Memoirs are lessons in history, and life


Because she is very shy, she ducks her head and reads in a low, low voice. She is not used to reading aloud.

She writes about her first day in a big city school when she was 5 years old. She tells of the terror, the fear of meeting new friends and new teachers. Her voice starts to quiver as she remembers details of the long-ago adjustment.

The year was 1936. But to her listeners it could be NOW.

Another woman, a former WAC (member of the Women's Army Corps), writes about stowing away in a bomber on a secret mission at the height of World War II. Her audience listens in rapt attention.

And that's the way it goes in a memoir-writing class. Some of the writers are reticent, some are loquacious, but they all have stories to tell. Some have found retirement a joy; for others, it's a difficult time with shifting priorities.

That was my first memoir-writing class two years ago at Baltimore's Renaissance Institute, College of Notre Dame. Our teacher, Josephine Atwater, was a great listener, facilitator and encourager of words and details.

I probably learned more about creative writing that year than in all my other years in school. It was an informal history lesson, too, as all of us had lived in a rapidly changing world for 55 years or more.

Traveling through time warps while sitting in a class is part of the new memoir-writing craze snow-balling across the country. Classes are held in churches, schools and club-rooms.

But memoir writing is nothing new. From Benjamin Franklin and Oliver Wendell Holmes to Russell Baker and former presidents, people have written about their past. Humor columnist Art Buchwald has a very personal book out about his difficult childhood.

So now I am teaching a class in memoir writing at the Catonsville Senior Center, where we dip into our memories and write pictures with words.

The writing here is sometimes in essay form, in journal style, or specifically for their children. The pieces are as diverse as Baltimore's four seasons. Some of the stories come from the heart, some from the head.

One writes about the time she stole a chocolate bar from a candy store and her stern punishment -- the year was 1924. Someone writes about a house she loved and hated to leave, and she tears up as she reads, and we all feel her abandonment -- the pull of memories. Many write about the Great Depression from a very personal standpoint. A man writes about putting cardboard in the soles of his worn-out shoes to get through the long winter school day.

For those who have written about the death of a loved one, and loss, or the excitement of the birth of a child or grandchild -- their emotions roll while they reveal themselves.

We laugh, we cry. But this is not a therapy group. We are here to write. However, for some of us, it is gently cathartic as we have such a good time recalling the past.

When one woman wrote about her chronic disease, we didn't dwell on a discussion of the illness; we postulated on how she could make the story more readable or even publishable.

You get to know one another in a memoir-writing class, and perhaps that's as important as our weekly assignments.

I found out something -- many retired people don't have time to finish an assignment -- their lives are very busy, and as statistics prove now, to grow old is not to be idle or feel old.

America the aging is having fun, coping and living longer.

In most classes such as these, the stories are about the good times: from trips to just contemplating a bright red cardinal against a snow-filled tree.

Perhaps we can pass something of value on to our future generations. After all, our baby boomers are starting to age; they talk about crow's feet, blood pressure and cholesterol. But I suppose they will put it all on video cam for their offspring. We memoir writers have it in writing, and some of the pages are tear-stained.

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