Everybody Has a Story, Memoirists Prove
A memoir-writing group meets at the Thompson Senior Center in Woodstock Diana Leskovar, of Norwich, the facilitator of the group, is at left with John Leavitt, of East Barnard, Audrey Barr, of South Woodstock, and Jim Minnich, of Bethel. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Above: Kim Gifford, of Bethel, center back, listens as Heidi Fishman, of Norwich, reads during Gifford’s memoir-writing course at Lebanon College in April. At left is student Bill Chappelle, of Enfield, and student Gioia Grasso Cattabriga, of West Lebanon, is at right. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Gioia Grasso Cattabriga, of West Lebanon, sits with two copies of her work. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Fran Gillett, of Woodstock, a member of the memoir-writing group at the Woodstock Senior Center, reads some of her work. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
By all appearances, the Upper Valley is a region overflowing with engaging life stories. In the last couple of months alone, local authors have been reading and signing copies of at least three memoirs. Carmen Blandin Tarleton recently made an appearance in Thetford to discuss Overcome: Burned, Blinded and Blessed, her story of recovery from a brutal domestic assault that left her requiring a complete face transplant. Susan Gilloti has been out and about discussing Women of Privilege, a memoir that traces the lives of three generations of women from the Hudson River Valley. Viola Sawyer Lunderville has been visiting local libraries with a A Not-So-Small-Time Town: Growing Up in Plainfield, N.H.
But those are just the published memoirs.
Underneath the waves of all those published life stories there thrives, perhaps, an even livelier realm of memoir writing that the reading public may never see. All over the Upper Valley, people of disparate backgrounds and a range of ages gather in small groups to craft their memories into stories that they share among themselves and with family and friends. A handful of these writers have their eye on eventually publishing their pieces for a wider audience, but most do not. For reasons both personal and profound, they dive down into their memories and come back up with stories that may prove painful, poignant, funny, sad and, almost always, surprising.
It Begins With a Prompt
On a recent Monday morning, a dozen adults sat elbow-to-elbow around a table in a sunny upper room at the Thompson Senior Center in Woodstock. For 15 minutes, the only sounds to be heard were a gentle breeze wafting through lilac bushes and the steady scratch of pens and pencils moving across formerly blank pieces of paper.
Like other memoir groups in the area, the class was beginning with everyone responding to a writing prompt. Today’s suggested topics included “What is the kindest … thing you ever did for your parent(s)?” “When do you remember being most afraid?” “What would you like people to say about you at your funeral?”
When Diana Leskovar, program manager at the senior center and the memoir group facilitator for that session, called “time’s up,” all the writers set down their pens and two participants, those for whom the physical act of writing is no longer possible, looked up from their silent meditations. One by one, each read aloud what he had just written or had been thinking.
Fran Gillett, who had just spent the last two weeks “per (her) children’s orders,” actually planning her own funeral, talked about the two people she wants to speak at her service: her son, because he’s an accomplished public speaker who can control his emotions, and a friend of 40 years, another reliable speaker and also a fellow church member.
Norm Boynton, age 88 and no longer able to actually write, sidestepped the writing prompts to offer a description of a former Taftsville brickyard, circa 1892, that was so detailed anyone would have thought he was speaking from personal experience. Not so, Boynton said. “I read it in a book.”
Leskovar shared the story of the once-in-a-lifetime trip to Italy that she purchased for her mother. Sherry Belisle, of Woodstock, told a tale of three piano teachers and how they influenced her to become a piano teacher herself. Audrey Barr, of South Woodstock, recalled the time when she was a young wife and mother faced with the loss of her home due to fire. Judy Persin, of Bethel, recited a poem she had just composed on the spot. John Leavitt wrote of his desire to see a woman become president of the United States.
Life, death, joy, fear, politics, religion — the eclectic wealth of stories that pour forth from the members of the Thompson memoir group is just one of the reasons Leskovar said she loves this part of her job.
When the group started up about two years ago, Leskovar said, the participants’ main goal was less about writing and more about creating a “safe, supportive, confidential environment where all would be welcome” to share their stories. Leskovar said she sees evidence each week that the group has accomplished that goal. People reveal things about themselves that everyone in the room knows they are sharing publicly for the first time. There are “heart-wrenching stories,” Leskovar said, that leave even the writers amazed that they found the emotional courage to speak their truths aloud.
“I’ve learned that a powerful story can come out in so many different ways,” Leskovar said, “as long as it comes from the heart.”
To Tell the Truth
Stories coming from the heart are not what all the students who sign up for Kim Gifford’s memoir writing class at Lebanon College have foremost in their minds. Some, the younger students in particular, need to fulfill a writing requirement and memoir writing seems like as good a place as any to get the job done, even if they walk into class, at age 19 or 20, thinking they don’t have much of a life to write about.
Gifford, a freelance writer from Bethel who has been teaching at Lebanon College since 2002, knows better. Experience has taught her not to prejudge a life story writer based on age.
“I get a lot of criminal justice majors taking this class, a lot of guys who are 18 or 19 years old. They end up being some of the best writers.” Gifford said.
Memoir, as opposed to autobiography, is theme-based writing, Gifford said, which makes it an “inherently flexible genre,” malleable to the needs of a wide swath of the population. A writer’s imagination might dry up at the thought of starting his life story from the time of his birth to the day he started taking classes at Lebanon College. But if he’s asked to recall a favorite song, or a special room, or an important holiday, even a particular color, he may find all kinds of unexpected writing avenues opening up for him.
From an instructional standpoint, the ease with which writers can tap into their own memories for material plays perfectly into the goals of a basic writing class. As Gifford sees it, rules of grammar, syntax and punctuation apply to personal narratives as much as they do to academic essays, and the art of engaging a reader travels across genre borders, as well.
But what especially attracts Gifford to the memoir genre is that tricky little thing called The Truth.
The main goal in memoir writing is always to get at the truth, Gifford said, “but everybody is coming at the truth from different angles.” In fact, differences in perspective can be so profound as to call into question when a memoir is really a memoir rather than a work of creative nonfiction. There are the notorious memoirists who have told outright lies — James Frey and A Million Little Pieces, to name one example — but of more literary and probably lasting interest are those people “pushing the issue of what memoir is,” producing life stories that create new categories of writing, such as “biomythology” or “metaphorical memoir.”
When her last memoir class finished this spring, Gifford had seen the limits of memoir being expanded even in a class with just three adult students. Gioia Grasso Cattabriga, who has taken Gifford’s class numerous times, came to compose elegant essays about her childhood growing up with a single mother. Bill Chapelle, a special educator from Enfield, came to fulfill a professional development requirement and to place himself on the other side of the student-teacher relationship for a change.
But Heidi Fishman, of Norwich, signed up for a much more daunting literary undertaking, one that melds memoir with creative nonfiction in what Gifford might categorize as a “paramemoir.” Fishman’s goal is to tap into her own life experiences as an American Jew by relating the history of her mother, Ruth “Tutti” Fishman, a Holocaust survivor from The Netherlands. Fishman’s approach is to transform “family rumors” into a historical novel for young adults. With a tale that is one part historical research, one part family history, one part fiction, the challenge for Fishman is to hold those three strands together with a narrative arc that revolves around the character of a fictional 12-year-old girl, a stand-in for her mother.
Fishman, a retired psychologist and a novice writer, said delving into her family’s history and fact-checking their stories against historical documents has turned her into an amateur historian. She has become adept at using the Internet for research purposes and recently spent five days at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., submerging herself in the library as much as she did the exhibits.
As for the writing itself, Fishman said, “It’s definitely getting better. I started out with something that was very dry, but now it’s becoming more of a story.”
Trust, Therapy and Truth
At the weekly memoir group that Bobbi Stoneman facilitates at the Chapin Senior Center in New London, issues of trust and the truth come into play every time the group meets. When Stoneman, Donna Rule and Priscilla Sargent came together to share their stories on a Tuesday morning in May, they talked openly about the emotional risks — and benefits — that come from looking honestly at one’s life.
“Some people come once and never come back,” Stoneman said. But for the people who stick with it and keep returning to respond to the writing prompts, Stoneman said, “They need it.”
“It’s a form of therapy,” said Rule. “You bury (your memories) and the prompts bring them back up,” and the memoir group provides a time and a place where those memories can be discussed “without repercussions.”
A lifelong diarist with boxes of old journals that she intends to leave behind, unedited, after she dies, Rule seems a stout proponent of allowing people to tell their personal histories as honestly as they can, even if doing so might result in some emotional upheaval. Should those who survive her choose to read her journals, Rule said, “They’ll go through all the ups and downs of emotions just like what I was going through at the time.”
Sargent, a former teacher and now an amateur local historian living in New London, agreed that sharing one’s stories with family can be a hit-or-miss venture. “My grandchildren love to listen to the old stories,” Sargent said. “But my children have a different (more detached) attitude.”
Within the boundaries of the group itself, however, Stoneman said she sometimes sees remarkable growth and emotional healing from people who may have felt they had nothing worth writing about, nothing worth sharing with others. Male memoirists can be particularly interesting, Stoneman said, “You watch the men unfold like tulips.”
The truth, said Stoneman, is that “everybody has a story to tell. And this is a safe place to tell them.”
Diane Taylor can be reached at 603-727-3221 or firstname.lastname@example.org.