by Jerry Waxler
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 my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.