Memoir Remix: Writing

The remix of our Memoir Study focused initially on  the reading of memoir. Writing needed a touchup too. Last April, long after we were finished the semester we taught our Grade 12s, the students who studied memoir, in, my colleague Ashley and I were driving to the city to see Penny Kittle. An hour in a car with another English teacher is always productive.

We got talking about the writing of memoir. I have traditionally had students write a wide variety of smaller pieces, responding to various prompts. The intention was always that they compile the pieces they liked best into a single memoir piece, but for some reason, I was never able to make that happen. Ashley told me about a strategy she had played with from a workshop where students wrote on note cards, writing various aspects of a memoir piece, which they then arranged to create a draft from which they’d write their memoir piece.

You know that cool thing that happens when you get two solid collaborators together, and elements of what each suggested become defining aspects of a cool new thing? It happened that day. We loved the idea of writing a lot of different things. We loved the idea of writing on note cards, giving students a manageable space in which to capture thoughts that could be expanded upon later. Memoir Cards became the new thing.

In September, when we got our new Grade 12s in our classrooms, we began. Ashley and I began sharing the prompts that we used with our students. Some prompts were the ones we already had, typical memoir writing things around names, places, memories and such things. The practice of writing only on note cards seemed to revive these prompts. In quickwrite mode, the note cards gave me what I like best – this was a writing task that looked easily manageable for a reluctant writer, and a limit of sorts to challenge, and focus, those who find writing easier.

The Holstee Manifesto prompt
The prompt for The Holstee Manifesto Memoir Card

What was neat was how the idea of the note cards opened things up for memoir writing. Sometimes, we’d print off the cards they’d write on, putting a prompt on one side. We did this with The Holstee Manifesto, printing the poster, and talking through how we’d write in response to it. Moving Writers favorite Mari Andrew was a regularly featured inspiration. We’d project on of her inspiring illustrations, and students would draw their version on one side of their card, then flip it and write, expanding and explaining the ideas illustrated on the other side. A number of times, a Memoir Card prompt was pulled from my Twitter feed the very morning we wrote, which made it feel fresh.


Membership Card
Our Memoir Card prompt for this Mari Andrew piece

I know that there are teachers thinking the exact same thing I always think when I read something like this – how does one manage a whole bunch of note cards from a class of students? My organization strategy relied on Ziploc baggies and a drawer in a filing cabinet. Ashley’s students taped their cards into their notebooks.

We continued with Memoir Card prompts throughout the semester. My goal was that we wrote a lot, and as the end of the course approached had time to edit and revise their cards for a final memoir piece. I had recently read HITRecord’s Book of Tiny Stories 3, as well as Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Textbook, so I kind of had those in my head as a mentor text for this final piece. What both of those books did so wonderfully was collect a disparate group of pieces into a single book. I especially liked how Book of Tiny Stories incorporated visual elements, which my students had through our Mari Andrew inspired pieces.

As I’ve mentioned as I’ve shared our Memoir Remix, this particular class of mine was open to new ideas and taking risks. As we approached the end of the course, I wanted them to do this one more time, so instead of offering them the mentor texts I had in mind, I simply told them that I wanted them to pick a half dozen cards that they thought were their best work, polish them, and present them in a way that they thought best. My only demand was that it showed more creativity than simply stapling together those cards.

imageI’m really glad I did this. Yes, I got a handful of projects that were just that wee bit more than what I had said I didn’t want. But I got a video version that was well planned out, and executed with character. I got a whole bunch of creatively assembled little books and zines. There were some really cool posters too.

What I liked most about this final project was its reflective nature. We had written a number of pieces over almost five months. A number of these prompts had pushed them to reflect upon who they are, and as we know, that can be a tough thing to respond to. A number of my students grappled with these prompts, and no matter how much I encouraged them to simply “capture their now,” were uncomfortable with what they wrote in their initial writing. In revisiting their cards at the end, they reassessed things. While some of them revised, crafting pieces they felt more confident about, there were a few who actually made that confusion a central theme of their final memoir piece.

I’m excited about the promise of Memoir Cards. I saw great things this year, and I can see the potential for even greater things in the future. I love the flexibility that this strategy provides – we can continue to focus solely on the cards, and the final piece being a collection of the best of them, or we can explore ways to use the cards to create a single, longer piece like we have in the past.

Most of all, I love the routine that the cards brought us. This was frequently our quickwrite to start the class. It was especially nice when we were in the midst of other work, because instead of basing our work around a time limit, we based it around finishing a rough draft on a card. If a student needed to take more time, they could. They knew that a couple of times a week, they’d roll into a prompt, grab a card, and get writing. A 5×7 card has a lot of potential, and I can’t wait to exploit this again next year.

What have you revisited and revamped lately? What does memoir writing look like when you do it? What are your favorite memoir writing prompts (that we can borrow!)?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!


  1. Love this idea! I’m trying to incorporate Mari Andrew’s prompts in my memoir unit right now with my 11’s prior to their actual memoir essay at the end of the unit.

    Do you have any ideas for suggestions on how they should “present them in a way” that made sense, outside of just stapling them? (I ask because I’m anticipating that students will just bundle them together)..

    1. Hanna,
      The last couple of years, I’ve gotten them to craft little chapbooks at the end of the semester. I provide a PowerPoint template for a book of the appropriate length, and give a few expectations related to the number of cards (and other pieces that fit) featured, as well as some of the elements that make it feel more like an act of curation than a collection. (I do have the benefit of working in a small school, which means there’s a high likelihood they’ve been with me in Grade 10 when we make chapbooks of poetry based around our reading of Long Way Down.) I think the final “publishing” step gives it a celebratory element that makes it a bit more than a gathering and submission checklist item.

  2. Do you have a list/collection of memoir note card prompts you’d be willing to share? Just starting my work in this and I LOVE this idea!

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