by Jennifer Gaites
I lost both my grandmothers this year—at the ages of 95 and 99, respectively. As my family reflected on lives well lived, we talked about their hobbies, their fashion senses, their cooking, baking, and sewing skills. But what we kept coming back were their stories.
They had stories that made us laugh, roll our eyes and gasp, stories that made us admire the span of nine decades and stories that taught us who we are and where we’re from. To be clear, they led ordinary lives. But their stories mattered.
I love hearing people’s personal stories, which is why I love teaching memoir. Students come to class, sometimes timid or unsure of themselves, but they always, always, have stories that are interesting, engaging, and revealing. There are many reasons writers sign up for memoir—to leave a legacy for family, to document a specific story from their past, to work through a challenging time in their lives, or simply to try something new.
After being both a memoir student and instructor, here are five reasons why I encourage you to take a memoir class. And what better time to start than at the beginning of a new year?
- Community. In every class I’ve taught or taken, there is a wide range of ages and experiences. I teach recent college graduates alongside retirees. We have students on scholarship as well as students who can afford to take multiple classes. Every class has diverse perspectives and life stories. When these stories are shared in a supportive and encouraging environment, we learn about one another and ourselves. We make deep and meaningful connections. We build community.
- The Personal Is Universal. This is a platitude we use over and over again, but it is so true. We have all experienced shared human emotions like joy, grief, loneliness, fear. We can read stories about experiences we haven’t had, but if there’s truth in the telling, the emotion will resonate. I had a student who wrote about fixing up an old car during a time when her relationship with her spouse was faltering. We didn’t have to be married (or mechanics) to feel her isolation and sadness–those feelings came through in the writing, and formed a supportive bond among students in the class.
- Building Empathy. Exploring aspects of ourselves and the people in our lives often leads to greater understanding and empathy. I’ve been in classrooms where writing about difficult experiences helps the writer make sense of events, and even allows for forgiveness of people from their past. Similarly, writing about our most human and quirky perspectives creates a kinship with others—when a writer is honest, readers don’t judge. Instead, time and time again, it’s the embarrassing or difficult stories that garner the most acceptance and support.
- The Skill of Storytelling. If you’ve ever listened to a podcast and found yourself completely captivated, it is not only because a story is interesting but also because the story is well crafted. Part of learning about writing memoir is reading memoir. Memoir classes at PWN use mentor texts to illustrate various facets of writing: character development, setting, tension, conflict, or voice, to name a few. By studying craft, we improve our writing. And learning what makes a good story is a skill that is useful in so many aspects of our lives.
- The Magic. PWN’s introductory memoir classes use writing prompts to stir up memories and get our writers started. So many of these prompts elicit a similar reaction from our students: “I haven’t thought about this in years!” Even though everyone in the class is writing off the same prompt, what comes out of each individual is unique and amazing. Responding to something as simple as “I Remember…” leads to a wide variety of memories. And our writers find once they get started, they don’t want to stop. Our classes share laughter and loss, vulnerability and strength, humor and humility … there is magic in those moments together.
If you would like to be part of the magic and community of memoir writing at PWN, check out our classes beginning January 2020.