Week 1: Structure & Voice


Welcome to our first Make it Shiver Workshop lesson! This week we will discuss the importance of structure and voice, and how to enter them on a sentence level. We’ll also touch on memory and it’s role in memoir writing–primarily how memory itself isn’t enough to make a successful memoir). 

In The Art of Self, Steven Harvey emphasizes our choices on the page as the engine and steering wheel of a piece of literature–the purpose and the direction. 

“The urge to shape begins in loss. All of us are losers, of course, because we are human, but artists console themselves, redeem losses, with their creations. John Logan has written that the baby, weaned from its mother’s breast, begins moving its mouth as if to shape words, language beginning with the first loss. For the writer, these mouthings never stop. Understood this way, art does not begin with ego, but with feelings of self-annihilation, the artist creating a surrogate self. So, the potter shapes a pot. The painter catches a scene. The musician holds note.

And the essayist fashions a text. “My advice to memoir writers,” Annie Dillard writes, “is to embark upon a memoir for the same reason you would embark on any book: to fashion a text.” The result is that the text—even if taken from the writer’s life—has a life of its own, separate from the author. “After I’ve written about my experience,” Dillard adds, “my memories are gone; they’ve been replaced by the work. The work is a sort of changeling on the doorstep.” Only the text, shed of ourselves and hammered into shape, can redeem us. The enemy of the text, then, is what happened, and this is true whether the work is fictional or not. What happened may matter to us, but it is lost on us if we do not transform it into art.” 

This doesn’t mean we don’t want plot. We DEFINITELY want plot. However, it’s useful, at least at first, to work at a sentence level, hone the techniques of craft which can most powerfully establish the world of the story, and the voice of the narrator (you). Anne Lamott thoroughly explores this in  “Finding Your Voice,” which you will read as one of your first assignments. 

Additionally, you will read Joe Brainard’s memoir/prose poem, “I Remember,” a fantastic example of how memory can be used as a tool to unearth possible story lines, and perhaps create a story line of its own!  

But memories, as I said before, are not quite enough. They’re a start, and an important one (especially for memoirists/personal essayists), but it’s the structural and tonal choices we make on the page that transform life, which happens to everyone, into rare crystals that glint in the sun, catch the eyes and hearts of our readers.

Below, you’ll find a list of questions to keep in mind as you tackle both readings for this week. One piece is classified as a personal essay, as it is written from the “I” perspective, but also includes information on a specific subject. The other is classified as more of a memoir in and of itself, in prose-poem form. These questions will help you dig into these readings on a sentence level, start paying attention to HOW the writers are doing what they are doing, and WHY. That way, as you begin working on your own memoirs, you’ll also be accumulating a bag of writing tools gleaned from the masters! 

DICTION/SYNTAX (to establish voice)

 Diction: word choice—how a writer uses language for a distinct purpose and effect.

  • Is it general, specific, a combination?
  • Is it conversational?
  • Unique word choice?
  • Ordinary word choice but unique in context?
  • Is there a dialect?
  • How do these things (or lack there of) affect the voice/tone of a piece?

Syntax: sentence structure—how a writer puts words together to form a complete thought, as well as how he/she establishes pacing and focus.

  • Are there declarative sentences?
  • Are there descriptive sentences?  
  • How is imagery used?
  • How is/is there repetition used?
  • Is there significance to the order of the words?
  • In what part of the sentence does the action take place?
  • How do these things (or lack there of) affect the voice/tone of a piece.


Finding Your Voice


Discussion Assignment | So, how? Why?

Below, in the Discussion and Comments area, comment on how and why you feel these writers made the choices they made on the page, especially on a sentence level. Also, how and why do you think they established voice the way they did? What are two techniques of Lamott and/or Brainard that you would like to try? 500 words or less, please. 

Writing Assignment

Explore your own memories within a specific structure by writing your own ‘I Remember’ piece. Each sentence must begin with ‘I remember…’ but try to experiment with the sentences themselves–their lengths, rhythm, imagery, which sentences you place next to each other, which memories should be given long sentences, which ones would be more effective written in a concise manner. 

Guidelines, Submissions & Formatting

  • Due Date: Friday 1/15/16, 6 pm.
  • Submission Link: Submit to the below forum.
  • Submission Format: Attach an MS Word document in Universal Manuscript Format with the following format (this format is firm and universal). Double-spaced, 12 point font, Times New Roman, 1 in margins, heading with name, address, email, website (if applicable), and phone number on page one. Page two and forward should have in the top right corner your last name and page number. 
  • Word Count: 1000 words or less (this is firm)
  • First Draft: As you write the first draft, let your creativity go where it needs to go. First drafts are meant to be messy and creatively uninhibited. After writing the first draft, lay it to the side for at least a day before revising.
  • Second Draft: Read through again, and revise for language and lyricism. 
  • Third Draft: Now read this revision aloud as you record yourself. Upon listening to your recording, consider any language issues in your revision. You might also ask a trusted reader to read the manuscript aloud to you as you sit with your own copy and make revisions. Hearing our language aloud is one of the quickest and surest ways to improve pacing, tone, and cadence.
  • Forum: Upload your course-created work to your course and month forum so that other students in the course can read your work and give you feedback on your piece. MAKE SURE YOU ARE UPLOADING YOUR STORY TO THE CORRECT FORUM AND COURSE. Group feedback runs on the honor code. Submit only one work by the due date, next Sunday 6 pm. Your feedback given on each piece need be no more than a paragraph or two and should include elements that are working and elements that require further work. 
  • Submissions to the Instructor: The last week of class, you will choose one favorite piece from the works you’ve created in this course for submission to Alice. You will be given the chance to flesh it out and make it longer. Your peers will give feedback on your story in short paragraph form. Alice will give you specific copy editing and contextual feedback.  
  • Please make sure to contact me directly with any questions regarding assignments and technology. 


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