All memoir writing teachers soon discover they’re teaching far more than a writing class. While writing a personal history may be the project that initially draws people to the class, something far more important and meaningful keeps them coming back, again and again. One of my students approached me yesterday and said, “When I leave this class, I feel like I’ve attended church, visited my psychiatrist and doctor, and went to a friendly family reunion…all rolled into one.” Frankly, I feel the same way. Something magical and meaningful happens when people come together to share heartfelt stories about how they became who they are. Whether polished or plain, funny or sad, these stories invite us to reflect on our own life experiences and examine the common threads that bind us all together regardless of gender, culture, or educational background. Many find the experience validating and liberating, an antidote to regret, guilt, resentment, loneliness, and self-pity, one that draws them back week after week, year after year–for some, going on ten years now. I’m pleased if they get some writing done along the way, but I know that what really engages my students is something far more transforming and transcendent. For that, I’m grateful.
My student Judy Huck captures these feelings perfectly in the following moving story about her classroom experience.
What I Learned in School
by Judy Huck
I have always said that I would like to write. I said it, but I didn’t do it. Whether for fear of not being perfect and profound or simply out of procrastination, my contribution to the written page was sparse and sporadic. One day a friend recommended Dawn Thurston’s memoir writing class, and so I ventured into the class, expecting to learn about the craft of writing and get a kick-start in the pants to be actively involved in creation. Well, yes to number one and somewhat to number two. I have learned a great many things about how to express myself in writing, and have even written a few pieces. I have also found myself the recipient of the most precious of gifts – the knowledge of how glorious human beings are.
When I joined the class, I found the students to be just what I expected. Ordinary people of a certain age who wanted to leave a legacy to their family. I had my own legacy that I wanted to leave, so I settled in. At first I was very quiet, taking notes copiously and comparing the writing I had done to the stories that were being read at each class. Yes, it was just that superficial. Just listening for the quality of the work and comparing it to what I felt I was able to do. I was white-knuckled at the thought of reading a piece of my own, and it was a while before I finally submitted a piece to be read. So went the first session I attended.
As the second session rolled around, I started to really listen to the stories that were read. Instead of roaming around on the surface of the stories, I fell into their interior. I heard a great deal about what people choose to do when they reach a crossroads. I felt the joy of life and the anguish of loss. I felt the urgency of recording events and people who are in danger of being forgotten. Most of all, I experienced the integrity, the honor and the honesty of people going about everyday life and making it work for them and for those they love.
I heard about the man leaving the only home he had ever known to seek a better life for his family. He dared not look back for fear that he would turn back. I heard about the grandmother who ran away from home rather than say things that would be hard for her or her child to forget. After giving and receiving the gift of space she braved the aftermath of a snowstorm to return to keep a promise. I heard about the schoolgirl in a country far away who escaped from school with her friends on their lunch hour to keep a rendezvous with their idol, who didn’t know that he had a rendezvous to keep. I heard about a woman whose husband left her and who recreated her life in a rich and fulfilling way. I heard about a woman who travelled to a beautiful, tragic land to see if there was a life for her and her children with the man she loved. In doing so, she found the love of her life.
I am amazed and grateful for these stories. They are not about people who ruled or amassed great riches.
They are not about people who led the headlines in great deeds or scandal or tragedy. They are about every one of us who have had a family, a career, dreams, and a story to tell. They are richly embroidered with personal emotion, without being turgid or over-emotional. They remind me of the lines from a song by John Stewart: “They was just a lot of people doing the best they could, just a lot of people doing the best they could, and they did it pretty up-and-walking good.”
Yes, my dears, this is about you. This is my love letter to you for enriching my life and inspiring my muse. If I never wrote another line in my life I would still want to be in this class listening to these stories, and finding the genuineness of lives well lived.