Studying the Art of the Memoir

Honors Program Summer Fellow tackles the discipline of daily writing

Evan Riley ’18 is studying the genre of memoir writing.

After Riley took courses in news and feature writing as a junior, Professor Ron Wiginton encouraged the junior from Alma, Michigan, to branch out and try different styles. With an Honors Program Summer Fellowship, which carries a $1,500 stipend to support a summer research project, Riley is analyzing the work of author and humorist David Sedaris and other writers.

Riley is deconstructing some of Sedaris’ works, including his memorable 2013 New Yorker essay “Now We Are Five,” about his sister’s suicide. Part of Riley’s project is exploring the differences among narratives, essays and memoirs.

“He and I have been working on the concept of the ‘memoir dilemma,’ essentially the question of how to tell a true story (journalism) but using the techniques of a fiction writer,” Wiginton said.

Riley’s goal is to produce a publishable memoir by the end of the summer. “I want to see if I can make something of my own using what I’ve learned,” he said. The fellowship has already had one impact: He’s considering changing his major from interdisciplinary communication studies to English in order read more literature.

The project challenges Riley because as an independent study, there’s no formal structure. He tries to write frequently, even if it’s just tapping sentences into his phone.

“I know that if I want to pursue writing, I’m going to need discipline,” he said. “I’m using this as a test drive.”

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