Why Young Writers Should Write Memoir Essays

by | Nov 15, 2023

Photo by Gustavo Fring

Several years ago, I attended a writing conference and had the pleasure of meeting Marion Roach Smith. Marion worked at The New York Times in the 70s and 80s, and in 1985 she wrote a memoir about her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. 

She now teaches memoir writing courses and is the author of a wonderful little book on memoir writing called The Memoir Project.

Marion’s talk at the conference, my conversation with her afterwards, and my reading of her guidebook all inspired me to write several of my own memoir essays. It also reminded me of the importance of this literary genre.

Augustine’s Confessions, published circa 400 AD, is considered the first Western autobiography ever written. Since then, memoir writing has become an established genre whether you’re writing an op-ed for a newspaper, a blog post for a website, a personal essay for a college application, or a book-length autobiography.

That means that writing memoir essays isn’t just for adults. It’s an essential assignment for young writers as well.

Memoir writing teaches students how to develop their storytelling skills, express their emotions more fully, and evaluate personal experiences for life lessons. It’s a fantastic way to guide students to write more vividly and let their personality shine through on the page. These skills will give them a strong foundation for all different types of academic writing.

I am reminded of a quote I once came across attributed to the writer Flannery O’Connor, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Just like adults, children have a wealth of experiences to write about. (It’s interesting to note that many adults write memoir essays about their childhood!) Some of my young students write humorous memoir essays. Others grapple with sensitive memories, for example, a loved one’s passing. No matter the subject, each essay shares a valuable and unique experience.

Unlike the cliché back to school essay assignment “What did you do on your summer vacation?”, my memoir assignment for kids asks them to pick an experience where they learned an important lesson. It challenges them to write an engaging story that will inspire their readers.

This is an integral part of memoir writing. In her book The Memoir Project, Marion writes, 

“Let us into your story by shedding light on our own dilemmas, fears, happiness, or wide-eyed wonder…You have to give readers a reason for this thing to live on in their hearts and minds.” 

Here are several possible topics for a memoir essay:

  • Winning or losing a competition
  • Your bravest moment
  • How you overcame a fear
  • An event that changed your life
  • A time when you made the wrong choice (and learned from it)
  • A time when you made the right choice
  • The most exciting experience you’ve ever had
  • When you learned how to do something for the first time

How to Teach Memoir Writing

I’ve recently taken my memoir writing assignment and turned it into a fun downloadable lesson plan: Inkwell Ninjas: How to Write a Memoir Essay.

It’s a step by step guide for teaching this important essay form and unlocking your student’s true writing potential.

I recommend this guide for ages 8-11 (grades 3-5). I designed it for students who are learning how to write short five paragraph essays. You can adapt the lesson plan to the skill set of your student.

Here’s what’s included: 

  1. A 29-page full color PDF written in a conversational tone. The writing ninjas teach everything you and your student need to know about memoir writing — all you have to do is read along!
  2. You also get a 9-page teacher’s guide PDF that contains a clear and simple step-by-step explanation on how to use the lesson plan along with black and white copies of the memoir essay outline, checklist, and grading rubric that you can print out for your students.

You can check out all the details on this page.

Right now, you can get the entire lesson plan for just $9.99. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep it at this price but I wanted to make it accessible right now to teachers all around the globe so you can teach this important essay form to your students.

If you purchase the guide or have already purchased it, thank you! That helps to support the website and email newsletter so I can continue making free resources for you too.

On the Bookshelf: Inkwell Scholars Book Recommendation

Having students read an autobiography would be a wonderful companion to this essay assignment. In the memoir lesson plan, I include a short memoir essay by John Greenleaf Whittier so students can read and evaluate excellent writing.

When I was a child, I remember enjoying Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life. Published in 1903 when Keller was just 23 years old, it details her experiences growing up blind and deaf. You can read it for free on The Internet Archive or get a copy from Amazon here.

I’d love to hear from you if you have any additional memoir or autobiography recommendations for kids. God bless and happy reading and writing!

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“Thanks to Nicole’s instruction, two of my reluctant writers have come to enjoy writing,
feeling more confident and eager to work on their assignments.” — Silveria Shultz