September 14, 2015

Final Syllabus (Probably)

As I’ve posted before, I am teaching a course on memoir this fall at Beacon Hill Seminars, a private adult education program in Boston.

In another post, I explained my organization of the course material in three life phases or “chapters,” and suggested some of the books from which we will be reading excerpts.

I am speaking this evening at a “kick-off” event for prospective students; so I thought I should converge on a (probably) final list of the seven core books we will be looking at in the seven-week course, when it begins October 19.

Here they are, in order (I think):

August 21, 2015

Norman Maclean, Memoirist

If you are past 70 or even 80 and have thought about writing down some memories but haven’t found the time or will or inclination, I have a name to give you strength: Norman Maclean.

You may know him as the author of “A River Runs Through It,” a story about trout-fishing in Montana on which the hit 1999 film was based. (Brad Pitt starred, Robert Redford directed.)

To me Maclean is the role model extraordinaire for the older memoirist.

Maclean (1902–1990) was a beloved professor of English at the University of Chicago, where he was ensconced teaching Milton and Shakespeare for 45 years. (That’s him in the photo, circa 1970.) After his retirement in 1973, having written only academic works on English literature, Maclean undertook to put down some “reminiscent stories.”

His reasons for doing so are interesting to me, as well as a small piece of advice he offered a friend in a letter.

August 14, 2015

What is Your Legacy?

When I was twenty-three, I took a workshop, one of those personal growth things that began to be popular in the 1960s. The leader of the workshop asked us, all younger than thirty, to write our obituaries. Imagine, he said, that you have lived a long life and have died and are now writing your story. What does that story say?

It was a good exercise, although my prediction that I would found the New Boston Theatre School with a certain business partner proved incorrect.

In a way, I tried to recreate this experience for a men’s group that I led this Wednesday evening. Though all of them were under fifty (um, except me), I suggested that they look at their lives as I have found my typical memoirs client tends to look at his or hers.

August 2, 2015

Developing My Syllabus

As I’ve written, I am teaching a course on memoir for the first time this fall. My approach is for students to read one or two short excerpts from published memoirs each week; to discuss these in class; then to apply the lessons learned by writing reflective personal pieces about their own lives, as short as a single paragraph.

We will introduce the course by reading a “complete” memoir by my favorite non-fiction writer, Norman Maclean. Titled “Retrievers: Good and Bad,” the piece manages to tell the story of the writer’s upbringing, along with key developments in his family’s life, all in eight pages. It does so by looking at the past through a singular lens: the retriever dogs Maclean’s father used for hunting.

From here on, the course will fall into three sections, reflecting three phases of one’s life—and therefore of one’s memoir: The Gift, The Call, and The Return. I have selected four memoirs for each of the three phases and plan to draw from others in class.

In part 1, The Gift, we will read from:

July 23, 2015

You Belong to a Story

This week one of the Catholic Church’s leading writers, Fr. Robert Barron, rector of the Mundelein Seminary outside Chicago, was appointed auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It was big news for those of us who follow and admire Father Barron’s work.

Coincidentally, I had just finished reading one of Barron’s early books, The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Orbis, 2002). Ordinarily, I don’t let my religious interests stray onto the pages of this blog, but there is a line in this book that seems so appropriate to the entire memoir venture that I felt moved to write about it.

Barron’s thesis is that living the Christian life involves three “paths.” Only the third path is relevant here: Chapter 3, Realizing Your Life is Not About You. Whatever its religious significance (charity, service, mission, being part of the “mystical body of Christ”) this path is one that I think most memoir writers find themselves on, sometimes to their surprise.

You think you are going to write your own story; and you find that it is not yours.

July 17, 2015

Telling Others’ Stories

A memoir is your own story, right? Not necessarily.

In thirty years of helping individuals record their memoirs, I have found that many, sometimes most of the stories people tell belong to someone else: a long-gone beloved grandparent, a father who recently died.

My clients are often moved not by pride or vanity but by something like filial piety: they know that if someone doesn’t tell their parents’ (or grandparents’) stories, no one will. He or she (the client) is the last bridge to precious family memories.

A few years back I was hired by a woman in her sixties to write the life story of her grandfather, who had died in 1920, before my client was born. The grandfather was a significant figure in family history but also something of a mystery. I was recruited to research and imagine his life as he had lived it.

July 12, 2015

One Pitfall of Success

My career at Memoirs Unlimited has been a great gift. I have helped write and publish the memoirs of fifty good and successful people. I have sat with presidents, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists, and I have learned from their stories.

Along the way, I have been asked to chronicle the histories of several major New England institutions including the region’s oldest and most distinguished hospital, its longest-lived boarding school, and a Greater Boston real estate company remarkably entering its fifth generation of family management.

It’s an honor to be entrusted with these stories and others, and to know that I have told them effectively. I harbor only one regret. It’s simple:

July 10, 2015

What is the Right Age for a Memoir?

When I founded Memoirs Unlimited in 1987, I built my portfolio one client at a time. Self-taught and -propelled, I took some years to draw a demographic conclusion: my typical client was eighty years old!

Until you hit eighty, I reasoned, you think you are going to live forever. But after eighty comes ninety and you think, what are the odds? If anyone has ever thought about writing down their life, an eightieth birthday is a good trigger.

That was the mid-1990s, about the time Mary Karr’s wonderful memoir The Liar’s Club became a best-seller and opened the publishing floodgates. Karr (pictured above) wrote her book about growing up in East Texas with alcoholic parents while still in her thirties. Today, every young writer north of twenty seems to have a memoir on their résumé.

What gives? Why suddenly all these youthful memoirs?

July 3, 2015

My Beacon Hill Seminar

In October and November 2015, I will be teaching an adult education course titled “Memoirs: Reading Others, Writing Yours.” The two-hour class will be offered once a week, on Mondays, 1–3 p.m., October 19–November 30, in the King’s Chapel Parish House at 64 Beacon Street in Boston.

As they say, space is limited!

My course is presented by Beacon Hill Seminars, a longstanding membership organization of people with “a vigorous interest in continuing their intellectual growth.” There are twenty courses in the fall catalog.

I was invited to teach as the founder of Memoirs Unlimited and presumably as someone who knows about working with mature adults on crafting narratives of their lives. Other courses cover the sciences, art history, music, literature, and philosophy.

My approach is my own, dreamed up out of whole cloth.

June 21, 2015

What Book Will Be at Your Bedside?

My favorite moment in thirty years of helping others write their memoirs occurred beside a deathbed. I was visiting one of my favorite clients, Dick P. He was flat on his back and very pale, but smiling as usual.

His wife was by his side. It was she who pointed out the book on Dick’s hospital side table: the memoir he and I had worked on together five years before.

“He shows it to everyone who comes in to see him,” she said. “Especially the pretty nurses.” It was a measure of the satisfaction his memoir had given Dick.