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Learning from the Masters: The Art of the Memoir

This term I introduced the writing of a memoir to my students in English 11 and 12 and learned that this form provides them with powerful reasons to write well. To begin, we examined the writing of Patrick Lane, member of the Order of Canada and noted poet and writer. His piece, titled “On Looking for the Beauty in Life,” provided us with a great example of memoir.  The students, using his first paragraph as a model, tried themselves to establish a rhythm to their prose by following as closely as possible his sentence structures (but substituting their own ideas in these same sentences). It was hard to do, they found, but worth the effort. 

Later on in the term we read an excerpt from Alice Munro’s short story, “The Martians Have Landed,” which gave us a master’s example of illustrating the joys of children’s play outside. This time, students wrote accounts of their own playtime experiences (under age 10 and unorganized to match Munro’s description) and then shared them in small groups. The classroom echoed with laughter that day as students from all over the world discovered the universal nature of the games children play. 

Near the end of the semester, we revisited Patrick Lane and read an excerpt from his fabulous memoir, There is a Season: A Memoir in a Garden. This time, he expressed his anger at the death of a thrush at the road side and the indifference of people to other creatures’ suffering. We had  three topics to choose from: The Beauty in Life; Child’s Play; Something that Enraged Us. Students chose and proceeded to write their own short memoirs. The results represented, in most cases, the best writing students had done. Although I will do something different this term, I am convinced that learning to write a memoir remains a powerful tool for encouraging personal, engaging and powerful writing.

—January 26, 2014


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