Turning Memories into Memoirs - The Australian Experience
Eighteen months ago I began to teach a hybrid course of "creative writing/writing life stories" through Kiama Adult & Community Education. I searched the Internet for resources and happened upon a web page "Turning Memories into Memoirs" which promoted lifewriting and had a network of teaching affiliates. The author of the program, Denis Ledoux, has been teaching lifewriting since 1988. His partner and publisher, artist Martha Blowen and I began an e-mail correspondence of gigantic proportions. I lived through their severe ice storm, saw the Arkansas massacre through her eyes, learnt about home schooling and life in Maine. We've e-mailed photos and recipes and discussed the meaning of life. In June 1998, I spent ten days in Maine with Martha & Denis and visited other "Turning Memories" affiliates in the United States and Canada. This paper is a personal journey of teaching life writing in a community setting using the resources of the Internet.
Who is going to edit our memoirs?
We love to tell stories and to hear stories; we do it all the time in our daily lives - listening and telling stories. I believe that when we do this we are working on trying to make sense of our lives...All stories, I think, in some way, are attempts to push back chaos and darkness, to clarify something about ourselves and our meaning. (Bird, 1998:6)
Turning Memories into Memoirs
In August, 1997 I became the first international affiliate of Turning Memories into Memoirs (TMIM), a network of lifewriting teachers started by Denis Ledoux, an award-winning writer and educator who lives in Maine, USA. Ten years ago he was asked to read his stories of Franco-America to a group of volunteer foster grandparents.
They seemed to recognise the child climbing the apple tree at the edge of the meadow or to see once again their own parents in the tired women and men trudging through the tenement district on their way back from the textile factory.
After I read my stories that day, my listeners began to tell me theirs. These were set in a number of countries around the world and in a variety of cultures within this country ... Some spoke with pride; others, with sorrow. All, however, seemed to need to tell the stories of their lives and of their families. (Ledoux, 1993:11)
Denis was asked if he would guide them through the process of remembering and writing down their stories, and received grants from the State of Maine Humanities Foundation to establish lifestory writing workshops. The Turning Memories into Memoirs handbook was written to help others run similar community lifewriting workshops. Denis and Martha Blowen, his partner and publisher, provide support for lifewriting teachers through their Turning Memories network.
Learning about writing
Ten years ago, when Denis was conducting his first workshop, I walked into a late afternoon Australian Literature Studies tutorial at the University of Western Sydney, Nepean. Brian Castro introduced himself. He asked us to gut the centre of the classroom and sit in a circle of chairs. He organised a roster for drinks and nibbles and took out the books we would be studying.
I reeled in horror as he jumped from one dog-eared page to another. I could see a chorus of past teachers and librarians, their fingers shrieking "thou shalt never dog ear the page of a book". Brian caressed each dog-eared page as he breathed fire and passion into their contents. I still can't crease the corner of a page but as the weeks went on I made a note that this was how learning ought to be.
I'd mastered the art of a well written academic essay but I felt the first assignment for this subject begged a different response. I anticipated praise as Brian handed back our efforts. Scrawled below the red F - "this is not a literary essay it's a piece of creative writing".
I made another note about writing and boundaries, and I learned to obey the rules of the game. In a non-academic setting in Kiama, I'm now working with ordinary people breaking the traditional boundaries of who can write and how, and with what voice.
In July 1997, while a full-time teacher at Richmond College of TAFE, I met informally with two mature age students who, as part of a desktop publishing assessment, decided to write personal memoirs illustrated with scanned photographs. The librarian put us in touch as she knew I'd recently completed a similar project on the Burma Thailand Railway.
They were full of enthusiasm and we enjoyed bouncing ideas off each other. I thought it would be great to teach this kind of writing and approached Kiama Adult and Community Education (ACE) with a proposal to run a lifestory writing course on Saturday mornings. It was suggested I put "creative writing" in the title in case people didn't relate to the word "lifewriting".
In preparing for the course I had many Australian "creative writing" references - but only one which related specifically to "lifewriting", Patti Miller's Writing Your Life. I searched the Internet for additional resources. There were many sites dedicated to the subject as well as professional associations such as TMIM and the Association of Personal Historians. I ordered Bob Wendlinger's Memory Triggering Handbook and Denis Ledoux' Turning Memories into Memoirs. The former arrived promptly. The class began and the latter hadn't arrived.
I'm so sorry that there has been such a delay ... the package was sent surface mail as is our usual procedure...another is being sent airmail. As you can guess, we don't yet do a lot of international sales ...
Best regards Martha.
Over the next few weeks workshop participants compared the various books available. Their feedback was noted and I put in a book order with Martha in anticipation of ACE classes the following semester.
While our initial e-mails were mostly about teaching and lifestory writing, Martha and I began corresponding regularly about life in general. It was the midst of our bushfire season.
As I write today, we are enjoying one of the advantages of Maine. A picturesque snowfall such as movie directors love - large soft flakes spinning down. Clearing the ice for skating- coming back on snowshoes across the fields at dusk ...
Your wonderful photos and your letter arrived. We were amused that you successfully used our telephone number as a zip postal code - guess I shouldn't bash the post office so much after all ...
The e-mail is such a marvellous and immediate clear line of communication. I was nervous lest it disappear on us - ice and fire on each end ...
Best wishes. Martha.
During the Christmas break my own life story took a twist. A year earlier I'd moved to Kiama expecting a TAFE transfer to the Illawarra region. There was yet another restructure and a sudden freeze on incoming transfers. For twelve months I commuted the 200 kilometres to Richmond.
Pleading letters and phone calls flew between TAFE Institutes and finally my hopes were crushed. There was no likelihood of a transfer but there could be a voluntary redundancy.
I agree that these things (your redundancy and all) have a way of working themselves out for our benefit even when the steps taken seem alarming. Sometimes it is shocking to see one's world conforming to decisions one has already made. I certainly hope that you will look back and see the redundancy as a turning point towards an exciting and fulfilling new era ...
Under the conditions of the redundancy I was precluded from teaching in ACE. If I wanted to teach lifewriting I had to become one of the dreaded "private providers" continually being held up as a threat to the security of TAFE teachers. I had also lost the comfort of teaching where others did the work of organising venues and getting "bums on seats" as we used to say in TAFE.
The task seemed overwhelming at first but Martha and Denis provided sound practical advice and encouragement. We corresponded on a daily basis and discussed workshop methods, advertising, press releases, letterbox drops and posters for public notice boards.
Martha's prediction came to pass as the redundancy also provided the means to travel to the US to stay with them and to visit other network teachers and writers in the US and Canada. After I returned, I joined the US based Association of Personal Historians and also began corresponding regularly with Paula Stahel, who lived in Florida.
Men and women writing about feelings
Until I began teaching lifewriting, my "creative writing" PhD in autobiography had been focused purely on women's writing, but the Kiama courses attracted a 30% male attendance, much higher than indicated in current research. Molly Travers (1997) said that here and in the US less than ten per cent of participants in adult community writing courses are male. I became interested in the different ways men and women approached their writing as some classes focused on writing about feelings and personal relationships.
In her introduction to the autobiographical anthology, Daughters and Fathers, Carmel Bird wrote:
It wasn't altogether easy to persuade women to write for this book; and men were even more cautious. That's why there are half as many men as women here ... (Bird, 1997, viii)
I began to think that if professional (male) writers were so cautious in writing about personal relationships how much more difficult it must be for ordinary men - not professing to be writers - who decide they want to record their life stories. In the Bird anthology, Nigel Krauth discusses the cultural constructions of males.
Trouble is, the culture persists in saying that they don't have a right to express those feelings. Expressions of softness, inner turmoil and love - in spite of recent discourse advances - are still generally considered unmasculine. (Bird, 1997:45)
What you wrote about your father-in-law struck me deep. My father was shot in the neck at the Battle of the Bulge on the night after Christmas...He'd never speak of it to my brothers or me and we learned early not to ask 'what did you do in the war, daddy'. It's so hard for those men to express the horrors they survived, yet they have no idea how deeply their stories impact the lives of those of us who come behind... Take care...Paula
Most of the women had been letter writers and some had attended previous writing classes. The males had years of experience in report and technical writing but none had attended a creative writing class. Many shared their joys and frustrations. One woman wrote:
One course I went to was run by a well known and published writer who was stilted in conversation and much concerned about spelling and grammar - almost a copybook way of choking the creative process. I believe much enthusiasm is infectious. Encouragement and appreciative comments do much to lift any potential writer's confidence. The biggest hurdle to putting down on paper my experiences is the niggling thought that my life has been neither sensational nor even very exciting, with several stretches as tedious as a five year old having to sit through a long church sermon. (MJ, 1998)
Geoff, who aimed to enhance a family history project wrote:
My working life of some 40 years was spent in the Commonwealth public service. Writing in that environment was based on brevity and conciseness. Indeed, in my briefings to Ministers and answers to possible questions in Parliament, a half page was preferred. Thus, one found it difficult when attempting to write about the events in one life. The habits of a lifetime came to the fore - pick out the main points and leave out the embroidery. I would imagine there are a lot of men in our community with a similar background ...The lifewriting classes taught me to focus on atmosphere (to my mind, probably the most important) to learn to write for a wide audience, and to develop a writing narrative style to get a reader interested.
The course also forced (if that's the word) me to recall some episodes in my life. The more one thought and remembered, the more details came back. Moreover the course exposed one to different styles of writing, and other people's stories awakened memories of one's own experience. (Bissaker, 1998)
Another male participant, MB, said the classes gave him incentive to write and he had developed an appreciation of others' writing. However, in his early years he had learned to write reports with a boss who "put the red pencil through incorrect writing and ideas". He doubted he would improve without a similar forthright critique.
Most participants initially expected a formula - a "right" or best way to write their life stories and were surprised to find they were involved in a creative process to find their own voice.
What is lifewriting?
The TMIM philosophy is this:
Lifewriting is an essentially artistic act of recreation using the artefact of memory as the source material, writing as the medium and group interaction as a key part of the process. Lifewriting is crafting a story (it could as well have been a painting or a song) to encapsulate the memory-artefact as it exists at the moment it is recreated - for it is in a state of constant alteration over time.
With TMIM, we are not at all involved with objective theory. Rather we facilitate the process of remembering, organising and crafting memories into memoirs because it is clearly and demonstrably beneficial for people to undertake this work for themselves, their families and their communities. Our audience is largely non-writers and otherwise ordinary people from a wide diversity of backgrounds, most of whom are taking on an artistic practice for the first time. (Ledoux & Blowen, 1998)
There have been many recent definitions of "life writing" and its relationship to autobiography. In her review essay on Australian autobiography, Whitlock describes Hooton's definition of the term "life writing" to describe writing which tends to cross and recross the boundaries between biography, autobiography and fiction (Whitlock, 1992:264), and Magarey describes the articles in the 1992 volume of feminist biography and autobiography Writing Lives as consisting of "... meditations upon the processes involved in life-writing." (Magarey, 1992:iv).
In Australia during this decade, scholars such as Hooton (1990), Whitlock (1996) and McCooey (1996) have mapped and challenged the boundaries and canons of autobiography and biography. The writing of "ordinary people" particularly women, has been recognised in works by authors such as Holmes (1995) and Hooton (1990). Hooton also acknowledges that both male and female autobiographical writings have suffered from neglect. (1992:xi )
Patti Miller is a leading practitioner and teacher of life story writing in New South Wales and defines life writing as "a journey of self discovery".
Life story is not family history, although it will certainly include some family history. Neither is it a litany of well researched facts or a straightforward historical account; it is a personal journey of exploration, exciting and sometimes confronting. (Miller, 1994:51)
The lifewriting process
Lifewriting as a practice in the Turning Memories workshops is a process involving creative writing exercises, writing, reading and feedback, group editing. There are readings and discussion from a broad range of Australian auto/biographies. The participants write and sometimes literally sketch fragments of their own lives, sometimes using photographs, objects or techniques such as mind mapping to trigger memories. They often carry out historical research and weave threads of fact and recollection, autobiography and biography and embed them in a social fabric.
As they read their own work to the group and reflect on the writing process, issues of truth and perception, reader interpretation, fact and fiction, the re-creation of memories, ethics, and the consequences of writing and publishing autobiography are discussed. There is always a sense of challenge and achievement in the various groups.
Lifewriting and genealogy
About a third of the people being attracted to the Kiama classes are family historians who want to add lifestories to their genealogical research. In their Family History Writing Book Noeline Kyle and Ron King (both academics) state:
Most family history is criticised by academic historians as being too narrowly focused on one family and therefore of little relevance outside the family ... by dismissing the family historian as a minor actor in the development of historical research in Australia, professional historians are missing the opportunity to be involved in one of the most exciting community history movements of our age. (Kyle & King, 1993:2)
While lifewriting and family history may well prove of value to future professional historians, ordinary women and men in the Kiama community are gaining great satisfaction by writing their lives for themselves and for future generations.
Lifewriting as therapy
Some participants said they found the process of lifewriting therapeutic, although Ledoux points out that "...writing your lifestories is not intended to be emotional or psychological therapy or a substitute for such work under the guidance of a professional psychologist. Yet lifewriting sometimes conveys similar benefits". (1993:51). This aspect of lifewriting requires sound facilitating skills to ensure lifewriting workshops do not become counselling sessions.
The therapeutic benefits of life writing also seem to be hinted at by Graham Little in an issue of Meanjin devoted to Autobiography and Childhood:
Everyone should write one: indeed, should write lots, like painters repeatedly approaching the same subject. It's a comforting form of fiction. To shape one's own history, to arrange a bespoke background, to have a life at last, is a kind of snuggling down and dressing up at the same time. (Little, 1/1987:29)
Feedback from participants demonstrates personal growth and satisfaction from sharing life stories. Whether lifewriting by people in community groups will ever be recognised as "literature" is debatable, although in the US, there is a large body of work referred to as "life writing", seen as a hybrid form of auto/biography, in particular relating to writing by women, however this investigation is outside the scope of this paper.
While lifewriting is seen by some participants as a personal journey and others as an artistic practice where individuals blend a mix of autobiography, biography, family and social history, the overall success of the program is based on group interaction, reflection and feedback.
The Kiama group created an anthology of childhood memories called Homeword Bound. The stories, raw and basically unedited, include scanned childhood photographs and span five continents over a fifty year period, and also briefly document the experience of the lifwriting process. Each participant has a copy of the anthology and one also resides in the Kiama Family History Centre. The following extracts and some personal reflections demonstrate their journey.
Dennis wrote of growing up in South Africa in Capetown's slum area, District Six. His writing shifted between surviving on the streets and memories of his mother.
... methodically she built up a garden in our backyard in pots and containers collected from the local Atwell's Bakery ... She planted every variety of geranium and freesia. Watering the plants was a daily ritual. It was a spiritual exercise as she walked around with the old metal watering can singing her favourite hymns.
As children, we ran around barefooted in patched clothing howling at drunks in the street or calling out obscene encouragement to bare-chested street fighters. We scattered like frightened rabbits down the network of narrow lanes at the sight of a police van. The police took a delight in breaking up our games of street cricket. One of my friends was caught by a burly white policeman and wet his pants out of fear...Very rarely did the white world intrude into our area .... (Koks, 1998a)
This is what Dennis wrote about the TMIM course:
Terror of the blank page ... a fear of committing yourself to paper. Like the artist confronted with a blank white canvas reluctant to make that first mark, the writer hesitates, makes excuses.
For years now I've been thinking about recording some of my experiences in the jazz world. My involvement in the music has led to so many memorable experiences, meeting and interviewing some of the greatest players in the world. So my initial motivation for doing the writing course was putting down these anecdotes. At that point I had no interest in writing my life story.
However as so often happens in life, new opportunities present themselves. One event quite often leads to another. So a seemingly simple exercise at the tail end of the course on childhood memories has presented me with a thread leading me to my earliest taste of the music we call jazz. In hindsight, listening to the dance bands and minstrel bands in Capetown, my birthplace, in the early 50s laid the foundation for my passion.
This project on my childhood memories unearthed a wealth of images and experiences that has been lying dormant for so many years. Yusef Komunyakaa, the 1994 Pulitzer prize winner for poetry says 'we are walking reservoirs of images'. Walking reservoirs, indeed. It sometimes needs the smallest of triggers to spark it off. (Koks, 1998b)
Benny wrote about her father...
The accident meant that mum couldn't do anything much in the house - so the cleaning was divided into three sections - one for each child. Mum's proud boast had been 'you could eat your dinner off our lavatory seat'. We knew what she meant. All the wooden fixtures had to be scrubbed with sand soap then thoroughly rinsed.
Dad did the washing on Sundays - fire lit under the copper, stoking it up occasionally. Persil or Sunlight soap cut into slivers and all the whites put in. Dad demonstrated the Navy way of wringing - sling the item around the tap and twist and twist and twist ... (Hibben, 1998a)
This was Benny's course feedback:
As my sixty-sixth birthday looms upon me, the kid in me remarks 'crickey, I'd better get going and pull out the stoppers and tell my story'. The confidence trip has been rewarding, the encouragement has been inspiring, the sharing of each other's stories and friendly criticism has thrown a life line to a story that must be told. It would seem that a cork has been released from a bottle, my bottle of memories. Inhibitions cast aside, I'm now in the throes of telling my story. (Hibben, 1998b)
Anna describes her experience in Bathurst and Parkes migrant camps in 1951:
'What is your name?' asks the teacher.
'My name is Ansje Dolle.'
'How do you spell it?'
I write it down for him.
'I can't be expected to pronounce that - I'll call you ants dolly.'
After three weeks we were moved on.
The Bathurst camp was overcrowded, more migrants were expected, and there was no space to house the newcomers. Our family would be resettled at Parkes migrant camp. No-one knew where Parkes was but we were taken on yet another train journey. Unbeknown to my parents, Parkes camp was a holding centre for women and children. Dad was not permitted to remain and had to find alternative accommodation in the town. He was allowed to visit us on Sundays.
In September 1951 I arrived home from school to find mum in tears. 'I have just come from the doctor' she said in between sobs. 'He says I have breast cancer. Tomorrow I must visit the Australian doctor in Parkes to have it confirmed' ...Mum was rushed to Sydney by ambulance to have a mastectomy. (Flynn-Dolle, 1998a)
It was wonderful, stimulating, interesting and exciting to be learning again. I felt a part of the group very quickly and found like-minded people who were genuinely interested in what I had to say and write. The interaction within the group encouraged me to continue writing. Group sharings triggered episodes in my memory. I felt safe and able to share what I had written and comment was given in a non-judgemental and encouraging fashion. The time in each session just flew and I felt I could shake the words from my sleeve. (Flynn-Dolle, 1998b)
John was a guided weapons systems expert who initially wrote in a complex, highly technical manner. After creative writing exercises, he made startling breakthroughs writing about the relationships and the social impact of his work.
Jenn had taken the class with the idea of returning to Canada to interview her grandmother to capture and preserve some of their family history. In class she wrote a moving third person story about a young girl called Gena whose mother died of cancer:
'Could you please get me a phenobarb?' came the twice daily request. Gena walked to the kitchen, stood on a stool and reached high up into the cupboard where the phenobarbs were stored. She opened the small brown bottle and tipped it forward until one tiny orange-and-white capsule dropped into her hand. 'Thanks honey,' came the reply. Long graceful fingers closed around the pill, trembling slightly as they moved toward the mouth. (Britton, 1998a)
About the class Jenn wrote:
While being a great idea in theory, interviewing my grandmother seemed like a particularly daunting task to undertake. I had no idea how to go about compiling the information or even where to start. The workshop gave me a reference for starting, helped me to formulate interview questions, brainstorm and figure out what information I wanted and/or needed.
Despite being the youngest writer by at least two decades, I felt I had something to contribute and enjoyed the group interaction, the feedback from peers and the memories our discussions triggered. The interviewing process now complete, I face the challenge of actually putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. (Britton, 1998b)
The opportunity to work with such diverse groups has been extremely rewarding. I see my role as a facilitator of story telling rather than a teacher of life writing. I believe that in a "safe" group situation, people come to recognise their own writing strengths and learn from each other. There was much laughter and a few tears but each class was an absolute joy.
The personal journey continues
Since returning from the US I've produced three editions of a local writers' newsletter providing a space for life story writing. Various members of the classes are still meeting and I am helping some participants to self publish their work. Workshops have been conducted in other towns.
Just as I tried to support and encourage participants to share their life stories, I received support and encouragement and exchanged life stories via the Internet.
Wasn't it exciting when Zali Steggall won the Bronze medal this afternoon. If you have a look at the "No thanks or regrets" book I sent you - one of the stories is by Susan Steggall who is Zali's mother!
We haven't heard anything about Zali Steggall. By this point in the coverage of the games, we are overdosed on the sickeningly nationalistic and sentimental reporting we get on TV. We only see American athletes - it's like the rest of the world is just window dressing for their performances and we get only the littlest snippets of the less popular sports. Our TV network has, because of the time difference, taped everything and repackaged it into one of three scripts, complete with fancy computerized images and graphics:
1) American ingenue triumphs over adversity and wins gold
2) American bad boy parties all night and wins gold and
3) Quaint locals eat funny food and can't control the weather.
Lots more coming your way today. I just got seduced by the e-mail again with this long response - now on to the heart of the matter... best - Martha
When I was in high school I was allocated a Scottish penfriend called Margaret Grahame. As the weeks dragged into months waiting for a reply I couldn't maintain my enthusiasm and after one letter I completely lost interest. In the volume of Australian Feminist Studies mentioned earlier in this paper, Jill Roe speaks of the impact of the penny post in Britain in the 1840's which "... inaugurated a golden age of sources for biography." She discusses the possibility that "... the golden age of letter-based biography is itself coming to an end." (Roe, 1992: 9)
As I look at computer files and hard copies of e-mails from Maine, British Columbia, Tampa and Florida I've entered a new golden age of re/sources for auto/biography. The Internet has enabled the exchange of ideas about writing.
Well, now I really understand fictocriticism. Yeah. Right. I doubt there is yet a term to describe this type of writing here in the States ... Creative writing courses have long been well established at university level here, but the study of creative non fiction something else, only now beginning to be treated as a serious genre and still not well accepted at many places ... I'm about half way through Nancy Miller's 'Bequest and Betrayal' described as being 'with her own experimental form - part criticism, part autobiography ... Have you read 'Women Who Run With the Wolves'? I wonder if Estes' work fits the fictocriticism definitions ... Memoir is definitely the most prevalent form of published work here ... I really consider lifewriting and published memoir to be two separate forms, as the first doesn't necessarily encompass the sweep, or an overarching theme behind the story ... I've decided to define lifewriting as the recording of scenes and experiences from one's life - snapshots in words shall we say?
Still I'm really grateful you've led me to this writing form. I'm definitely recommending it to Becky ... Take care
Rae Luckie organises the Turning Memories into Memoirs network of independent lifewriting teachers in Australia and is the first international member of the (American) Association of Personal Historians. She is currently a PhD Candidate at University of Western Sydney, Nepean.
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Vol 3 No 1 April 1999
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady