Online | Nonfiction | Memoir | Intensive

2-Day Online Nonfiction Intensive: Writing Your Family Members as Characters

Who, reading Mary Karr’s memoirs, could fail to imagine her knife-wielding, smart-talking Texan mother? Who, reading Patricia Lockwood, can forget her father, the Rush Limbaugh-quoting, Arby’s-snarfing, farting priest? When we write memoir or autobiographical fiction, our characters are drawn from the people we love, the people we know best—those about whom we may have said our whole lives, “They’re such characters!” So why is it that sometimes those characters appear the blurriest in our drafts? Is it possible that how close we are to someone might be the very thing that complicates turning them into an effective character?

Drawing from work by writers like Sarah Broom, Melissa Febos, Kiese Laymon, Domingo Martinez, Mike Scalise, and many others, we’ll analyze how writers managed to achieve the distance necessary to bring their all-too-real family members to life as characters on the page. Then we’ll use a mix of craft analysis and writing exercises to render our own. The course is suitable both for those who are generating new work and those who have existing drafts they wish to revise and sharpen. Come prepared with family stories and ready to write!

The first day we’ll have two sessions, separated by a 2-hour break, discussing craft and readings and students will be given prompts to consider for their own writing.

The second day will involve one session, predominantly devoted to workshop. Prior to meeting on the second day, students will turn in short writing assignments (up to three double-spaced pages).

Students will then convene for that second day’s session to discuss the writing assignments with a small cohort of their peers (3-4 other students). Students will be receiving thorough verbal feedback from their cohorts and some verbal feedback from the instructor, who will visit with each cohort.

Class meetings will be held over video chat, using Zoom accessed from your private class page. While you can use Zoom from your browser, we recommend downloading the desktop client so you have access to all platform features.


- An understanding of what distinguishes a real-life person from an effectively rendered character, and how to develop the former into the latter

- Techniques for handling what you don’t know about your family members

- Writing exercises that can be repeated later to develop further work

- 10% discount on all future Catapult classes


After one day filled with craft advice, readings, and prompts, students will generate or revise up to three double-spaced pages of characterization and will have the opportunity to share those pages with classmates and the instructor. Students should be prepared to give thorough verbal feedback to 3-4 of their classmates.


Day One, Session One (10 a.m.-1 p.m. ET/7-10 a.m. PT):

- Course Introduction

- Discussion of complex characterization & psychological dynamism

- Discussion of published examples

- Exercise on character development & psychology

Day One, Session Two (3-6 p.m. ET/12-3 p.m. PT):

- Using direct and indirect methods of character presentation

- Discussion of families as sites of counterpointed characterization

- Exercise on effectively drawing from family memories

Day Two (3-6 p.m. ET/12-3 p.m. PT):

- Group discussion of student work

- Final notes

Alex Marzano-Lesnevich

Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, which received a Lambda Literary Award, the Chautauqua Prize, the Grand Prix des Lectrices ELLE, the Prix des libraires du Quebec 2020, and the Prix France Inter-JDD. It has been translated into ten languages. Marzano-Lesnevich has received fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo, and has written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Oxford American, Harper’s, and more. Their next book, Both and Neither, is forthcoming in 2023.


“This will probably rank among the most useful courses I have taken - ever - because Alex designed the class in such a way that we have the knowledge to continue to hone our craft. I appreciate the high bar/high expectations set.”

former student

“I'd really like to offer sincere thanks and praise to the instructor, Alex. There was a lot of emotion and trauma whizzing around during workshops and they managed all the personalities very well. Their lessons and hand-outs were easy to follow and real keepers. Their insight and professionalism never failed or faulted to keep the class positive with all hearts and minds in tow. They were patient and provided constructive criticism when necessary. I walked away from each class feeling energized to go home and write.”

former student

“Craft lessons - amazing and so helpful. One on one with Alex - incredible recommendations about memoirs to read, craft books to read and study. Class conversation -- Alex had great pacing and was so knowledgeable it was mind boggling.”

former student

“Powerful... with this book, [they lay] it bare.”


“If IN COLD BLOOD is the beginning of the genre, then [Alex] Marzano-Lesnevich’s THE FACT OF A BODY is a next stage of its evolution. Marzano-Lesnevich merges [their] reportorial and novelistic impulses into a book that bursts with empathy and finely researched detail. With elegant and lyrical prose, [they] investigate [their] childhood with the same scrutiny that [they] uses to research [their] subject, a man charged with murder, and render his biography as thoughtfully as [their] own. What emerges is part memoir, part reportage, and part fiction.”


“A memoir/true-crime hybrid that stands up to the best of either genre, and will linger in your mind long after the last page.”