Spring 2017 Nine-Week Writing Our Lives Personal Essay Workshop


Workshop Dates:  February 25, March 4, 11, 18, 25, April 1, 8, 22, May 6

Tuition/Cost: $620 — Payment plans available. There is a nonrefundable $100 deposit required to reserve your seat. The deposit goes towards your tuition. If you are interested in a payment plan, you must arrange this BEFORE class begins.

Financial Aid: Need based, partial scholarships are available on a first come, first serve basis. To apply, send a letter explaining your financial need—i.e. unemployed, underemployed, etc. Also explain why you think you need this class, what you expect to gain from it, and why you think you are deserving of the scholarship beyond your financial need. Send the letter with “Writing Our Lives Scholarship” in the subject line to: writingourlivesworkshop@gmail.com. (Note: Students who have not received a scholarship in the past will be given first dibs on the scholarships.)

Project: A maximum 1500 word essay due April 26th at 9pm. All essays will be workshopped by the students and facilitator on the last day of class, May 6th. More details will be provided in class.

The Story of Writing Our Lives

Like today, there was a lot going on in the world when I created the Writing Our Lives back in 2010. I had quit my editing job and threw myself heart first into writing and teaching. I had attended VONA for two consecutive years and knew I would be back. (I ended up attending five summers in a row and worked with some of the greatest writers of our time including Chris Abani, Elmaz Abinader, Staceyann Chin, Mat Johnson and David Mura. I now work for the organization.) The climate in the country was both hopeful and incendiary–we had elected our first black president and he was making moves to bring the change he promised us, meanwhile California’s Prop 8 had just been ratified eliminating the right of same-sex couples to marry, anti-immigration legislation was sweeping the nation and the Texas Textbook wars (where history was essentially rewritten) were gathering steam.

In 2009, I attended my first VONA/Voices workshop (Memoir with Elmaz Abinader),  and I walked out of there knowing I wanted to help bring our stories into the world. I wanted to help writers of color like me who didn’t see themselves in the American canon, in the books they read in school or the ones that made bestseller and must-read lists. Writing Our Lives is my way of helping to bring our stories into the world. I’ve dedicated the last six years of my life to do this work. I even quit the safety of a full-time editing job while I was a single parent, to live this life. That’s how much I believe in the work I do.

I won’t lie, there have been moments over the past year where my faith has been challenged and has waned–this horrendous election season, the shocking results, the team of bigots Trump is putting together as his cabinet, the massacre in Orlando, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the murder of so many young black and brown women and men by police, the Dakota Pipeline and the criminal treatment of peaceful protesters and on and on and on… I’ve questioned and wondered: Does story really matter? Can story effect real change? I haven’t always been able to say yes with certainty, which is frightening considering how much I’ve invested in this work, but sitting idle isn’t an option either. Toni Morrison once said: “We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” I want to be part of that healing, if nothing else.

Our children need our stories, we need our stories, I need your stories, and people need mine. This workshop is here to help you write those stories you wished you’d had as a kid.

I’ve been enamored (read: obsessed) with all things autobiographical since I was a kid. I ate up the Laura Ingall’s Wilder Little House on the Prairie books, reading the series at least three or four times (I know now that this series is very problematic but was too young to know that then), but it was reading St. Augustine’s Confessions in my first year at Columbia University that really grabbed me up and didn’t let go. Known as the first memoir in history (which is questionable but that’s a conversation for a later time), that book started this personal writing obsession that years later I used to create this class: the Writing Our Lives Workshop.

Since teaching my first class in early 2011, I’ve led several hundred writers through the journey of writing personal essays and memoirs. Many have gone on to publish fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and have attended reputable writing programs and residencies like VONA/Voices, Cave Canem, Tin House and Hedgebrook.

I’ve reinvented the class several dozen times and have now extended it to a nine week class where students generate tons of writing and write a 1500 word essay as a final project.

Why nine weeks? Because you think five hours once a week for six weeks is enough to teach the layers of the personal essay but it’s not. I want to give my writers more time to sit with the lessons and practice them at length, to dig into the stories that haunt them to find the one they want to delve into for their project: the essay we workshop in the last week of class. I want to give my writers time to practice what it means to write in their own voices—you’d be surprised how many of us write in these voices that are not ours because we’ve been told for our entire lives that we are not enough and our stories are not enough and our language is inferior (more on this here). I want to give my writers more time to be with themselves and their conviction to write these stories that gnaw at them, so I’ve added fifteen hours of class-time.

As per usual, I offer a one day FREE five hour class each semester. Why? Because I believe in paying it forward. I believe that when you have a gift, you are supposed to share it with the world. I believe there are people out there who want to write personal essays but don’t know how and can’t afford to take a class. This is my offering to them and to you. More on the free class here

What you need to know:

* This class is designed for people who are new or fairly new to the personal essay/memoir and know they want to take on the challenge.

* Perhaps you are interested in writing a memoir and want to get your feet wet in essay. As a memoir writer myself, I can tell you that the personal essay is the micro of the macro that is memoir.

* Maybe you’re a seasoned writer who wants to brush up on the essentials. There’s room for you too! Legend has it that Alvin Ailey used to take a basics dance class periodically even after he created his now renowned dance school, “to remind myself,” he said.

* In the class we will dig into the fundamentals of writing personal essays: how to decide on a topic, how to start, how to read essays like writers (because reading like a writer and reading like a reader are not the same thing), how to build well-developed characters, how to write dialogue, etc.

* We will be reading essays (lots of them) and dissecting them, analyzing why the author made the decision(s) he/she made. We’ll also be doing tons of writing, including a 1500 word essay as a final project. What I’m saying is you must be willing and able to do the work. The writing life you envision requires it.

Still not sure if this class is for you? Ask yourself this:

* Have you read essays and wanted to write your own but the thoughts get lost in translation, somewhere between your brain and your fingertips?

* Have you tried to write essays but find them hard to finish?

* Have you wondered how writers write their amazing essays but think you just don’t have the chops and wish you did? (Side note: you do have the chops!)

* Do you write religiously or sporadically in your journal and wish (maybe even know) you could make those streams of consciousness into essays?

* Are you a writer (perhaps you’ve written poetry and/or fiction) who wants a refresher on the techniques you take for granted so you can take a stab at essay writing?

* Have you heard some great things about the Writing Our Lives Workshop and want to see Vanessa in action?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, this class is for you. Here are the details on the spring semester of classes one more time for good measure:

FREE One Day Class: January 7th, 12-5pm

Writing Fiction from Real LifeJanuary 21st & February 4th, this is a generative class. More information here.

Nine-Week Writing Our Lives Workshop Dates*: February 25, March 4 11, 18, 25, April 1, 8, 22, May 6

*All classes are 12pm-5pm unless otherwise specified.

Have questions? Interested? Want to talk to me further about it? Holler at me at writingourlivesworkshop@gmail.com. I look forward to hearing from you.


How is Vanessa Mártir qualified to teach this class?

Vanessa Mártir is a writer, educator and mama. She is currently completing her memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and chronicles the journey in her blog: vanessamartir.wordpress.com. In 2016, Vanessa challenged herself to write an essay a week, dubbing the effort in The Relentless Files. She’s currently in week 48! Vanessa’s essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies, including The Butter, Poets and Writers, Huffington Post, Kweli Journal, Thought Catalog, and the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle, among others. Vanessa has penned two novels, Woman’s Cry (Augustus Publishing, 2007) and The Right Play (shopping), and most recently co-wrote Do Something!: A Handbook for Young Activists (Workman Books, 2010). In 2010, Vanessa resigned from her full-time editing position to write and teach full-time. Vanessa is a five-time VONA/Voices fellow and now works on staff. She created the Writing Our Lives Workshop in 2010 and has since led more than 200 emerging writers through the journey of writing personal essays and memoirs. Vanessa is the recipient of the 2013 Jerome Foundation Fellowship, and works as a teaching artist for community organizations like East Harlem Tutorial Program (EHTP) and Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Most recently she was accepted to Tin House’s Winter 2016 Nonfiction Workshop where she worked with Lacy B. Johnson and spent enough time with Dorothy Allison that she wishes she was her grandma. Vanessa was once again accepted to Tin House’s Winter 2017 Nonfiction Workshop where she will be working with Lidia Yuknavitch. Vanessa attended Columbia University and is an A Better Chance (ABC) alumna.

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