Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Memories of a Memoir Class

This blog entry was written by Katherine Catalano of Old Lyme about her experience in the Memoir Class taught by Sue Levine and Lary Bloom last fall.

Read examples of students' work and learn about spring class at http://www.florencegriswoldmuseum.org/MemoirClass.php.

The Florence Griswold Museum was full of surprises this fall. While a fantasy birdhouse exhibit was in place on the grounds, a memoir writing class taught by local professionals Lary Bloom and Suzanne Levine was underway in one of the gracious side rooms in the museum.

I had taken a six week memoir writing class with Lary and Suzanne last spring at R.J.Julia’s in Madison. Like most scribblers, I had been writing for pleasure since the Dear Diary days of adolescence. Now, my friends seemed to enjoy the book and movie reviews I email them when I think they would enjoy something I read or saw. I write poems and short essays about experiences with family and observations of Nature.
I told myself that I didn’t care if anything I wrote was ever published, but that wasn’t true.

I was simply unsure if I had any real talent, and knew I needed professional guidance to know if I should even attempt to submit a piece for publication in a magazine or literary review that I liked.

That first course in Madison with Lary and Suzanne was encouraging. Some of my pieces were just flat, and some were riddled with adjectives and clever sentences stuck in just because I liked them. “Darlings,” is what Lary and Suzanne called the latter, and they gotta go.

Some of my pieces were pretty well received, but I felt I was just warming up in those six weeks, so when I saw that Lary and Suzanne were teaching the memoir class at the Florence Griswold Museum, I called immediately to sign on. This time for eight weeks. The work was more demanding. My confidence grew, and I saw myself beginning to get control of my writing and to understand the discipline of the “craft.” I was better able to stay within the word limits of the assignments on scene setting, character description, dialogue—all the aspects of good prose.

Reading my pieces to the class was the first test. The comments by my fellows were honest, and even the criticism was kind. If there was a look of “huh?” on anyone’s face I knew I’d missed the mark. One piece had them laughing out loud, though. Heady stuff.

We handed in our assignments each week to Lary and Suzanne for their close reading and critique. The following week we got them back with their assessment of the piece in general, and detailed suggestions for revision. Suzanne put little check marks on paragraphs she liked. I looked for those first.

I wrote a practice query letter to a publication I hoped would be interested in my work based on my persuasive introduction. My letter lavishly praised the publication, leaving little room on one page for anything about my submission. I’ll have to work on that.

I’ll have to work on everything, (Lary says he goes back to an article eleven times to keep polishing it), but I move forward now with confidence that I can and will submit my work for publication. Even a rejection would mean that some editor actually read it.

The criticism, pro or con, by teachers and fellow students was invaluable to my development as a writer, and I was sorry to see the class end.

My writing craft moved up a notch or two, and because this was a memoir class, fourteen strangers got to know each other pretty well in a short time.

As I looked around the room the last day, remembering the tragic, dramatic, beloved, and hilarious contributions of my fellows, I realized that there is no such thing as an ordinary life, not even my own.

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