Memoir-writing can benefit from group effort
March 1, 2018
Almost everybody over 50 has given at least passing thought to writing a memoir — a personal history. Most people drop the idea because they are too busy or think they would never be able to sit down and actually write such a thing.
But some Alaska seniors follow through and get the job done. A few of them get really serious about it and gather each Tuesday at the Anchorage Senior Activity Center to participate in the center’s Memoir Writing Group. They meet to read each other samples of their writing, and their ideas, and to offer suggestions to help each other.
Members have many reasons for writing memoirs; the most common one is passing on their life experiences to their children and other descendants. The memoir becomes their own life history. Each writer hopes readers will reach a better understanding of who they are, not another’s memory or superficial impression of them.
Once a group member begins writing, he or she begins to feel and appreciate the essence of their own life. They can inform others in the group on their own life experiences and what they have learned from them. Everyone enjoys uninterrupted time to present their writing and ask for assistance if desired.
The group members find different ways of getting started on their projects. At first their writing may just be putting down random facts, thoughts or observations to see if applying ‘pen to paper’ can actually produce something worthwhile. Then individuals try different ways to write down in an orderly fashion what they want to express.
Some use a formal outline similar to what we all used in our long-ago high school classes. Others like to focus on a specific topic and cluster ideas and feelings around that. A photograph is always a good starting point, a stimulant from which a topic, history and feelings can naturally evolve.
Those who kept journals over the years often revive old writings and bring them to life for others to see. Most writers find they need to edit with a cut and paste method to achieve their goal. A few manage to turn out a final draft by simply sitting down and writing their life stories in longhand. Many find that talking to older relatives and acquaintances helps stimulate memories and examples.
Each week the group decides on a topic as a writing assignment for the following week although anyone wishing to write on something else is free to do so. Topics vary from portraying an ancestor, holiday traditions, a national event, trips or a favorite toy, to one that focused on zucchinis.
Similar events and feelings crop up and are discussed by the group, producing a sense of unity among the group members. Newcomers quickly realize their own lives contain a multitude of stories waiting to be unearthed and shaped into a memoir.
Class members are mostly in their 70s or 80s. Our two oldest memoir writers are in their 90s. Both were born elsewhere but spent the bulk of their adult lives in Alaska. The older, Elizabeth, is 96 and a charter member of the group. Her stories tell about growing up with pleasure and joy in a loving family with eight siblings. All her family members valued reading and were reliable, hard workers. Elizabeth’s goal for her memoir is to pass on to others the importance of family structure for leading happy and productive lives. She feels that rearing children in a joyous and optimistic household is the basis for stability and reliability both in the home and the community. She feels developing such a life makes it possible to live in the community without all the expensive trappings that are so often offered and expected by society today.
Doris, age 95, is a newer member of the group. From her first meeting she has made writing her memoirs one of the focal points of her life. She was reared in the Great Depression and that gave her appreciation for what she did have. She has been fortunate to have traveled extensively in the United States as well as the world, observing and participating in other cultures as she went. Doris is an avid reader of history and world cultures and finds the United States is richer for being a ‘melting pot.’
In writing her memoirs, she hopes to pass on to her descendants the need to understand history and other cultures for knowledge of another world that lies beyond the current computer age.
Judith Kalles leads the Memoir Writing Group at the Anchorage Senior Activity Center. She is a writer and a long-time Alaskan.