10 reasons to take a memoir writing class in a cemetery

I attended a memoir class at a cemetery yesterday. There were about 25 people who walked through the gates of the cemetery for a happy reason, to participate in a community outreach program hosted by West Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Bala Cynwyd, outside of Philadelphia. Thank you for hosting this event,West Laurel Hills! I love community outreach in any form, and while this comes from a surprising direction, I’ll take it. And I love writing classes. The writing teacher, Mary Beth Simmons was also reaching out to the community. And there we were, enjoying the company of physical people, rather than electrons on a computer screen, which seems to be where much of the socializing is taking place these days. One of the participants is my sister, which adds an additional dimension to my memoir writing. The experience was so much fun, I thought I’d list some of the benefits. Perhaps this will help motivate you to take a memoir writing class at your local cemetery or wherever you can find one,

  • When listening to people introduce themselves, and hear their writing, it confirms that everyone has a story.
  • Free writing in groups is fun, and opens mysterious parts of your mind.
  • The desire to write has lots of power. Many people seem both drawn to and intimidated by it, like a tall mountain.
  • The history is in there, waiting to get out. Every time I think about my past, it gets easier to think about it.
  • Meet writing teachers like Mary Beth Simmons, the director of Villanova University’s Writing Center, who like a midwife, helps people give birth to their story.
  • It makes cemeteries less creepy and more like real places.
  • I learned about how someone’s grandmother or great aunt (I’m not sure which) from a small town really ran away and married the trapeze artist from the traveling circus . Life is at least as strange as fiction.
  • It’s okay to share with strangers – things I did when I was 10. In fact, sharing bits of ourselves made me feel closer to everyone in the room.
  • It’s a good excuse to hang out with your sister. Comparing and hearing memories with a sibling adds texture to the past as well as enriches my relationship with her today.
  • I made another memory. What was yesterday’s memoir class is tomorrow’s memoir material.

Blubbering while performing his memoir

At the dramatic reading of Jerry Perna’s semi-autobiographical “Seven Men from Now” in West Philadelphia’s Rotunda the other night, Jerry Perna started blubbering as he was telling a story about his father’s last night on earth. The reading was filled with emotion about the author’s frustration with his father, and the pathos of losing him. In the story, the son had found a twenty dollar bill on the street, and wanted to find the owner. His father said, “Don’t look too far. Just be grateful you found it.” Then his father died. And the performer cried. Since the performer was also the author, it was easy to understand that he was remembering the emotions of that moment. And throwing himself into the moment and feeling it. That’s an actor’s trick.

And it’s not a bad trick for a writer. If you can feel what you’re writing, while you write it, there’s a good chance the reader will also feel those emotions. Of course, it takes practice. Just as Perna had years of acting experience to draw from when he performed these lines, over time a writer will bring years of experience to translate the real emotions from heart to paper.

Memoirs Start Last Night

by Jerry Waxler

You start making memories every day. Last night for example, I went to a dramatic reading in Philadelphia. Jerry Perna’s play was dramatically read by himself and several actors, as part of a joint effort to provide actors with opportunities to express their craft.

The reading was being produced for a live video feed through the New Century television station, located in Newtown. My friend Mike Shoeman introduced me to the CEO of New Century, Ariel Schwartz. Instead of asking him for his story, I pitched my idea to publicize memoir writers. I would have preferred learning more about him, but I observed something about myself. When I had two minutes with the CEO of a television station my tendency was to talk about myself. That’s a good observation to file for further reference. Perhaps I’ll be able to use it in my memoir.

Speaking of memoirs, before the show I asked Jerry Perna how much of his play was based on his life. He said, “About 99.9%” Then watching the show, I saw what he meant. It treated issues of growing up in the sixties and his character’s relationship with his father. Afterward, I asked him if writing and performing it was therapeutic, and he said it was “more therapeutic than therapy.”

So what does going to a play have to do with writing memoirs? Here are a few ways that last night informs the project of writing about life:

* Life is a series of memories, starting from last night. That’s why people try to capture their memories in diaries or blogs (like this one). Or photo albums of birthdays and vacations. It’s all grist for the memoir mill. Lesson: Record memories.

* The play took place near the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. When I was in Central High School in Philadelphia, I did a research paper about the Pullman Rebellion. It turns out that the governor of Illinois called in the national guard to break up a strike against the Pullman Railroad. To research that school paper, I took the subway and trolley down to the hallowed grounds of the University of Pennsylvania to pour through the card catalog and go to find a dusty, precious book in the stacks. Now, every time I walk on that campus I remember powerful feelings evoked from the past. Lesson: Visit old haunts and write the memories .

Because I’m writing this blog entry, I’m reviewing a memory that happened as recently as last night. So I can apply memory writing techniques to find out more about it. Namely, I ask, “What was the emotional power in the scene? What did people want from me? What did I want, hope, and fear?” The event contained the possibilities for new beginnings, of a connection with the Philadelphia cultural scene, with several fellow writers I met, and with the people associated with New Century, Mike Shoeman, president of Life Act Coaching, Marta Reis, and Ariel Schwartz. Culture is a strange and powerful beast. It wants to give and share, and to do those things it needs to create community. Artists, writers, performers, and everyone associated with culture are hungry to develop community. Lesson: You can meet people who want to meet you when you offer something to their culture.

So where would this evening go in my memoir? Is it the culmination of a lifetime process, or the beginning of the rest of my life? Of course the answer is both. Lesson: Life keeps generating memories, and I can gather these memories together into a story.