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Self Portrait: The Heart of Memoir

  • Iowa Writers' House 332 East Davenport Street Iowa City, IA, 52245 United States (map)

When:  Friday, November 8th, 6:00pm-7:30pm

Saturday, November 9th, 9:30am-3:30pm (Lunch break at noon)

Sunday, November 10th, 9:30am-3:30pm (Lunch break at noon)

Where:  Iowa Writers' House, 332 East Davenport St.

Cost: $265


Most of us know the standard tools of characterization, how to make fictional characters more like flesh-and-blood people. Yet the flesh-and-blood "I" of memoir, at least in early drafts, often seems ethereal and disembodied, like the voiceover of a documentary. We may fail to characterize fully the narrator of a true story, the story of "I." That problem may be because it's a story of a younger self; the writer is not exactly that person anymore, so they must reimagine or recreate what that person was like. If I do not understand the person at the center of my story, readers are not going to understand my unique perspective. And the main character of a memoir must be unique.

In The Writing Habit, author David Huddle notes: “You’d be surprised how many of us feel that our own lives are not literarily worthy, our lives are just not interesting enough.” Perhaps we simply haven’t asked the right questions. During this weekend retreat, we will have some fun with Huddle’s “Questionnaire for an Autobiographical Portrait,” as we take a fresh look at the person telling the tale.

Our time together will involve writing in response to these questions or other exercises, then reading our pages to the group. The recollections of others frequently spark our own memories, causing what essayist Phillip Lopate calls a "shiver of self-recognition." Also, we will spend some time reading short passages by established writers. Both these activities will expand our knowledge of what can be created from memory. Writers of all genres, and all levels of experience, are most welcome.



Cecile Goding is from a small county in South Carolina, where she worked for the adult literacy movement before moving to Iowa City to attend the Univ. of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program and the Iowa Writers Workshop. She is also from New England, Saudi Arabia, and the Silicon Valley. For her poems, she has won the Theodore Roethke and Richard Hugo prizes, a fellowship from the SC Academy of Poets, and a Bread Loaf scholarship. Her poetry, essays and short fiction have appeared in journals, newspapers, and on small screens. Goding's chapbook, The Women Who Drink at the Sea, won a first-place prize from State Street Press. Recent projects involve a memoir, a collaboration with a Sudanese writer on a fiction collection, and a sci-fi opera. Previously an adjunct instructor at Mount Mercy University, she has taught for the Iowa Summer Writing Festival for many years.


Wordsworth's "Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room" values the "brief solace" that comes from surrendering to a form——like "the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground" or a paragraph of exactly 200 words—while pushing against its borders. I write in order to find out what is possible within the limitations of my art. All I have to work with is language. That's my raw material, and it's enough.

I write in order to understand what it feels like to be another person. "Sometimes you have to get out of your own skin," a friend said to me once, when I as a teacher was overwhelmed with helplessness. Writing, and of course reading, pull me out of my one narrow mind and body, expanding those elements of my existence I most want to nurture: comprehension and compassion. Writing out my memories helps me back into the skin of the person I once was, for I am her no longer. Working within the limits of English, I strive to comprehend her, interrogating her motives, her missteps, her mutterings. I believe that this exciting, always surprising work has made me a different person, a better one.


Everyone has a story to tell. If you are financially unable to attend this workshop, scholarships are available through our generous partners and donors. Apply here:


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All course information is sent to participants upon registering, including confirmation of workshop times, location, and materials.