I was, quite literally, surrounded by stories. That sounds trite, but in a workshop called “Structuring the Memoir,” in which every member is looking for the right way to recount what has happened in his or her life, such a description becomes rather apropos.

By some stroke of luck, not only was my first writing workshop centered on my favorite genre, but it was also led by Kaylie Smith, keynote speaker of the day and author of the newly released memoir Lies My Mother Never Told Me.

Though only two hours were allotted for our group in this workshop sponsored by the Decatur Book Festival, Smith still managed to convey profundities and solid pieces of advice alike. For me, the up and coming English major suffering from a combination of writer’s block and harsh bouts of self-criticism, the time led by Smith, who possessed refreshing frankness about writing and the publishing business, was just what the doctor ordered.

We started with the usual ice breaker: going around the room introducing ourselves and our occupations. Surrounded by a variety of people, from a psychoanalyst to an attorney to a freelance editor to me, a college freshman, we were quite a patchwork quilt of ideas and backgrounds, providing nothing less than a basis for fascinating discussion.

Smith dove right in to the heart of the workshop’s goal: how does one structure a sound memoir? We focused first on what was most logical: the beginning. Smith emphasized how crucial the beginning of one’s story is. “Make it fascinating,” she said, else one left him or herself open to the problem of losing the reader before the second chapter ever saw its sunrise. Discussion then meandered through plot and pacing and of not “dropping the ball”—the key, Smith said, was to use “forward momentum” to propel the story along, creating something irresistibly engaging.

In the corner of the room I sat, furiously scribbling in my spiral notebook, trying to absorb not only the author’s words, but those of the people around me. Amidst hearing stories of death, attack, disconnect, abuse, deceit, and even exorcism, I came to understand the root of my attraction to the memoir and its pervasive effects as a literary genre. It was all in the universality. As an eighteen year old, life has shown me a fair hand of conflicts and upheavals, but such was the same for the person sitting to my left, to my right, across from me, three desks down—it was everywhere.

More than the savvy advice of a published and experienced writer, Smith provided us with the means by which to uncap the pen, to differentiate between our past and present selves, to “quiet the censors” in our heads, and to simply begin. I cannot speak for the other members of the workshop, but there was something therapeutic, almost cathartic, about being in that Buttrick classroom.

Two hours came and went quicker than any of us would have liked, but before walking out the door, Smith shared her favorite meditative technique to quiet the voices in our heads that ever so often ebb the flow of words and ideas.

Essentially, it was our task to shut out all of the voices telling us what we couldn’t or shouldn’t do with our stories. The only voice that mattered was our own. “Now you’re ready to write,” she finished.

I wish I could say that I raced back to my dorm and began to pen the story of my adolescence, full of irony and beauty and poignancy. I have instead let myself become caught up in the whirlwind of homework, class, sleep, trips to Decatur, and other college ventures. There are moments, though, when my mind meanders and snags on a memory. Maybe it’s the moment that changed my life, the one that caused my “story” to begin. Maybe—or maybe I’m just still looking.


Paige Sullivan is a first-year English major at Agnes Scott College. She hails from Monroe, Georgia, and plans on graduating in 2013.

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