Interview with Venerable Memoir Teacher, Denis Ledoux Pt2

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

In my previous post, I ask Denis Ledoux questions about memoir writing and what it was like to have been a teacher so early, before the Memoir Revolution was even a glimmer on the horizon. In this post, I complete the interview, asking him questions about ethnic background in memoirs and teaching teachers.

Jerry: In addition to teaching memoir writers, you teach teachers. I love the way that extends your influence out into the culture. Say more about that. What do your memoir teachers come to you already knowing and what do they come to learn?

Denis: In 1996, I wrote the first of my workshop leader materials—I call it the Memoir Professional Package. People were writing to me from around North America asking me if there was anyone teaching memoirs in their area, and other people were writing to me to inquire if they could teach my workshop. At the time, there was much less material available for people wishing to teach. The whole explosion of web teaching materials had not yet occurred. I took four months to write my first Memoir Professional Package. That Memoir Professional Package was priced at $200 and almost immediately sold 40 of them. Since them I have added to the materials so that, in addition, to the Curriculum Manual and the Presenter’s Manual, we now include the Editor’s Manual and the Speaker’s, the Personal Historian Practice Manual, and a number of instructional MP3s and e-booklet.

Today, while some of the people who purchase the packages are seeking to earn a full-time income, most are seeking to do meaningful work regardless of income (retired people for instance) or to earn income that is additional to their regular income. Most prospective memoir teachers who approach me about learning to lead memoir workshops in their communities and about doing other memoir work are looking to find an interesting avocation. Most are not what you’d call entrepreneurs, interested in wresting a living. Instead many are retired or have a spouse to help them out. They have an interesting and reward future ahead of them. Memoir work is so gratifying,

Jerry: Do you feel that memoir teachers need to have written their own memoirs

Denis: When I taught French at one school, I taught with a woman who was not a native speaker. She had learned French in college and had a very anglophone accent. Being a native speaker, I could speak much better, fluently, than she. And, yet, she was a wonderful teacher who instilled in her students a love for French and francophone cultures. Many native speakers were simply nowhere near as good as she in teaching In the same way, a memoir writer may not know how to teach writing, not know how to break material down so that it can be absorbed. I do not think that it is a sine qua non that the memoir teacher by a published writer. Having said that, I would feel uncomfortable studying with someone who did not practice memoir writing regularly. (My colleague the French teacher traveled regularly to francophone countries and was often in attendance at French-language movies.) In summary, I would say asking a person to teach simply because s/he had written a memoir is like asking a person to teach a language because s/he is a native speaker. Not a good idea. One has to understand best practices and a teacher is that person.

Jerry: When I was first looking for memoir books, of course yours was one of the first I found. Another one that was available when I started to study the genre was by Louise DeSalvo, “Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.” In addition to teaching memoir writing, she also wrote about her own cultural experiences as an Italian-American. Her passion for her culture-of-origin set the stage for my ongoing interest in this aspect of our life stories. Most of us are still so deeply influenced by the culture of our ancestors.

So I was intrigued to see your attention to your cultural history as a French-American, a sub-culture I have not been heavily exposed to. I love this ability of memoirs to keep stretching us into other byways and pathways of the human condition. By writing about your own cultural background and inviting your students to write about theirs, you must be an expert by now in the American “melting pot” experience. So how do you feel about culture in memoir? How do our ancestral cultures affect our own stories?

Denis: As I mentioned earlier, I grew up in a home with three generations. My grandparents lived upstairs and I got to know my extended family very well as they visited with my grandparents. Mostly, I did not have the experience that immigrant children often have of their family of being different. Who they were was who I was also. We lived in a community where half of the people were Francos (as we French-Canadian-Americans call ourselves) so I had a sense we had a “right of place.” It is because of this “right of place” that I continue to live in Maine.

Conversely, when I studied American history I understood it to be the history of the country that fate had put me in but American history did not feel like my history—it was the history of another people. For instance, I did not study about the Civil War as a Northerner (that terms itself implies a culture that was clearly not mine) but as someone who was outside the margins of the conflict. Now I think this feeling of being at a distance from the lived experience of so many others is a great preparation to be a memoir writer and teacher. So many of us have some experience or other of being different and at some distance from the majority experience—not everyone but many people.

There is always a tension between the need to assimilate and the need to differentiate, between the resistance to balkanization and the urge to be part of a community.

I always urge people to explore their ethnic, religious, cultural background. I’ve had Anglo-Americans in my workshops tell me they had no ethnic background. “Excuse me!” I usually respond. Here in New England, Anglo-Americans (we call them Yankees) tend to be Protestants who attend plain, white, clapboard churches where’s there’s no holy water, no statues of the bleeding heart of Jesus. They can’t pass up their Indian pudding on holidays and have a high sense of privacy so that you can work next to them for a decade and never find out some essential details of their lives like they were divorced two years ago and have now remarried, etc.  “Excuse me! What was that about no ethnic culture that colors our days!”

Jerry: I am fascinated by the comparison between the book-length form of a memoir and the much shorter form, often called the “personal essay.” Naturally the two very different sizes lead to a different emphasis, different time frame. In fact, they are different in many ways. As a memoir teacher, how do you approach these two forms? Do you separate them or combine them? Do you specialize in one over the other? I know it’s a broad question but I would love to get some ideas about how you see the short form as part of the movement toward writing life stories.

Denis: I teach only the memoir. I tell prospective clients/students that if they want to work with the personal essay they ought to find another coach/teacher. The personal essay uses personal material to make a statement. It is one head talking to another. The memoir uses personal material to create a feeling, an impression, an affiliation between writer and reader. It is one heart speaking to another. It is walking in the footsteps of the writer. I have nothing against the personal essay. It’s just that I am not particularly interested in it.

Turning Memories Into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories by Denis Ledoux
Denis Ledoux’s website, The Memoir Network
Denis’ memoir writing blog

More memoir writing resources

For a more literary explanation of how memoirs heal, read the book Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo, a literature professor at Hunter college. The book immerses you in the way memoir writing heals.
Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Interview with Venerable Memoir Teacher, Denis Ledoux Pt1

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

When I first began to study memoirs in the late 20th century, the only how-to book I found was Turning Memories Into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories by Denis Ledoux. For me, it was a seminal work that introduced me to the methods and notions of life story writing.

Civilization proceeds on an upward path only as long as we can continue to learn from those who came before us. By reading Denis’ book I was able to stand on higher ground. Over time, my shelf of books about writing memoirs swelled, including fine works by many of the authors I interview for my blog including Linda Joy Myers, Sue William Silverman, Sharon Lippincott, and Beth Kephart.

However, when I place my how-to books in chronological order, Denis’ book, first published in 1993, is still first, and because it was alone on the shelf back then, it’s likely that many of the well-read memoir authors and teachers who followed him, read his book early in their journeys.

So when a few years ago, Denis spoke at Linda Joy Myers’ National Association of Memoir Writers Telesummit I felt like I was listening to one of the giants. As it turns out, Denis is a soft-spoken, gentle man with a big heart and an ongoing passion for helping people tell their stories. Over the years he has established a network of memoir teachers who help many aspiring writers.

To learn more of the backstory of Denis’ approach to teaching memoir writing, and what it has been like to watch the Memoir Revolution unfold, I invited him to share some of his thoughts about having spent much of the last two decades totally immersed in “memoir space” and to offer his insights about how to join this movement.

Jerry: So tell us about your initial interest in memoirs. What got you started? How much did your passion to find your own story figure into the mix?

Denis: As a child, like many people who write or teach memoirs, I was a story listener. My grandparents lived upstairs from my family, and when they had visitors, I would go up to listen to everyone. I would (literally) sit at their knees on a stool, and without especially looking at either my grandfather or grandmother, I would listen attentively. In my workshops when I ask how many attendees were this kind of kid, I am always see a majority lift their hands. It’s just who we are and who I was. It’s a gene we have

So, I’ve always been passionate about personal stories. Why did something happen? How did you feel about it? How did you react and why? What did others do and say? Later, I went to the university far away and said to my friends, “You know how when you were little and your granduncles and grandaunts were visiting and you wanted to hear about how it was when they were little or when they were young and so you hung around to hear the stories.” I was genuinely surprised when people responded with “I don’t know where you grew up, but where I grew up, there was nothing like that.”

But, they were wrong. There were people like that where they lived. I have come to understand that the difference between them and me was not where we grew up but who they were and who I was.

At one point, naturally enough, I wrote autobiographical fiction and I would read from my stories to audiences. Since my tales were historical—often my history I would ask people for their story, their history. It was not much of leap from there to leading the memoir workshops that enabled people to write their stories.

Of course, I also wanted to preserve the stories I heard in my childhood and I wanted to write about my own life and have done so extensively.

Jerry: What was it like during those early years of working as a memoir professional? Before the popular surge in interest, did people look at you like you were crazy? Who were the early adopters who you met or came to your classes?

Denis: When I started leading memoir-writing workshops in 1989, people would say things like, “I have this crazy idea that I want to write a memoir.” So they didn’t look at me as if I were crazy, they looked at themselves that way. Many were apologizing for wanting to leave a lifestory behind. By about 1995, I wasn’t hearing that any more. It had become part of the culture to leave a memoir.

I did not meet any other memoir professionals until I went to the Association of Personal Historians conference in Amherst Massachusetts in 1996, I believe. Before then, the only people I was aware of who were engaged in memoir work were academics whose books I had read. It was like I was one of a kind.

Jerry: How have you seen attitudes toward memoir change over the intervening years?

Denis: As you note in your aptly titled book, Memoir Revolution, the culture that surrounds memoir writing has changed for the better. No longer do people feel that writing their stories is arrogant or inappropriate.

Jerry: You have a strong background in story writing and literature. That seems like a powerful background for a memoir teacher, allowing you to bring your interest in literature to their interest in telling their stories.

Denis: I was an English major in college. It was a wonderful way to spend those years. Reading and discussing and writing—I’d do it again! However, I suppose you could call it a rich man’s education—there was little thought to what this might lead to by way of supporting myself. I taught high school—English, French and Latin—for a few years but was never happy at that. Young people were not my natural clientele. After too many years of teaching, after writing a number of stories, I published a collection of short stories. These stories were autobiographical fiction and they led quite naturally to leading memoir workshops as I mentioned above. I received two major grants from the Maine Humanities Council to launch the Turning Memories Into Memoirs workshop. Once I began working with older people (who were the age I am now), I felt I had come home to my own people. After the grants expired, I continued to teach privately charging tuition to pay myself.

Working with people to write memoirs in this way is an English major’s dream. I am very fortunate to have been able to make a life’s work out of an area that attracted me so viscerally and so early in life.

My English major preparation has been excellent background for making me an effective teacher, coach, and editor. While I think it is possible to lead workshops without as strong a background as I have in language, I do think that a person wishing to teach has to have a somewhat significant language preparation so as to be able to converse easily about writing as a construct, as an abstract medium almost.

Jerry:  Do you encourage people from all walks of life to find their stories, and write them in the best way they are capable?

Denis: Yes. I have never believed story telling to be restricted by education or experience so in that sense I do believe that anyone who is willing to put the time and energy into it can learn to write an adequate memoir that will reach its audience. People have often said to me that they had little education so they didn’t know if they could write. Education is not the demarcating factor between writers and non-writers. I would tell them something like, “Perhaps you can and perhaps you can’t. It will depend on your sense of drama and on your belief in the power of words.”

That said, all things being equal (which they never are, of course), I believe that every writer will benefit from understanding grammar, learning more precise vocabulary, developing a feel for the difference between denotation and connotation of a word, and reading voluminously—and read critically as a writer reads.

A writer who reads as a writer asks, “How did this other writer introduce a character? How did he create the foreshadowing that is so effective here? What did she do to give me such a strong sense of setting?” A writer ought to reread a book that strikes him or her as significant or impressive. A single read is never enough for a writer.

Jerry: We all have stories and yet relatively few of us have been trained to write interesting, readable books. So in order to write memoirs, we have to learn all sorts of fundamentals about what makes a good book. What is your observation about this challenge, to find a literary voice that will allow a memoir writer to express their own lives effectively.

Denis: I am a populist by inclination, but I do not, in fact, believe that everyone and anyone can learn to write an interesting full-length memoir that will reach beyond family and friends. If what you want is to write ten disconnected stories for family and friends (a laudable ambition by the way), I can help with that, but I probably will not encourage you to write a full-fledged memoir unless certain qualities are present. I have witnessed how a certain range of personality tends to gravitate towards writing an interesting memoir and can more easily succeed. Persons who are likely to succeed have the following traits: an innate sense of drama; a need to observe their life; a compulsion to share their story, a fussiness about getting the story right, a sense of the importance of what they are doing. It does not, ipso facto, include education and training. These can come later, with the process of writing.

Here’s a little more elaboration:

1. A sense of drama helps a lot. I don’t mean that success-prone people are drama queens here but that they have a sense of timing and of leaving some details in and excising others. They have a deep sense of the rightness of telling the story. They enjoy the writing and are not caught up in evaluating whether writing is a waste of time or not. So in this sense, again, I don’t believe that everyone can learn to write a story. In fact in the world, only a certain personality seeks to leave a memoir and has a sense of what a memoir can be. These are generally the people we meet up with who are actually writing.

2. Successful writers have a need to observe their lives. “Just do it” is not their motto. Instead they believe in living and then observing their lives. The kind of person who writes a memoir does not believe this is a waste of time. Instead s/he revels in this.

3.Writers have a compulsion to share their story. Even introverts who would not dream of saying something or other to a friend in private will go babbling about their personal lives via a memoir and think nothing of it.

Jerry: Do or did you feel any potential conflict between the academic excellence that many highly-trained critics hope for and the more populist attitude that everyone can start writing their memoir?

Denis: To me the great division in the world is between writers and non-writers, between people who believe in stories and those who don’t. There is a certain sort of person who believes in excellence. I don’t. I believe more in voice and authenticity and the need to speak one’s story. That said, I have encouraged many writers whose grammar and spelling were wanting to take courses in those fields. Words and their syntax are tools we need to learn to manipulate language more accurately. We would never urge a carpenter not to get to know their tools intimately! Why would we not urge writers to do the same? I see no future in telling a person s/he doesn’t need to hone his/her language skills. Certainly, the first draft does not particularly need better language skills. This is the time to get the story out, to dare to speak out. But, the second and the third write-throughs most definitely do.

The next part of the interview touches on some of Denis’ experience of teaching teachers, and the value of ethnicity in life writing.

Turning Memories Into Memoirs: A Handbook for Writing Lifestories by Denis Ledoux

Denis Ledoux’s website, The Memoir Network

Denis’ memoir writing blog

More memoir writing resources

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.