Friday, January 13, 2012

Why Write a Memoir?

            Today is the first day of winter term’s “Write Your Life Story.”  This will be my second round of the autobiography class.  Some of the students have been attending for ten years!  Offered as an adjunct to family photo collections and the rising popularity of geneology sites, I suspect classes in writing your personal history are now held at most senior centers. 
            And I thought, since the class is a joint offering of the community college and the local senior center, that the class would be popular with AARP members.  It’s true, last term the majority of students were obviously over sixty-five.  But there were several middle aged women, and three who could not have seen their thirtieth birthday.  There was even one mother-daughter pair. 
            My writing niche is fiction, more particularly historical fiction.  So I had cause to wonder if maybe I was taking the wrong class.  But memoir writing has evolved.  Narrative is encouraged: I was astonished to find one young woman writing her grandmother’s stories complete with dialogue as if it were fiction. 
            Before taking the class, I expected that if your autobiography included your family’s history it was only to support the main character: you!  And it’s true most of us wrote about our own lives.  But autobiographical writing now includes family members’ memories.  In addition to the young woman writing her grandma’s history, we have grandmothers writing about their grandchildren’s lives and daughters co-authoring a single story with their mothers.
            With more than twenty members of the class, teacher Betty McCauley didn’t spend much time on how-to.  We had to hustle to get a few minutes each for reading aloud and then a couple of the leader’s comments on the writing.  There was a lot of polished writing in that class: several members have had their work accepted for publication or are self-published.  They speak at writing events and lead workshops as well as participating in poetry slams.  Betty has a really lovely website featuring her haiku,, which I encourage you to visit.
            The students’ tales ran the gamut from sad to dry to humorous.  But the connecting thread that ran through all the various narratives was love: one man’s lifelong love of baseball; a daughter’s love for her memory-impaired mother; a grandmother’s loving patience for her autistic grandson.  I found that it’s love that makes these personal anecdotes interesting.  It’s love that keeps us writing memoir, remembered love for those gone now and love passed on to the ones for whom we write these memories. 

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