From memory to printed page
EAST SEBAGO, MAINE — Jim Walsh never intended to write his memoirs. But for years, one of his grandsons has been asking an insistent question: "Grandpa, what did you do in the war?" (Mr. Walsh was a machine gunner in the Korean conflict.)
"He started pushing me to write," says Walsh, of Culver, Ind.
Hundreds of miles east, in Chatham, Mass., Marian Yanamura has felt similar pressure from her grandson. As she explains, "He tells me, 'Mitzi, write your life down. We want to keep you with us always.' "
That friendly persuasion is beginning to yield dividends for both families. Last month, Walsh and Mrs. Yanamura found themselves seated around a conference table at a lakeside lodge in southern
Maine, joining 14 other budding memoirists eager to write about their lives. The weeklong course, called "Turning Memories Into Memoirs," is taught by Denis Ledoux, director of the Soleil Lifestory Network in Lisbon Falls, Maine.
"People have a need to transmit something of themselves," Mr. Ledoux says. "It's the grandparent around the wood stove telling something to grandchildren." He describes a life story as "one heart speaking to another heart."
Ledoux's course, under the auspices of Elderhostel, reflects a burgeoning interest in the events, small and large, that shape lives and families. In Elderhostel programs, adult-education classes, and college courses, students of all ages are discovering the pleasure of preserving stories for future generations. Marriages, births, careers, joys and disappointments - everything is grist for a memoirist's mill.
Even the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are heightening interest in memoir-writing, according to another specialist on the subject, Alexandra Johnson, author of "Leaving a Trace: The Art of Transforming a Life Into Stories" (Little, Brown). The need "to get down this story of our lives to pass along to other generations" is becoming more urgent, she says.
"The whole concept of what's heroic has changed in the last month," Ms. Johnson explains. "We're seeing these instances, whether it's firefighters or volunteers, where everybody has remarkable stories." Every life, she emphasizes, has "innate dignity and great stories."
That realization is sending people back to journals, diaries, and family chronicles. Even e-mail messages form what she calls "a kind of populist memoir."
At Wellesley College, where Johnson teaches courses in memoir, the subject is so popular that classes fill during the first hour of registration.
Elsewhere, she finds that men now make up the fastest-growing group of new journal keepers. She attributes the trend to the availability of computers and more free time in retirement.
On this autumn Thursday in southern Maine, gray clouds hang low over Sebago Lake. But inside the Rockcraft Retreat Center, there is nothing somber about the spirits of the eight men and eight women who have come from as far away as California for this course. Seated around long tables flanked by stone fireplaces and chintz sofas, they are critiquing stories they wrote last night.
For Margaret Scabich, who earned a degree in theology when she was in her 40s and has been a Presbyterian minister for 32 years, writing about her life offers a way to begin creating a family history.
"All my family died before I grew up," says the Rev. Scabich, of Pemberville, Ohio. "They were not the kind who talked. I want to change that. I don't want my grandchildren to know so little about me the way I know so little about my family."
She uses her maternal grandfather as an example: "I know his name was Charles Wills. I was told he came from England. That's all I know." Now, because of her writing, she says, "My children will find some of their story in my stories."
Another participant, Mary Coolman of Temple City, Calif., once wrote an autobiography for her children. After realizing that its "I was born..." format was "kind of boring," she decided that "there had to be a better way to do it."
There is certainly nothing boring about the family stories she wants to tell. Her parents homesteaded in the mountains of California. "There was no money," Mrs. Coolman says. "The first year, they lived in a tent." She was a sophomore in high school when they got electricity. They did not have a telephone. And the public library was just a bookcase at the local gas station.
"It was a different life," she says simply.
Still, her interest in memoirs goes beyond the details of her own life - details she has carefully organized in a three-ring notebook filled with family documents and records.
"I feel very strongly that older people need to get their stories down," Coolman says. "They have so much to say. My generation went from an agricultural age to the Space Age. That's an incredible span of technology."
Yanamura lived through the same era.
"The Depression started 20 minutes after I graduated from high school," she says. To earn money for her mother and siblings, she held three jobs in Boston. By day, she worked in a furrier's office and at a radio station. In the evening, she played jazz piano at a bar in Scollay Square, chaperoned by her older brother.
"I only made $18 a week," Yanamura recalls. "My mother fed the whole family for $18 a week."
For Mary Powers, memories on this particular morning involve her parents. As she reads a touching account of their love story to the group, her voice breaks. Memoir-writing, she observes later, is "like Hansel and Gretel. These stories we remember are like crumbs leading us somewhere."
Mrs. Powers, who teaches reading to elementary school students in New York, sees other benefits. "Writing your story creates significance. I'm finding myself. I feel like a juggler, juggling all these ideas."
By contrast, her husband, Ray, prefers to write about the Manhattan neighborhood where he grew up. "It's not there anymore," he tells the group.
Another man, Gordon Williams of Red Bank, N.J., finds satisfaction in writing about a trip to Sweden to visit his grandfather's village and homestead. This kind of writing, he says, produces "a lot of introspection - a lot."
Ledoux's interest in family history began as a child growing up in a three-generation family. His grandmother lived upstairs. "She was always telling stories," he says. "Her childhood was vivid to me."
In 1989, he held his first workshop on writing life stories. Initially, participants sometimes half-apologized for their interest, saying, "I may be crazy for wanting to do this."
No one uses the word crazy anymore. Now, Ledoux says, "People just accept that this is something they can do at some point in their lives."
As members of the group read their stories, Ledoux offers suggestions.
"I would use shorter sentences, introducing a lot of nine- to 15-word sentences," he tells one woman. "Allow yourself to change thoughts every 15 words. If you were consciously changing sentences, you would have more freedom."
To another participant he says, "I don't think we needed 'I' as the first word here."
He offers other tips:
Ask yourself, What is this story about? What am I trying to say? How can I dramatize it? Use dialogue, action, setting.
There is nothing you are "supposed" to write about. A story in a memoir does not need to have big meaning.
The beginning of the story should be one of the last things you write.
After writing a piece, eliminate 10 percent of the words. "I have never eliminated 10 percent without having it benefit my story," he says.
Cut out 50 percent of adjectives and adverbs. "I'm not saying eliminate the concept, but eliminate the words. Adjectives pretend to be precise and to do a yeoman's work, but they're flabby. To say that I am a poor person or a rich person is relative."
As the afternoon session draws to a close, Ledoux suggests topics for tonight's writing assignments:
"Write about your introduction to work," he tells the group. "What is work for you in your life?
"Write about your marriage relationship - your hopes and expectations, your needs. You don't have to share these stories. Write honestly.
"Write about your children. Writing up your child's childhood is like giving gold to somebody."
Another crucial topic, he says, involves one's spiritual journey.
With only one more day left in the course, members of the group begin to reflect on what writing about their lives means to them.
"It's like mining for gold in the river of our lives," Mrs. Powers says. "It's beyond great."
Walsh, a former social worker and lawyer, calls it "eye-opening."
For her part, Yanamura is eager to record details of her life for her grandson, who will be married in December.
"It's going to fill my days pretty well," she says. "I look forward to a good winter, no matter what the snow does. I'll be able to sit there and write. Then I'll be able to give this to my grandson and his new family, which hasn't even been started yet."
For a free monthly e-newsletter with tips on writing life stories, send your e-mail address to Denis Ledoux at: firstname.lastname@example.org. This is only available electronically.