—all writers—spend so much of their time gathering rejections like woebegone flowers that during this reversal of fortune I paid very close attention. What did they see in it?

Now here’s the funny part: the topics they talked about were basically an outline of the syllabus for the Memoir Incubator, the GrubStreet program I’ve been teaching for the past three years. Structured over ten intensely rigorous months, the Incubator gave me the time and format to break craft concepts down into lectures and exercises for my students, the chance to go deep in a way the semester model never had. I’d watched this change my students’ work. I hadn’t realized, all the while, how much it was changing mine.

What no one ever tells you about teaching is that it’s the best way to learn. That’s also why I believe so deeply in the creative writing workshop model. Why I have my students write feedback letters for each other, and why in the first term I even give them feedback on their craft analysis in those feedback letters. Students seem always to enter the program thinking that the most useful days for their own learning will be the days they themselves are workshopped.

But that’s not it, that’s not it at all. Those are the days you’ll be offered suggestions for editing. Useful, sure, but nowhere near as useful as learning to see your classmates’ work on the page, seeing where they succeeded and where they faltered, and pushing yourself to analyze and then articulate why. That’s where the real learning happens—when you have to teach others, and yourself, what you see.

When we started the Memoir Incubator three years ago it was an experiment. Memoirs are tricky, emotionally laden things, and striking the right balance between support and rigor seemed crucial. Often, the form requires the writer to wade deeply into something painful. The memoirist is asked to do the trickiest thing: to induce a feeling in herself, and then scurry up above herself and watch the unfolding feeling from afar, figure out how to turn it into performance on the page. She has to loosen her emotional attachment to the material—to the material drawn from her life!—and learn to see and shape its impact on the disinterested reader. It is not simply recording memories. It’s alchemy and performance—in other words, writing. As Lucy Grealy famously said, when asked how she’d managed to remember the scenes in Autobiography of a Face so clearly, “I didn’t remember it. I wrote it.”

So we asked ten strangers to come together and, for a year, perform a tightrope walk. I worried we might crash.

Instead, it turned into the most rigorous teaching experience of my life so far, and one of the most rigorous on a human level, as an experience of the heart and the mind. V.S. Pritchett once said, about memoir: "It's all in the art. You get no credit for the living." While that may be true, I've been inspired by the living, and watched my students inspire each other and their readers as they work their stories of living into art. And I know the students from the Incubator feel that, too. Students from previous years still meet regularly. The alchemy that happens over the year—the change to the work and to the writer—has a lasting effect. The year changes the work. The year changes you.

Tomorrow night at 6, come check out the open house for the program at GrubStreet. If you can’t attend, check out the program details here.

I’d love to read your words for the application deadline, March 15th. What was once an extraordinary experiment has become an extraordinary experience. Join us next year.

About the Author See other articles by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich
by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich

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