By Jane Roy Brown
My friend Martha had just retired, and we were having a typical conversation about what she wanted to do next. Martha ticked through a list—serve on the town conservation commission, maybe take a class at the community college, read more, spend time with her grandchildren, travel.
Then she paused. “I have some family stories I’d like to write,” she said, eyes dropping to the floor.
“That’s great, Martha,” I said. “By all means, do it.”
Another long pause, eyes still cast down. “I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to begin,” she said at last.
I count that moment as the beginning of my third career. I had heard similar comments from other people over the years—usually women, often older, whose children had launched, or whose other responsibilities had lightened enough to allow them to focus on themselves. Usually, these brief conversations took place at cocktail parties when someone asked me what I did, and I told them I was a professional writer. Typically, the woman got a dreamy look and said she had always wanted to write. And I would say what I’d said to Martha: “Wonderful! Do it.” And she would say, more or less, what Martha had said to me: “I don’t know how to start.”
Maybe it was because Martha wanted to write about her family, her life. Or because I had reached the age when I understood, at a cellular level, that life was a comet’s tail in the night sky. But this time I heard the familiar words as a call to action, maybe even a calling: I would help people write stories from their lives. Memoir, yes, but not just memoir. Stories about parents and grandparents, where they had come from, how they had lived. The stories they had passed down.
I held my first workshop in 2012, trying different ways to silence the naysaying voices the novice writers had internalized from earlier writing experience. Working with collage, mind-mapping, and other visual tools, the women in the early workshops managed to tell stories swollen with emotion, lush in remembered details. By the time we moved on to words, they knew they had stories in them and that the stories intrigued the other people in the small group. I witnessed that spark of realization: I have something to say, and it’s interesting. I heard the stories evolve, and I could see the writers gaining confidence. When they read their work, they owned it. They found meaning in the process and in the product.
I remember one woman who wrote about not being able to sleep at night since receiving the late-night phone call from the police, telling her that her healthy 29-year-old had collapsed while working out at the gym and, inexplicably, died in the ambulance. She cried when she read her account of this memory, of her haunted nights during the years since. The other writers teared up too, but they listened with respect, not attempting to hug or comfort her, sensing that it wasn’t necessary. This woman was finding the comfort she needed in her own words. Like the conversation with Martha, this moment was revelatory for me: Reading someone else’s life story can be transporting. Writing a story from one’s own life has the power to heal.
Martha lives an hour away, and only when I offered a weekend retreat last winter was she finally able to attend a workshop and start her story. Encouraged by four other women, Martha began writing, prompted by faded photographs. She described her mother’s life as an Italian immigrant to this country, the bitterness that settled in her face after men had tried to rape her aboard ship, when she was alone except for infant Martha, and then stolen money from her when she arrived in the country. Martha cried when she read it. “My daughter experienced her as hard woman who was too hard on me. ‘Why do you let her treat you that way, Mom?’ she’d say. But even when she was tough, I always knew my mother loved me. I want my daughter to know what my mother lived through, why she was the way she was.”
At the end of the emotional reading, she thanked the other writers, “I didn’t think I could do this,” she said, tears still in her eyes, “but I’ve finally started.”
Jane Roy Brown has worked as a writer and editor for thirty years. She is an award-winning travel journalist, a landscape historian, and the coauthor of One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place. Jane leads writing workshops through her business, The Heart of Story: Writing Stories of Our Lives.