Write your memoir — with help
Maryland teacher Dotty Holcomb Doherty never considered writing a book until her friend was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. “I don’t want to disappear, and I want my story to help someone else,” her friend told her. “Will you write my story?”
Doherty, who had written for several area publications, started writing the story of her friend’s life and then, thanks to a writing class, wove in her own story. Last November, New Bay Books published her book, titled Buoyant: What Held Us Up When Our Bodies Let Us Down.
“If it’s itching at you and you want to write, just start putting it down,” Doherty advised. “We all have that critic that says, ‘I’m not good enough; nobody cares.’ Just write it.”
If you’ve ever mused, “I should write a book,” perhaps now is the time. Many retirees fill their bonus hours by writing their life experiences to pass on to family. With the help of a writer’s group or writing classes, they’re even publishing books.
“A lot of Baby Boomers who are now retired — maybe they took an English course in college — they now want to write,” said Lynn Auld Schwartz, Doherty’s teacher, who has been teaching a memoir course called “Life Stories Intensive” for eight years. It’s one of her most popular classes, she said.
“It’s human nature that we want people to hear what we have to say, and to feel that our life has been important and meant something,” Schwartz said. “And whenever we’re telling a true story, people listen up.”
Courageously unlock memories
Sharing your life story “takes an act of courage,” Schwartz said. At a class last month, one of her students remarked, “I realize I’m going to have to unlock myself and my memories.”
The courage to unlock the past is the only requirement to sign up for one of Schwartz’ writing classes, which are open to people of all ages and abilities.
“I’ve had students come with no writing experience and are now publishing widely in literary magazines and journals,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz will teach her next Life Stories Intensive course in August at the nonprofit Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. All are welcome.
“We try to encourage anyone who wants to write to take a class,” said Margaret Meleney, executive director of the 12,000-square-foot Writer’s Center, founded in 1976.
Meleney not only leads the Center; she is a student there too. “I was nervous myself, but these instructors and the people who are in the classes are so positive. It has inspired me to feel comfortable about [writing],” Meleny said.
Unlike some students, she doesn’t intend to try to publish her work. “Just getting something written down for my family, that’s all I need.”
Classes at the Writer’s Center range in price from $50 to $195, but scholarships are available, Meleney noted. A $60 annual membership allows access to the Writer’s Center’s drop-in writing spaces and includes discounts on classes.
In a typical class, teachers may prompt students to write something spontaneously. For instance, Schwartz also teaches people how to write what she calls “Tiny Tales,” aka “micro memoir” or “flash fiction” — short, pithy pieces only three pages long. In other classes, Schwartz provides the first line of a story and asks students to write the rest.
“One of her exercises was about first lines,” recalled Nadja Maril, an Annapolis magazine editor with a master of fine arts. “I wrote a first line and it just took off for me, and I wrote a novel.”
In class, Maril explained, “you get a prompt and you read other professional work and then that inspires you.”
Other area groups
There are other writer’s groups that operate in the metropolitan area. Some are free or charge a modest annual membership fee.
During the pandemic, many classes and writer’s groups switched to Zoom, so you attend without leaving your house, no matter where you live.
Retiree Mary Van Dyke, for instance, moved to Colorado during the pandemic but still participates in the Arlington Writer’s Group.
“The writer’s group has been super supportive,” said Van Dyke, who published a book last year about her travels to Japan. She had saved her decades-old journals “and realized there were lots of stories there waiting to be brought to light,” Van Dyke said. “I realized that everyone has a story.”
Older adults hoping to take up writing can also seek out a writing workshop. In a workshop, students share their work before class, and other students give their feedback, which can range from praise to polite put-downs.
“If there’s 30 writers in the room, there’s probably 33 opinions,” joked Michael Klein, head of the Arlington Writer’s Group, which meets every Wednesday night to exchange and critique essays, short stories and poems.
“In our group, there’s a lot of opportunity to clash. A retired Georgetown professor in his 70s may not relate to a 20-something Gen Z with purple hair.”
But reading different points of view and hearing a range of reactions to your work can improve your writing, Klein has found.
“A writer’s group can expose you to different writing styles and writing levels. You hear different perspectives,” he explained.
“It’s almost like travel — being exposed to different cultures and different ideas. That’s what a writer’s group does…allows you to see through other people’s eyes.”
Another advantage of joining a writer’s group or taking a writing class is “accountability,” Klein pointed out.
“At the start of the year, we talk about our writing goals. We joke that [a particular member] is paying attention, and she’s going to check in with you.”
Peers can encourage each other to get cracking on a new story or revision, for instance. They may even share ways to get published.
Dotty Holcomb Doherty also moved away from the D.C. area during the pandemic. From her new home in New Hampshire, Doherty pointed out that sharing your unique story can be a way to reach or even help others.
“You’ve got to tell your own truth,” Doherty said. “The deeper you go into your own truth, the more you connect to other people.”
Contact info for local groups
Maryland Writer’s Association: marylandwriters.org
DC Writers Salon: dcwriterssalon.com
Capitol Hill Writers Group network: capitolhillwritersgroup.org
Arlington Writers Group: meetup.com/writers-499
The Northern Virginia Writers Club: northernvirginiawriters.org
Virginia Writers Club: virginiawritersclub.org/chapters
Lynn Auld Schwartz: writerswordhouse.com