Writer’s Workshop: Studying the Craft

There are many ways to study the craft of writing. You can earn a bachelor’s degree in English. You can attain an MFA in creative writing. You can even take a few classes here and there to learn from experts.

But what should you do if you’re like me and have no intention on setting foot in another university as a student?

Read. That’s what! Writers read, and it’s important to read books in the genre in which you intend to publish. For me, that’s memoir.

Writers read, and it’s important to read books in the genre in which you intend to publish.

So, in 2018, I read ten memoirs to learn what bestsellers are made of and to understand what the pulse of a “good” memoir is. Here’s what I found out.

A “good” memoir focuses on one theme. My favorite memoir that demonstrates this basic principle is Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped. The overarching question is why have so many of the men in her community died? The quick answer is the interrelated nature of racism, poverty, and gender. The long answer is her 256-page memoir, where chapters are written in a seesaw fashion. One chapter is devoted to understanding one man’s in-depth story, while the next chapter reflects Ward’s life as it was related to each man. By the end of the memoir, Ward has clearly made a case for how systemic racism affects human beings.  

A “good” memoir has to present a bigger purpose. A bigger purpose doesn’t mean theme, necessarily, but it should answer the question: why is this author telling these stories? In My Dead Parents: A Memoir, Anya Yurchyshyn spends the first half of her book describing how much she disidentifies with her parents, how much she hates them, and how much their deaths don’t affect her. Part two digs deeper and explores who her parents really were prior to marriage and children and how this showed up in her life. This is ingenious. Anyone can write a book about why they dislike their parents. But she researches their histories as a way to see their identities, and then analyzes their lives outside of being her parents.

A “good” memoir weaves back and forth through time. This is a skill. Tara Westover’s Educated is superb at showing how to write a linear/not-linear story, which is important. While the overall story should be a cohesive narrative, it should travel back in time and then snap or slowly crawl back to the near present. For example, Westover remembers one of her brother’s violent acts from when she was an adolescent and then moves the story forward to a more recent memory of when she planned to visit home. The memory of the violence is important for how she will return and interact with her family in the book’s present.

A “good” memoir fits into a clear subgenre. Issa Rae uses humor for The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which is a coming-of-age memoir. Kenan Trebinčević’s The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return is obviously a historical memoir, and so is The Girl Who Escaped Isis (Farida Khalaf and Andrea C. Hoffmann). Celebrity memoir is a thing, but more literary leaning ones, like Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime demonstrate sociocultural lessons. Finding Your Creative Muse explains more about these categories.

There’s nothing wrong with taking classes or seeking degrees; however, if you’d like to see what works for published authors, then I suggest reading in the genre you plan to write. I am also in no way advocating that you imitate the style of your favorite author. To me, that’s a no-no, but studying and learning about how others put words together? That’s a win for you and your growing body of work.

Are you intending to publish a book one day? Who’s your favorite author? What’s your favorite genre? What makes a book good?

50 thoughts on “Writer’s Workshop: Studying the Craft

  1. Well, you highlighted 2 excellent memoirs I’ve read ..and coincidentally given to me as a gift. Tara Westlover’s book is fascinating even though I found some of the domestic violence hard in strict religious Mormon upbringing. I loved Noah Trevor’s memoir, I had asked for it as a birthday gift and got it several months in hard cover after it was released.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay! Trevor Noah’s memoir was so clever to me. It’s like he told us all about his background just to take us all the way up to that moment with his mother and her violent boyfriend to make a cultural and social point. I loved it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been writing a memoir for awhile—like eight years now. Just over a year ago, I decided I needed some help with it and went back to school. I had an organizational mess when I started, and the background piece still needs work. Tricky, tricky, this memory. For me, feedback and coaching has been awesome, and I will finish my MFA in May. But I agree about reading—that has been a huge part of my program. As for my favorite, Maya Angelou and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Thanks for your suggestions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is soooo close Crystal! So, I understand going back if you feel as if you need a bit of help, for sure. Have you had to read during your program, like for examples, or have you been reading just because you read (I’m just wondering).

      I love Angelou’s IKWTCBS. I read the sequels years ago, but they just weren’t as good, I didn’t think.

      Like

      1. So close! I’ve read about half of her memoirs, and they aren’t as good, but the history of her journey is amazing—The Heart of a Woman and A Song Flung Up to Heaven inspire me with her determination. I’ve had quite a bit of assigned reading this past year—probably 30 novels, poetry, or short story collections. I’m studying fiction even though I’m writing non-fiction. This semester I can choose my own, except for my Wordsworth class, but the writing (or rewriting) is consuming. I need more memoirs under my belt. One of my favorite memoirs of the year is An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken. Thanks for asking!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this post…like everyone else here 🙂 I’ve been reading (more so buying-LOL) more memoirs over the last couple of years to study this genre. Robin Crawford’s A Song for Whitney was a great read for me. I have your recommendation of Educated on my “To Read” list and I will look into the others on you mentioned here.

    Fiction was my first calling as a writer. That was my reading experience. However, I have always wanted to tell my personal stories and I’ve been doing that more through blogging and participating in anthologies (i.e. Daddy and soon to be released, A Widow’s Resilience). I just finished writing my 3rd fiction novel. Next book will be the memoir. Your post is now a apart of education on the craft.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you LaCharmine! Pace yourself girl. Memoirs can be a lot! And yessss! I’m here for all the Whitney H memoirs…I’ve watched all of the docudramas/biopics, etc. I need to get Robin’s because I know there are some real details there!!!

      Blogging has been the most helpful for me because if you can share via WordPress and Medium, then you can definitely do it in a book 😉

      And awww ❤

      Like

  4. Great post Kathy! I have fallen in love with non fiction this semester and have my reading mojo back. It may also coincide with the million pressing things I have on at the moment but I managed to finish a heavy going biography in just a week: The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein. Incredible writing and even more incredible empathy and humanity. In a case of not doing just one or the other, I’m learning through both reading and uni. And writing too of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Omgoodness! Please share with your students, and at risk of sounding as if I want to teach your class, add that anyone who wants to be great in their field, studies the people in that field…not to imitate them, but just to learn. Mmmkay…leaving the rest up to you 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have a BA in English, which did provide a good learning experience for me as a young woman. But as a writer, I learned so much more from reading the work of other writers. Ann Patchett’s autobiographical books were particularly helpful in teaching me how to tap into my own inner voice, but I’m not sure I could say exactly why. Bottom line is, we learn from each other. Thanks for listing some books that I want to read!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for adding this Ann. I had no idea you have a degree in English, but I’m not too surprised. You right very well. Your bottom line is right. In an age where not everyone can afford to go to college or just doesn’t want to, I think it’s important to show other options.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I did actually publish a book entitled YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME?! Subtitle: STOP PLAYIN’ OR PLAY RIGHT! Lol😂😉
    It’s non-fiction, all about my crazy dating experiences. A close friend of mine said I should write them down, so I did. I have more experiences to share, too, so more to come.
    My favorite author is me! Wink!
    And I enjoy, fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, informative books, love, laughter and life. I enjoy fill-in the blank books, cookbooks and even coloring books! #I❤️Books

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Although I’ve published two non-fiction books, I intend to publish a novel, one day, and my favorite author is Octavia Butler. But suspenseful urban fantasy seems to be my favorite genre! So, I think that an important theme, inner and external conflict against a background stressor, and deep characters make a good book, but making one think, I think, is the best part, and the whole point, of a good book.
    -Shira

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Shira, what are the names of your books???

      I just edited a dissertation I think you’d be interested in. The author created a theory called Endarkened storywork, and it’s basically a dissertation written as a speculative fiction novel (that references Butler’s POS). When it’s published, I’ll have to remember to pass on the info to you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A thesis written as a novel?? Interesting! I’m impressed that it got past a committee!!
        My books are
        Stayed on Freedom’s Call: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21532511-stayed-on-freedom-s-call
        and
        Shared Monetary Governance:
        https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21532029-shared-monetary-governance
        (but my theoretical and lit. review articles are easier to read, obviously, and the book review of my thesis at IJCCR gave me better feedback than my advisor did!!)
        Both are freely available on The Archive, as linked to from GoodReads.
        The novels are not really publishable, but the better one, Hubris and Hemlock, is up on Wattpad: https://www.wattpad.com/story/53540830-hubris-and-hemlock
        I’ll have to look for articles on this new theoretical approach! Sounds really cool, Endarkened storywork!
        Thank you, Dr. G.!!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You’re welcome! Here name is (Dr.) Stephanie Toliver. I didn’t read all of the link you shared, but yes…part of it comes out of (Black) feminist work. It really is the most brilliant thing I’ve read in a while.

        Thanks for sharing these links!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I love how you take us to school using published books as examples! Great advice! I love memoirs and auto-biographies. I enjoy historical fiction. I enjoy non-fiction. What makes a book good to me is that it speaks truth. My favorite author based on how many of her books I have read — Beth Moore. My favorite book in years! — The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power (an auto-biography). I did not like “Educated” at all. I haven’t read any of the other books you mention. A good memoir I recently read — “Centered” by Jason Brown (NFL player leaves football to become a farmer) Interesting blog post!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Yes, I’ve always wanted to publish but I’m realizing that it might have been for the wrong reasons and that there may be a better approach to sharing my fiction. That “better approach” is still marinating. No favorites right now because I can’t read and write at same time. Like you mentioned, I don’t want to take on someone else’s voice. Instead, I’m doing writing-related courses on CreativeLive that I gifted myself. Great post.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You don’t have to share, but you’ve got me thinking if there’s ever a “wrong” reason?

      Maintaining your own voice is so important! I know some instructors encourage writing “like your favorite author,” and I always frown when I hear it.

      CreativeLive is something I’ll be looking at to see if I can recommend it for others…thanks for sharing that.

      And thanks for the compliment 😉

      Like

  10. Thanks for sharing this informative post, Katherin. It’s so interesting for me that I exploded with excitement to write about my life 11 years ago, when I first began blogging. And early on, I self-published a book with no idea about my writing structure or skill. I just wanted to express so many ideas and feelings that were suppressed for decades.
    I have a block about reading. I read news, blogs, essays – but cannot seem to focus long for a book. I am too driven to work on music or other things. I am sure you’re right about what you thoughtfully shared.
    I think deep down, I feel like I want to be so unique that I have no influences. That sounds silly, but I feel like I’ve lost so much time by not writing, that now I am free to be creative in any way I choose.
    But thank you for giving me food for thought. I actually bought “Educated” for my Kindle – the first book ever. And it was 6 months ago and I haven’t started it yet!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I get what you’re saying. I feel the same about writing, actually. I know that if I’m reading a well-written book, then it will definitely influence how I write, so I try not to read while writing my own stuff lol

      I was thinking, though, because you’re a musician, do you just create musically or do you/have you studied the craft of producing/creating music? I think I have the same question about your artwork.

      Is it just all from you, or are there other artists whose work you admire, not necessarily to copy it, but just to look at and say, hmmm…the way they did (fill in the blank) is interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re spot on, Katherin. I am the same way with music. My influence has come from the fabulous sounds of the 60’s and 70’s. There’s nothing else that has inspired me like John Denver, Judy Collins, Simon & Garfunkle, Carol King, James Taylor – I could go on and on.
        I do not have much musical training – I’ve always played by ear. The arrangers I’ve worked with comment on how unconventional my music is at times. And that is actually refreshing for me to hear!
        I remember a producer that heard my songs at the beginning (a friend’s recommendation) – he said my songs were “linear;” that they told a story. Unlike contemporary music that builds and repeats.
        Well, I guess that is true. I do want my stuff to be well written and marketable – but then on the other hand, I think my mantra and story is all about finding myself. Of giving myself permission to create and explore my passion, creativity and expression of feelings at this time in my life. After years of suppression, it feels great!!! I get to please myself – wherever that may go. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. ❤ That end is the best part Judy!

        And yes to telling a story. I still listen to a lot of contemporary music (meaning current rap lol) and the biggest issue I have is there is no story…ever.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I would love to publish a book! I think you know that I’ve taken a liking to memoirs in essay form, so that is my goal. But yes, only after reading a bunch I loved! For fun, I love a book rich on characters and relationships. I don’t care about plot…tome that just takes yo7 from point a to b with character development. Honestly, many of my fave authors have disappointed me as they’ve gone along in their careers. I did just read my second Taylor Jenkins Reade book, and I enjoyed it, so I’m hoping with her next book she can prove she’s on an upward trajectory

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I agree, especially with memoir, that plot is not that important, or rather, the traditional plot structure doesn’t seem to apply. I mean you still have all of the parts, right…like there has to be conflict, and I think the reader still expects some satisfaction at the end, like a resolution of that conflict.

      I’ll have to look into Reade…I haven’t heard of her.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They’re totally women’s fiction. But I thought Daisy Jones and the Six was just amazing. She added dimension to a story that’s been told a thousand times

        Liked by 1 person

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