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Jane Mayfield and her husband Ray are working on their life stories from different directions: she began by sifting through old photos and he plotted out all of the people who have influenced his journey thus far. Both are writing their memoirs in a class offered at the Academy for Lifelong Learning (ALL) at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
Writing a memoir is like creating “an ongoing detective story,” says Joan Katz, creator and instructor of the Memoir Writing Group. With Katz’s guidance, seven ALL members are investigating their lives. Recently, I visited the class during one of their monthly sessions and learned how some members of the group are pursuing their life stories.
The Memoir Writing Group focuses on the process of working on a memoir, which can be told in traditional and not-so-traditional ways. Memoirs don’t have to be written; stories can told through other means such as art works, quilts, or scrapbooks. Frances Parker is pursuing her investigation through family recipes that she will compile into a cookbook for her grandchildren and other family members. Some of the recipes have family history connected to them, and others are favorites she wants to save.
Whether it’s a cookbook or another method of storytelling, Katz provides plenty of resources, helpful instructions, and a variety of activities to help group members develop their stories.
Jane Mayfield plans to create a scrapbook for each of her grown children. “I have boxes of slides and photos that I’ve never done anything with,” she says. “No one wrote stories,” she says, so she’ll insert descriptions and longer narratives with the pictures.
Ray Mayfield went a different route, “writing stories about people who had a major impact on my life.” From college roommates to mentors at work to many others, Mayfield asked himself, “Why were these people important?” So far he’s written several of these stories, and he has many more to go. Mayfield sees the memoir process as writing vignettes that describe “places we’ve lived, things we did, and people we knew.”
Using artifacts like recipes, photographs or other objects is a way to trigger memories. Sometimes just freely writing thoughts brings up unexpected recollections. “I started thinking of people,” says Ray Mayfield, “and branched out to places. Things came to mind I didn’t remember when I started writing. One idea leads to another direction I didn’t expect.”
Dawn Phillips brings a richness of cultural experiences to her life story. She has two story lines to chronicle—growing up in Africa and coming to America. She has traveled extensively throughout the world as well.
For a time she was married to an American who grew up in Mississippi. She vividly remembers his grandmother, whose biggest ambition was to “see Natchez.” Although Natchez, Mississippi was only 50 miles away, his grandmother never got there. “We all have our Natchez,” Phillips points out, “and the way to get there is yourself. Look inside yourself and ask—where is my Natchez?”
Looking inward and examining the memories and emotions that emerge is another way to discover the important events in our lives. “Feelings are the hardest to deal with, and that’s what brings your story to life,” Katz says. “It’s the feelings that stay in your mind.”
Although Dawn Phillips has many avenues to explore, she admits she had not written much before joining the memoir group. For adults who like to work with others and share their ideas, the group setting is ideal. “Everyone needs that support,” Phillips says.
Joan Katz agrees: “Writing with a group gives you the opportunity to share the rewards and challenges of working on your life story.” Katz believes this hard work is “extremely rewarding. Working on your memoirs can strengthen family ties, reconnect you with friends and families.”
The goal of the class is to develop a self-sustaining writing group that will continue to meet and work on their memoirs, without Katz’s constant guidance. Since the class will be ongoing, continuing to meet in the Dorchester Building at the Maritime Museum once a month, the ALL Curriculum Committee has named it the Memoir Club.
“Life is full of short stories,” Katz says. This class—and the Memoir Club—are dedicated to telling them.
For information about the Academy for Lifelong Learning's other class offerings, visit their website.