Writing Memoir

The course

Unlocking memory and shaping experience

This immersive, deep-dive course provides inspiration and practical advice as you undertake a memoir. It draws on the resources and expertise of Granta, a publisher renowned for nurturing some of the most influential and daring writers of memoir, and the expert guidance of an experienced writer of creative non-fiction.

Over six months move from initial ideas towards the first 10,000 words of your memoir, exploring why you want to write in this form and the possibilities it offers to examine the boundaries and push at the limitations of the ‘I’ voice. In each session we investigate the big questions around truth and reality that make this genre so rich, while interrogating the central question at the heart of your work. There are hands-on techniques to hone your authorial voice, and we encourage experimentation with structures and storytelling.

Alongside a small group of likeminded writers, you’ll look at the scope of the memoir and stress-test your ideas against the elasticity of the genre: where does your writing sit in the intertwining mix of biography, history, travel writing, cookbook, ideas-led science and philosophy – and when does fact become fiction? Learn how to use research and images to enhance your narrative and unlock memories, and ways to negotiate the debate about who owns a story.

You’ll have access to a carefully curated selection of extracts from Granta magazine, its books, podcast and video archive, as well as resources from the wider literary world. You’ll also meet guest authors and industry experts, including Granta staff.

Finish the course with a stress-tested outline, the first 10,000 words of your memoir, a detailed proposal to take to an agent or publisher, plus the confidence and resilience to maintain momentum after the course ends.

Entry is by application to ensure you get the most out of the course.

Meet your course director

Midge Gillies

Dr Midge Gillies is the author of Writing Lives: Literary Biography and co-author of Literary Non-Fiction: a Writers’ & Artists’ Companion. She is a highly experienced educator, having taught creative writing for more than 20 years at Cambridge University, as well as biography masterclasses for the University of East Anglia.

In partnership with Granta

Professional Writing Academy works with Granta as education partner, to design and deliver world-class writing courses and nurture new voices and writing talent, particularly within the memoir and nature writing genres.

How it works

We give you the theory in the form of videos, podcasts, written lectures and reading extracts. In the case of our live workshops, this includes a live online seminar.

You put it into practice by completing the writing assignments.

You share your work with the small group of fellow writers and the teaching team.

Your tutor and fellow learners read your work and give professional-style feedback on your submission. Giving feedback notes helps to build your skills as an editor - a critical part of the writing process.

You reflect on the exercises with the group and share what you’ve learned.

You use what you learned from the feedback and discussions to review your work and improve it.

Things to know

This course is designed for serious writers who are ready to write long-form memoir, life-fiction or autofiction. Over six months, this intensive course is designed to help you write the first 10,000 words of your memoir and leave the course with an action plan for finishing your manuscript, as well as a stress-tested synopsis and pitch, ready for submission.    

Suitable for intermediate to advanced writers.

It’s suitable if you: 

  • Write fiction, creative non-fiction or journalism, and would like to pursue a long-form memoir project 
  • Are a memoir writer and want to kickstart a new project 
  • Have started writing a memoir and would like the guidance and support to keep writing 
  • Would like to explore the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, truth and memory
  • Want to build advanced craft skills, sustain momentum and keep the reader’s (and your own) interest
  • Enjoy the discipline of deadlines and peer feedback
  • Can dedicate 5-7 hours per week for the duration of the course
  • Want to join a friendly and supportive small group of learners.

This course allows you to:

  • Appreciate the many different ways of structuring a memoir and blending it with other genres
  • Grow confidence in your voice and using key memoir techniques, such as switching tenses and changing points of view
  • Experiment with writing techniques often associated with fiction, such as description, characterisation, dialogue, and using humour and drama to vary the pace of your writing
  • Gain awareness of the ethical dimensions to writing a true story and the impact a memoir can have on the writer and other people mentioned
  • Develop key research skills, including using primary and secondary sources and oral history, and being aware of the benefits and pitfalls of research
  • Practise giving feedback to other writers and receiving responses to your work
  • Build greater independence, autonomy and judgement as you work on a final assignment.

By the end of the course you’ll have a submission package made up of the following:

  • Author profile (300 words)
  • Blurb or pitch (200 words)
  • Information on why you are the right person to write the book, why the memoir is needed (and why now) and the market for the book.
  • List of similar titles
  • Synopsis and/or chapter breakdown
  • Word length 
  • List of illustrations
  • Up to 10,000 words (consecutive from the start).

Session 1: Introductions and Why I Write

In our first session we will explore why you want to write a memoir. Is your aim to write solely for your own satisfaction, or for a close circle of family and friends, for publication, to put the record straight, or to make sense of the world or of the past? We will consider the implications for both you, as the writer, and the people you are writing about, and look at ways to build on your initial ideas and motivation.  

There will be a group Zoom session with your tutor

Session 2: What Is Non-fiction and Why Write It?

In this session we’ll discuss what falls into the genre of ‘non-fiction’ and how that category becomes even more elastic when you add the word ‘creative’. Where does non-fiction end and fiction begin? We’ll discuss whether the two are so intertwined that it would be more accurate to say that they blend. Where does poetry and the lyric or personal essay fit into the mix? Start stress-testing your memoir idea by examining where memoir belongs in this heady mix, and how it can intersect with countless other forms such as biography, history, family history, travel writing, the cookbook, and ideas-led science or philosophy.

Session 3: People, Places and Points of View

We’ll start to think about your characters and the world they inhabit. The advantages of hands-on experience and ‘footstepping’ to recreate a landscape and what part your imagination can play when working with facts. There are practical ways to deploy all your senses and to favour specificity over cliché in your description. We’ll explore point of view and tenses, and in particular look at when and how to use the historic present tense. 

One-on-one Zoom call with the tutor, to discuss your work

Session 4: Ways to Structure a Memoir

A memoir is now rarely structured in a solely chronological order. Indeed, the structure is often an intrinsic part of the story or the answer to a question. We’ll look at how subject matter itself can offer the answer to the conundrum of how best to tell your story, and how to use time effectively in your storytelling.

You’ll explore the right structure for your memoir using techniques such as mind mapping, chapter breakdowns and writing in scenes. 

There will be a live Q&A with a guest author.  

Session 5: How Truthful is the Past?

Memory is a slippery commodity, but one many writers embrace as a way to gain a foothold on a version of the truth. This week, we’ll  develop a strategy for dealing with contested accounts of the past. Does it matter if two people remember the details of a day differently but agree on the impact of what happened? Perhaps it’s simpler –  and more honest – to fictionalise your story, or is this dodging the issue of who owns a story and its truth?

Is it permissible to concertina several instances into one scene for dramatic effect? We’ll trigger memories by using photos, objects and talking to other witnesses.

You will receive personalised feedback on your work from your tutor. 

Session 6: Your Voice and the Pact with Your Reader

By now you have a strong sense of your own writing voice, but you may find that your voice is changing. At the midpoint of the course, we’ll take stock of where you are in your memoir and whether other characters are making a case to be heard. Has the focus of the narrative changed and are there other people you need to consult?

Group Zoom session to discuss thoughts, questions or concerns about your work so far

Session 7: Storytelling with Images

In this session we will look at a range of images – photos, line drawings, paintings, maps – and how to use them in your memoir. Discover where to go to find images and potential costs of using them. We’ll look at how images can become part of your story and its structure, as well as unlocking memory and enhancing description. More recent developments in lexi-visual narrative techniques, and how the comic book and graphic novels have enriched memoir.

Session 8: Making Research Work for You

Practical advice on carrying out research online, and in libraries and archives. We will discuss the use of oral history, and the moral and legal obligations when interviewing someone. Also copyright issues with sources such as diaries and letters. 

What to do if you come away from your research empty-handed? How do you fill in gaps or should they be left bare? Is there such a thing as too much research and how do you know when to stop researching? 

Session 9: You as Author

In this session, we’ll revisit your work so far and adapt it to fit the ways your story has evolved. Practise telling your friends and family about your memoir to build confidence and take yourself more seriously as a writer. Why are you uniquely positioned to tell this story, and where does your memoir sits in the current landscape of published books?

You will receive tutor feedback on your first 5,000 words

Session 10: Rewriting and Editing

Editing can be a uniquely satisfying and creative process. You’ve already written several thousand words of good prose; now is the time to make it even better. In this session we’ll look at different types of editing – from line edits to structural changes and editing for accuracy. You’ll draw up a list of editing tips for yourself, and think about who to share your work with, why and when. 

Group Zoom session to ask final questions before we head into quiet writing time.

Session 11: Four-week Quiet Writing Session

The focus of this final session is to concentrate on writing and on applying the lessons learnt over the previous months. Use our Pomodoro timer to write in companionable silence, and plan ways to boost your confidence and resilience as your memoir reaches a wider audience. You’ll develop ways of turning procrastination to your advantage and tackling writer’s block (if such a thing even exists).

By the end of this session, you’ll have 10,000 words and a finalised submissions package you can send to agents, and you’ll also learn about the Granta submission process. 

Live Q&A with a Granta guest

You will be invited to a one-to-one exit tutorial with your tutor to discuss your work and where to go next.

Join our alumni community 

After your course finishes, you can join our online alumni community – a friendly group of writers supporting each other as they continue to explore and develop their writing. There’s no cost for this. It’s easy to access via the online classroom, where you can:

  • Revisit all your course materials, including tutor notes, feedback, videos, podcasts and forum posts
  • Rejoin your classmates, and continue working together in a private space
  • Meet alumni from other courses to find beta-readers and share work on our critiquing forum
  • Network with other writers working in your genre or area of interest
  • Take part in regular ‘sit and write’ Zoom sessions, to push forward with your work-in progress
  • Join our monthly live alumni events with expert tutors and industry guests, including agents, editors, publishers, competition and festival organisers, and prizewinning writers.

Commission a report on your work
A more detailed report on your final work is available at an extra cost. You’ll receive detailed written feedback assessing your ideas and writing, plus advice on next steps. For details, please get in touch.

Taking things further
If you’d like to continue to another course, please get in touch for advice and information.

The team

Meet your course team

Midge Gillies

Course Director

Dr Midge Gillies is the author of Writing Lives: Literary Biography and co-author of Literary Non-Fiction: a Writers’ & Artists’ Companion. She is a highly experienced educator, having taught creative writing for more than 20 years at Cambridge University, as well as biography masterclasses for the University of East Anglia.

More about Midge Gillies