Getting your memoir off the ground

July 16, 2014 • Posted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, Uncategorized, writing by

Lots of people have interesting life stories to tell. The hard part? Getting those stories down on paper so that others can read them.

As the writers in the memoir classes I lead for the City of Chicago and Lincoln Park Village master the art of writing about their lives, they find themselves with a new challenge: assembling finished stories into book form. Their questions about publishing inspired me to put together a new memoir workshop for The Northwestern summer Writers’ Conference this year on Northwestern University’s Chicago campus in Wieboldt Hall.

This year’s conference has a Writing Chicago theme, and it starts Thursday, July 31 and runs until August 2, 2014. My two-hour workshop, called Getting Your Memoir Off the Ground meets from 1:15 to 3:15 on Friday, August 1. I plan on giving a couple in-class exercises and discussing techniques to get past whatever it is that’s stopping writers from getting their work done, whether it be worries about writing as a victim, facing issues that come with writing about people we love, or figuring out strategies for organizing the raw material of our lives into book form. The overall emphasis will be on craft and on overcoming the barriers that keep us from writing and assembling our stories.

Each workshop at the Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference is limited to 18 participants, and organizers told me yesterday that workshops and panels are filling quickly. My friends and fellow published authors Miles Harvey and Audrey Petty are giving workshops at this year’s conference, too.

That’s Miles Harvey. (Photo by Matt Moyer.)

I met Miles long ago when both of us wrote for the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois. His first book The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime was a national and international bestseller. Another book, Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America, received a 2008 Editors’ Choice award from Booklist. Miles used to light up the dingy Daily Illini production room in the basement of Illini Hall, and to this day, being around him makes me smile. I was delighted when he accepted a position at DePaul University, it meant he’d be staying here in Chicago, and I knew he would serve as a terrific mentor to hundreds of writing students there. His generosity of spirit encourages many a writer, including me, to keep at it.

I was introduced to Audrey Petty in Urbana, too, and she and I took to each other the minute we met. Audrey is a Chicago native, and Mike and I have had the good fortune to meet and know her entire family. Her father, Joe Petty, is credited with getting the Chicago White Sox into the 2005 World Series. “MoJo” went with us to a playoff game against Boston, and he mesmerized everyone in the seats around us (and the team, too, of course) with his confidence and calm even as the White Sox fell behind. (They came back and won.)And that's Audrey, in a shot taken by her daughter Ella.

An oral history Audrey put together of stories from residents of Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens and Cabrini-Green (all publicly-funded buildings here in Chicago that no longer exist) called High Rise Stories: Voices from Chicago Public Housing was published to great acclaim last year by Voice of Witness, the nonprofit division of McSweeney’s Books. Audrey’s workshop for the Northwestern conference is called Object Lessons and meets on Thursday, July 31 from 1:15 to 3:15. Audrey will be using prompts and exercises to “unpack artifacts” from writers’ lives and show them ways keepsakes or forgotten treasures on shelves can unlock a story. Miles is leading a two-hour non-fiction workshop called Writing With Your Feet at 1:15 on Friday, August 1 to teach writers to “generate essays by moving through space and time.” He promises a literary treasure hunt, which he says will be led by Virginia Woolf – who can resist?!

Unfortunately, I will. Have to resist, I mean. I’d love to sit in on both of those workshops, but I lead a memoir class for Lincoln Park Village on Thursday when Audrey’s workshop meets, and the one Miles is leading meets the same day and time as mine.

I do plan to stop in at the conference at noon on Thursday to hear keynote speaker Chris Abani–he was born in Nigeria, he writes everything from plays to poems to essays, and I’m guessing he’ll be talking about his latest novel, The Secret History of Las Vegas, published by Penguin this year. I also hope to sit in on the class Kevin Davis is leading on Saturday afternoon, August 2. Kevin is a good friend of Miles, I know he’s a gifted teacher, and his workshop sounds perfect for the manuscript I’m working on now about all I’ve learned leading memoir-writing classes for senior citizens here in Chicago. I’ll say goodbye here and leave you with the description of Kevin’s two-hour workshop – look for me there!

Capturing Character in Non-Fiction Writing
What makes people interesting? How do you capture a person’s essence? In this course geared for non-fiction writers, author and journalist Kevin Davis discusses various techniques that will help writers create better personality profiles and make them come alive. We’ll cover interviewing, background research and the challenges – as well as opportunities – of writing profiles. Classroom exercises include interviewing and writing short pieces. Fiction writers may also find this course valuable.

Monna Ray On July 16, 2014 at 7:42 pm

How interesting, Beth!


Carl On July 16, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Sure wish I lived closer. I’d sign up for sure.

Paula On July 17, 2014 at 8:18 am

Gosh, wish I were free those days! This sounds like a great conference.
I’ve ordered copies of The Island of Lost Maps and High Rise Stories to read. (I already have your books, of course.) Thanks for the recommendations.

bethfinke On July 17, 2014 at 8:55 am

Thank *you*, Paula — can’t wait to tell Miles and Audrey when I run into them (not literally, I hope!) at the conference.


The best job I ever had | Safe & Sound blog On August 8, 2014 at 1:55 pm

[…] 1: A lot of talented writers attended my Getting Your Memoir Off the Ground workshop at Northwestern Summer Writers’ Conference, and now I can look forward to reading their […]

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