Online | Nonfiction | Workshop

6-Week Online Nonfiction Workshop: Memoir & Personal Essays

Mary Karr advises writers of memoir and personal essay to “find the carnal moment for the idea.” I want to help you find those carnal moments and shape them into stories that will not only move and inspire readers, but make them think. In this course, which is open to writers of all levels, we will be guided by three basic questions: What story do you want to tell? Why do you want to tell it—what do you want to convey to the reader? And how will you tell it in order to convey that meaning? We will time travel together, visiting the peak moments of our lives and learning why they have been so important, and how we can make them important for others.

In our reading and writing, we will focus mainly on structure and timelines—the arrangement of those carnal moments. Focusing on the architecture of your stories, you will leave this six-week class with drafts of two personal essays, or 40 or so pages of a memoir and a global vision of the rest of the book. Each week, we will read and discuss 10-15 pages of work by writers such as Jo Ann Beard, Leslie Jamison, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and analyze how the shape of their stories holds and transmits meaning. We will also do in-class writing exercises to gain skills, find material for stories, and find new ways to tell our stories. We will then discuss each other’s writing, giving each other the focused, empathetic attention we need in order to engage in the risky, exhilarating process of telling the stories that mean the most to us. You’ll also learn more about your own writing process: how to remove obstacles and break down inner resistance, and what rituals and processes make you a more productive, confident, even happy writer. If you’ve had trouble getting started or getting unstuck, this course will provide you with six weeks of momentum and inspiration that you can carry forward long after our last meeting.

This class will meet over our video chat platform. You will need to use Google Chrome to join your class meetings.


- Extensive peer and instructor feedback on two personal essays or memoir excerpts, via two workshop sessions and editorial notes

- A one-on-one conference with your instructor, which you can use as you wish (from further discussion of your workshop submissions to advice on seeking agents and navigating the publishing process)

- An expanded idea of what’s possible in memoir and personal essay

- A greater understanding of how the form of a story affects its meaning, and the ability to think critically about what form is best for the story you want to tell

- Improved editing skills, for your own work as well as that of your peers

- Techniques for maintaining momentum after the course is over: favorite writing exercises, a rough schedule, and a list of “assignments-to-self”

- Techniques for accessing memories—forms of “spell-casting” including music, smells, physical activities, and personal sites of significance

- Access to a nurturing community of writers and readers and an engaged mentor as well as access to Catapult's monthly digest of submission, residency, and award deadlines

- More confidence as a writer, on and off the page


Week 1: Introductions, Workshop #1

Week 2: Using Family Stories, Workshop #2

Week 3: Making Sense of Former Selves, Workshop #3

Week 4: Peak Moments, Workshop #4

Week 5: The Stories We Tell, Workshop #5

Week 6: Music & Memory, Workshop #6

Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is the author of the memoir After the Eclipse, which was named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, a Poets & Writers Notable Nonfiction Debut, and a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. Perry is the recipient of the 2018 Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Award and a fellowship from the Edward F. Albee Foundation. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction from Columbia University and will serve as the 2019 McGee Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Davidson College.


“What strikes me so strongly about this excellent memoir is that—considering the subject matter—the writer was able to organize it at all. It’s sometimes disarmingly astute, and what it says about the ties that bind, at the same moment they sometimes get stretched way beyond capacity, elaborates not just this singular drama, but provides a painful, and wincingly real, statement about class in America.”

Anne Beattie award-winning author of THE STATE WE'RE IN

"AFTER THE ECLIPSE pulls the reader swiftly along on parallel tracks of mystery and elegy...Perry’s scrupulous research and painstaking rendering of her experiences make her a trustworthy guide through such emotionally charged terrain. She’s also a wonderful writer with an assured sense of when to zoom in to her body’s somatic response for a piercing immediacy and when to pull back to convey the measured perspective gained through the distance of time. Many moments of beauty and tenderness rise up through the darkness. In the end, Perry succeeds in restoring her mother’s humanity, and her own."


"I am extremely grateful for Sarah's feedback on my memoir in progress. Her care and attention to detail, from minor line edits to major considerations about character development, demonstrated her high level of skill and revealed her commitment to helping others produce their best writing."

editing client

"Some editors and writers specialize in big picture stuff--structure and message and so on. Some are good at details--things like syntax and diction. Sarah was incredibly insightful on both fronts. It's quite obvious she cares deeply about the work and that she has a natural talent for language and narrative. Her feedback not only showed me what was missing from my essay, but also gave me practical, actionable advice for making it better. I feel lucky to have found her and can recommend her work with confidence and enthusiasm."

former student

"Wow. I can't say enough fantastic things about Sarah. I worked with her to polish and critique a personal essay I had written in the hopes of publishing in the Modern Love column and not only were her edits so spot on and true to my voice, but she really made me think hard about what story I'm trying to tell. I have a ton of work I still have left to do, but I am so much more confident about the direction I'm going and the questions I need to work on that I know this essay will eventually get published somewhere. Sarah is kind, responsive and enormously helpful. If you're comparing editors, look no further. You won't be disappointed."

Marian editing client