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Blog // Creativity
1 month ago

Mastering Memoir: Inside the Granta Writing Memoir Workshop

For the past six months, I’ve been on the Granta Writing Memoir Workshop. It’s been one of the most challenging and enriching experiences on my writing journey.

Granta is a prestigious literary journal founded by Cambridge University students in 1889. It launched the careers of many acclaimed writers, such as A. A. Milne and Sylvia Plath, and has published 27 Nobel Prize winners. In 1989, Granta launched a book imprint with the aim of publishing “the best in new literary fiction, memoir, reportage and poetry from around the world”.

Granta has recently started offering online writing workshops. The first two are in memoir and nature writing. The courses were developed in collaboration with the Professional Writing Academy, a digital platform that has been delivering writing education since 2009. And Granta also works with other partners like Faber on their stable of online courses covering fiction, poetry, horror and YA, as well as non-fiction.

This course consists of eleven modules delivered over 24 weeks. Modules cover all aspects of writing memoir: reasons for writing, understanding non-fiction, structuring your work, researching, rewriting and editing… And we address ethical issues like truthfulness and what readers expect from memoirs. Each module includes reading and writing assignments. Feedback is provided by the instructor and your peers on the course. By the time they finish the workshop, participants have a 10,000-word piece ready for submission to publishers or agents.

The course instructor, Dr Midge Gillies, taught creative writing for more than twenty years at Cambridge University. She also taught the biography masterclasses for the University of East Anglia. Gillies is the author of Writing Lives: Literary Biography and co-author of Literary Non-Fiction: A Writers’ & Artists’ Companion.

The Art of Memoir

Memoirs are often confused with biographies. A biography aims to tell the complete story of a life, describing all the major experiences and explaining the significant choices. My three years in India, for example, might be only one chapter in a biography. But it would be enough for a whole memoir.

Authors can use this limited scope to be more creative in their writing. There’s more room for personal reflection and introspection. More insight into an author’s psyche. Many memoirs combine elements of different genres of writing.

Making this work requires careful choices. What to include. What to leave out. Where to rewrite. The author’s voice is what sets a memoir apart.

The Granta Writing Memoir Workshop does an excellent job of giving participants the chance to hone these skills. Different learning strategies are employed. Critical reflection. Group discussion. Experimental writing. Editing tasks. Guided revision. The course demanded six to eight hours a week most of the time. Fifteen to sixteen hours in the busiest weeks.

As you might expect, the course uses Granta’s vast resources. There are plenty of examples from articles and books published by Granta, as well as interviews with Granta authors.

A Key Personal Insight

I started the workshop with a solid writing habit. But I realised as the workshop progressed how much my approach to writing was skewed towards production. I was leaving little time for editing or improving the words I wrote.

This is a by-product of writing online for so many years, and the relentless call of blogposts, tweets, and Instagram posts. So much of my writing over the years has been “good enough”.

But writing this way means I don’t often bring everything I know about writing to everything I write.

A Few Shortcomings

The workshop wasn’t perfect. I had a lot of problems with the platform. Partway through, it stopped working with Apple email addresses. I missed important notifications. Also, everything gets sent to your email. Feedback from the course instructor, someone posting their assignment, or chitchat between participants. There’s no way to control which notifications you get. It’s all or nothing. I was waking up to 20+ emails a day from the course. Some were important; most could wait until I logged in.

Before the course, I was advised there would be very few live events. All the teaching would be asynchronous. There were regular events, but they were always at times I couldn’t make from Australia or Japan. It was a weird kind of digital colonialism. When I pointed this frustration out, I was told “you can watch the video later”. Hardly a consolation.

Third, you pretty much have to use Word, although it’s not mandatory. After one of those video sessions I couldn’t attend, everyone started posting feedback on each other’s work in Word documents. This sucked partly because using Word is so awful. But more than that, it added a layer of tedium to learning from other students. You would open a Word document to read someone’s assignment – then have to open six or seven other Word documents to get the instructor’s and other students’ feedback.

Also, I struggled with the first modules of the workshop. It starts by encouraging you to craft an outline and write a synopsis. For some writers that works. But I have never been able to create compelling work that way. I need to discover my path through the words I write. Structure emerges. Reliably. Without coercion. Once past those frustrating early weeks, things progressed well. I went back to those early modules at the end. The outlining and synopsis-writing ideas made more sense then.

Recomendations

The course cost £3,000 (AU$5,800). I want to put that right up front because recommending something so costly isn’t easy. The value depends a lot on your circumstances and where you are in your writing journey. To put this in context, the one-year full-time MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia costs international students £22,500 (AU$43,900). A lot of writers offer cheaper online workshops. A session a week for a month for around $500 (AU$760) is common. But these usually have less structure. Less guided study. And much less critical feedback.

I started the workshop with a very poorly defined idea for a memoir. I finished with a highly polished piece of work – the first section of a book – along with a ready-to-go proposal I could pitch to agents or publishers, and a few other essays I can send to journals.

I couldn’t have got there in the same amount of time on my own. I might never have got there. My past is littered with so many unrealized ideas.

Final Thoughts

I found the Granta Writing Memoir Workshop a compelling learning experience. Thoughtfully constructed and carefully taught, it helped me advance a project from almost scratch to the point of viability. I had a few frustrations. Some things I’d like to see changed, especially making the live events available to participants around the world. And the price is steep. But the investment feels worth it. I’m glad I was able to take part.

NOTE: Like EVERYTHING I review on this site, I paid full price for the course. I applied like everyone else. And was in no way compensated for this review.

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