Seniors' memoir writing workshop highlights the importance of telling our stories
// Sarah Vitet

“When his family was asked what they remembered most about him,” read Patricia Morris, “they hesitated, and then fondly recalled Boris never peed in the shower – at least not on purpose.” Morris’s piece was a touching obituary for her friend Boris, whom she described as having taste buds “so well-developed that we could call them flowers.” Morris was one of 12 senior writers sharing their work at the Vancouver Public Library on Mar. 1, at an event called Lifestory: Sharing Our Memoirs.

Though 12 people read their work at the event, there were 22 participants in the memoir writing workshop, which was led by local writer Ivan E. Coyote. When Coyote was the Writer-in-Residence at the VPL in 2009, she led a similar seniors’ memoir writing workshop, which turned out to be extremely popular.

“This one was, again, very popular,” says Amber Ritchie, the Community Relations Librarian. “We had more interest than we could fit in; we have a really long waiting list and a lot of people asking when we’re going to do it again,” she says.

The Friends of the Vancouver Public Library is a non-profit group that helps raise funds to support programming at the VPL. They approved the funding for the seniors memoir writing workshop, which was offered for free, as all VPL programs are, and on a first-come-first-serve basis, though applicants were asked to supply a writing sample.

“Everyone who applied was a really good writer so we didn’t choose based on writing skill,” says Ritchie.

The reading of the memoirs itself was hosted by Coyote, whose fast-paced stories in between readers kept the night sharp and focused.

“I could tell from the very first night that this was going to be a special group, and nobody let me down,” said Coyote, in her introduction to the evening. The writers' stories covered a broad range of topics, though many people wrote about their parents, or family members. From funny, to nostalgic, to tear-jerking, Lifestory had the audience fully engaged throughout the night.

The majority of Coyote’s published works are short stories based on her life, so teaching memoir writing is a good fit. However, Coyote found teaching seniors how to write much more rewarding than teaching university students: “I really like working with seniors,” says Coyote. “I find that they want to be there.”

From personal experience working with her own grandmothers, Coyote knew the value of family lore and history, thus teaching seniors how to write their memoirs has a particular kind of importance.

Though the class was not gender-specific, there were 19 women enrolled and only three men. Coyote notes that she works with a lot of older women, though not by specific design, and that they are a demographic who may have previously been discouraged from writing their stories.

“They may have grown up at a time when women did not have a lot of access to become a part of history in the same way,” she says. “And they weren’t empowered to write autobiographies like men would have been.” She hopes that offering the seniors’ memoir writing workshop helps to address that somewhat.

“Three weeks ago, I really never thought that I would honestly write anything,” says Marshia O’Neil, who read a powerful story about her mother attempting suicide.

Though she’d had people tell her to write her memoirs before, O’Neil didn’t think she was at a point where she knew how to start. “Ivan would give us direction, and as she was talking, telling us what to write, thoughts were coming through. … Ivan is an amazing teacher, very inspiring, she could encourage anyone to write.”

Through the workshop, O’Neil decided that she would continue writing her memoirs, and was able to bond with her sister through sharing her stories. Her husband also recently passed away, and she was able to write him a goodbye letter, which she says was very healing: “I found a part of me that I had no idea really existed,” says O’Neil. “So I’m really really grateful. I’m really going to write.”

For Mildred Strominski, the workshop gave her a new attitude towards writing: “You’ve heard of this thing, writers’ block, which is really just excuse making,” says Strominski. “Other occupations don’t have, like, engineer’s block.”

Once all the excuses were taken away, Strominski was able to make writing a habit, working it in between morning runs. “I got to let go of a lot of those things that get put away, and I have been making it a habit,” says Strominski. “I’m doing it, and that’s a great reward.”

While the writers came from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences, the desire to write their stories down is what brought them together.

“It’s important that we write down our stories, share them with other people, and listen to other people’s stories,” Coyote told the crowd. Coyote sees the value of giving everyone a voice and through Lifestory the participants were able to find the tools to write down their experiences, so they could be shared with others: “I just think the world would be a better place if we all understood each other better.”

//Sarah Vitet, editor-in-chief
//Photo by Jim Brown

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: