Playing With ‘Memoir’ | Week 1 Creative Non-Fiction Class

I recently joined a 6-week “Creative Non-Fiction” class with Gotham Writers in NYC. I love learning and I‘ve wanted to get back into writing. This class seems like the best of both worlds and a chance to find my voice outside of Academia again.

The first week of six was dedicated to Memoir. Below is simply a compilation of the exercises we did live in class plus the amount of time given for each. Besides the last one — the “homework” — I have not edited these outside of the timer. Feel free to try the same prompts!


  1. A Story About Your Name (5min exercise)
  2. A Memorable “First” (10min exercise)
  3. A Rejection You’ve Suffered (15min)
  4. A Challenging Task You’ve Achieved (10min)
  5. HOMEWORK: A Major Life Change (~500 Words)

1. A Story About Your Name (5min exercise)

My name was not supposed to be my name. It was supposed to be “English”, “Irish”, or “Madison”. But I know at least five Madisons and two of them are my best friends. I was not named after a drink or a dog. For some reason, I’ve heard my name on more dogs than people. My name was inspired in the moment when my Mom met me. I can’t ask her why anymore, but regardless of what it was supposed to be, I like my name as it is. Bailey is me.

2. A Memorable “First” (10min exercise)

My First Wedding

You rarely hear someone say, “I absolutely loved my first wedding.” If they’re saying that very statement, it’s often because that first marriage didn’t work out and they are, or have already, remarried.

My story is a little different. What would once have been a tale to shock the masses has become a typical story for a select group of people who planned to wed in 2020 or 2021. I’m part of this group. I was supposed to have my wedding at the end of 2020.

But after my wedding was postponed twice because of the virus-that-shall-not-be-named, we decided to have an intimate marriage at the same venue in a smaller room upstairs. With just our immediate family there, we had a Friday wedding to remember! On the Saturday, we took everyone to a chalet-style hotel in the Canadian Muskoka forests and celebrated in the coziest way I could imagine.

I loved that first wedding. I’m excited to celebrate our marriage with our big wedding party this coming December, but no matter what, I will always cherish that first wedding in stranger times.

3. A Rejection You’ve Suffered (15min)

Rejected at the US Border

My heart was thumping. I had hives on my chest underneath a turtleneck that suddenly felt like it was choking me. “Why was I escorted to this room by an officer?” “Why aren’t we allowed phones or computers in here?” “How long will I be here?” “Will I miss my flight?” “Will I miss my big contract?”

It was my turn to go to the desk and speak to the border agent. We had to check my paperwork for a day-long temporary speaking engagement in Washington. Before I could say anything, the agent immediately started talking to me as if I was guilty of something. Unprompted by me in any way, he said “I have been working here for 15 years, if you are going to lie to me…”. I cut him off eagerly, “Wait what, I’m not lying to you.” I told him I specifically had my immigration lawyer prepare a packet for him and he cut me off — also eager, but in a different way, and said, “I don’t give a damn what your lawyer prepared“.

I was in fact missing a form and he rejected me from entering the US. I was going to miss the flight and the important gig. For him, it was another day. But for me, on the other hand, I held back tears while I waited to have my luggage returned to me and was escorted out of security back to departures. The tear wells hit their capacity and they started rolling down my face as I called my now husband and explained what happened. “Why did this happen?” “Why has it not happened before?” “Will my big client postpone?” “Why do I feel like a criminal or something?”

All those questions were answered eventually, but that feeling of rejection and failure made such an imprint that it came to mind today upon being asked this prompt…

[Did not have enough time to finish. Would like to expand on outcome and impact.]

4. A Challenging Task You’ve Achieved (10min)

My Master’s Degree

I am the first generation in my family to go to have gone to post-secondary school. That was true at the Bachelor’s level, so earning my Master’s would have been part of my ancestor’s wildest dreams. I love learning and wanted to create new knowledge and helpful strategies for society, not JUST comment on others’ contributions. The MA provided me with a way to do both, I thought.

As a part-time student, I had to work alongside my learning so that I could afford to live and eat at the same time. In the days, I worked at a university and built my business on the side. In the evenings, or in stolen time on a commute, I did my readings, assignments, and research. On a couple of occasions, I wondered if this was even worth the time and energy I was expending, especially when my career seemed to be going well outside of school. But I finish things I start and this was going to be no different.

4 years later, I got that degree and have never regretted it. I never got to walk across a stage because of the pandemic, but it was never about the stage. It was about knowledge, learning, and achieving something that can never be taken away from me or my family, no matter what happens through the rest of my life…

5. HOMEWORK: A Major Life Change (~500 Words)

Move-In Day

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to live in NYC. To a foreigner, NYC is the stuff of myth and the movies. When I met my husband, Hamza, 10 years ago and learned he was born in Queens and wanted to move back at some point, I won’t lie, it was filed in his ‘pro’ column.

Fast forward to August 2022. After a year of working with lawyers and COVID-related delays, I was granted my O1 visa on August 3rd. In dramatic NYC fashion, this was one day before move-in day. We had signed a lease for an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan that we had only seen through videos and 3D renderings up until move-in day.

The night before move-in day, Hamza and I stayed at a nearby hotel. Hamza is generally pretty disciplined and pragmatic. If you didn’t know him, you might say he is very serious. But when we woke up on move-in day. We were both giddy and eager to get into our new home in our dream city. This would be a time-marker in our lives!

When we walked into our new building for the first time, we were put at ease. The building had a signature scent than smelled floral and like it had just been cleaned at the same time. Our leasing agent gave us a tour and when he wasn’t looking, Hamza and I exchanged glances with each other. Like many long-term couples, Hamza and I can have full conversations in our heads. These glances were a combination of relief, excitement, and a “Yoooooo, this is cool!”. We were pleased to find the apartment felt bigger than we expected, mostly due to the 9ft ceilings we didn’t know we had! This is just how I imagined move-in day would go, until the movers came.

The moving company’s driver arrived from Toronto in the afternoon and hired two local men to unload the truck. Mover 1 was thin and made erratic movements. Mover 2 was Latino with mid-length black hair tied in a low bun. With each trip up, the movers became more visibly agitated than before. Were we missing something? Did we do something wrong? We asked them if they wanted any lunch from the market. “This might help them feel better,” I thought. Blue Gatorade was on the menu. When we returned from the market, things had worsened. Apparently, the driver was not helping the movers unload as they had expected. The company had also not communicated that we paid for the assembly of major furniture too.

To my Canadian sensibilities, Mover 1 was committing what felt like verbal assault on us all day. “This fucking guy won’t help. No one told us about assembly. We’re leaving.” We felt guilty. Mover 2 chimed in, “We know it’s not your fault, but we can’t do assembly. No one told us.” We apologized a lot. No, it wasn’t our fault, but we’re Canadian, remember? This was not the plan. Why was I being yelled at on my first day in my dream city?

“We have to go. Where’s our tip?” said Mover 1. After providing terrible service, the last thing I wanted to do was reward Mover 1 with gratuity, but these people literally know where we live! My anxiety rose further when I realized we had not pulled out USD yet. No problem, I thought. “We‘ll give you a great tip in CAD and you’ll be able to exchange it at any bank,” I said. No-go. “We don’t know what to do with this,” said Mover 1. “Okay, how about we download Venmo later today and send it to you then?” we offered. Also no-go. “We don’t know if we can trust you,” said Mover 2. Huh? Hamza and I are honest people. We’d never lie about this, especially to hard-working people.

While I collected myself, Hamza walked with these men to an ATM machine to pull out cash for them. “Why don’t people trust each other here?” I said when he returned. Hamza, with all his seriousness and focus, said, “Perhaps that’s why we’re meant to be here, to show them they still can.

I’ll be sharing writing from all 6 weeks here on my Medium. You can see more of my writing and thinking here: or follow my on Instagram @BaileyParnell.

Bailey Parnell
Bailey Parnell is the Founder & CEO of SkillsCamp and was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women in 2016. Bailey is a 2x TED speaker with over 3.5 million views, an award-winning internationally-recognized entrepreneur, active humanitarian, and one with a talent for helping people develop the skills they need for success. Her work and expertise have been featured in Forbes, Good Morning America, CBC, FOX, and more.

For speaking, media, or a quick chat, reach out to Bailey today.

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