Jan’s Blog

Memoir Magic

Posted by on Dec 19, 2013 in Memoir | 0 comments

This year, I have been pleased to facilitate a memoir circle that meets monthly in my home. We learn from each other more about ourselves than we could ever discover alone in front of our journals, pads, tablets or computer screens. That’s because we listen. I’m thankful for the memories of a year filled with new insights, fresh expressions and freedom to explore who we are through writing. It’s one of the few unfettered practices we have; one that starts within and without the aid of electronic devices. What’s finally shared is sometimes amusing, often scary and always helpful.  Last night, Marilyn wondered whether her dad’s sadness at Christmastime was tied to the losses his grandmother bore after the Civil War. Glennette and Patricia described the major roles their colorful aunts played in their care and education. Kitty read of the difficult life of her grandmother, an immigrant at the turn of the century, and the devastation it dealt her youngest child, Kitty’s father. Susan shared a letter to her six-year old granddaughter describing her own life at six, and Christina wrote of her accomplishments in music and the hard-won award of traveling through Europe with student musicians in high school. Next time, I’ll be ready to offer a mother’s perspective on my child’s first two decades. Recording our memories is never mandatory and no one can force us to share them. Yet, when we open ourselves to the experience, we change. No longer guarded as closely, our secrets shine forth and bind us with others in a common cause:  being precise about where we’ve been, where we’re going and what messages we have for those who follow. What could be better New Year’s...

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Restoring a Life

Posted by on Nov 10, 2013 in Memoir | 0 comments

My current client’s father is pictured here with his two brothers. The photo was taken in about 1900. When we tried to place it in his story, the client said, “If you can’t brighten it up, leave it out.” I’m taking a course in Photoshop to learn how to restore treasures like these to their former glory. That’s what we do in writing about lives. We coax memories from the shadows, brush off their dust and clarify convictions that have deteriorated from neglect or just the passage of time. Telling a life story involves restoring all the photos of the past; even those that were never taken. Our pictures will never look exactly the same, just as we’ve never felt the same way twice. Experiences change us, and retelling them traces and illustrates who we’ve become. The process of remembering reveals more details. The exercise of looking back for perspective makes the past—its pains as well as its joys—important again. When I work with my clients, I am helping them to reexamine their lives. Together, we decide what to explore and how to express, in words and pictures, its essence. We articulate an honest, intimate picture that is both cleansing to the teller and clear to future generations. We “brighten up” a life so that all may see it...

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The Leap

Posted by on Oct 17, 2013 in Memoir | 2 comments

This is an essay I wrote in a workshop 13 years ago at the beginning of my foray into life stories. More than a completed assignment, it was a conversation with myself. Last night, my Memoir Circle embraced its message as a challenge to dig deeper in writing. Its thoughts apply to anyone attempting to craft a memoir for themselves or another person/couple. It occurs to me that there are parallel distinctions between living and thriving, writing and authoring and autobiography and memoir that, if explored, will offer some perspective. To live is to survive day to day, hour by hour, letting events happen and reacting as needed, worrying that some will be painful and longing for pleasant things of the past. To thrive is to seize each moment, confident that whatever presents itself will be enjoyed, accepted, managed or changed through positive action. To write is to link words together in a congruent, correct whole; carefully constructed and punctuated sentences becoming paragraphs and paragraphs evolving into longer works. To author is to create; to share what’s internal; to let words paint pictures of the soul; to become intimate with rather than to impress the reader. An autobiography is the complete account of a life; an objective story in chronological order illustrating how the author was born, how he lived and how he is preparing for death. A memoir is an opening of the heart; an intentional, cathartic sharing of pains, tragedies, joys and accomplishments that an author believes will nurture self-understanding as it connects her with others in compassion, commonality and mutual respect for life. The challenge in authoring a memoir is to set aside writing perfection while rising above anxiety, shame and pride. It is a microcosm of the challenge of thriving, in that it requires awareness and authentic effort versus habitual reactions and rationalizations. For a writer who believes that good writing is simply grammatical precision and factual content well presented, a memoir is a terrifying plunge into feelings that if left unremembered and unexpressed will haunt and remind her that the bridge to authorship was beyond her precipice. Janette Quinn...

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Not Your Family’s Story . . . Your Own

Posted by on Sep 11, 2013 in Memoir | 0 comments

Some people urgently want to write for posterity. Often frustrated by delays and procrastination, they are nonetheless compelled to commit their family’s history to permanent media. Often (and better than by committee!) they work alone, poring over or siphoning through reams of photos, letters, wills, genealogical records and other shoebox contents to capture information that is not available from the living. Why? Because they are dedicated to preserving what will be lost if they don’t. Assembling a family history is a gargantuan task. The omniscient narrator hoping to do it justice spends hours and years to document the deceased while he/she becomes no better known to his/her loved ones than before. My point? Your Story is a culmination of your family’s story. As its source, you are fully verified, readily available and an expert witness. Why look further? Here’s a brief example I’m using in my women’s memoir circle, (which includes several members who’d rather write family histories). I’ve suggested that after choosing a photo from childhood, they write first as if they were that age again: Here I am on Mom Fowlie’s step between my big brother and little sister. I’m the only one who wants her picture taken. Arla, please stop sucking your finger, and Kevin, at least smile! Isn’t Uncle Lloyd going to be in it? Oh, well, here we go… Next, write as an adult about the photo: 1959? I was just five and a half years old, the fourth of five children and wondering why we were so often at Grandma’s. Why was Uncle Lloyd, whose leg was lost in World War II, a bachelor, living there and always smoking cigars? Why was our grandpa so distant? How did our grandma lose her eye?  I never learned the answers because my mom died when I was 18 and I hadn’t asked her those questions–yet. Now, blend the two perspectives: My heritage was distance and separation but pretending it wasn’t so. We didn’t mourn together when my brother died in a car accident in 1966. We didn’t focus upon Dad’s drinking because it was none of our business. Arla and I just dressed up for Catholic Church and school, prayed and tried to behave as young ladies—seen but not heard. When both parents died in 1973, we four remaining siblings didn’t cling together, but went our separate ways. It was too late by then to seek shelter in intimacy. We’d never talked about pain, so we had no idea what to do with it as adults. In the final writing, I had the opportunity to look through a personal lens at our family’s history, making what I wrote far more relevant for my children. We can interpret our past with intelligence and emotions that are forever lost in photos, files and even recorded voices of people who will never be interviewed again. By deeply thinking, remembering and writing, we can craft family history through the perceptions that became our realities. Any research will flow from the desire to understand past experiences in a life that is still in progress. Readers will embrace our stories, poignantly told and enhanced with relevant data, more than any we create from the contents in a shoebox. Janette Quinn LivingStories.us...

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Where Does your Story Start?

Posted by on Aug 16, 2013 in Memoir | 0 comments

If you’re writing so that others will read about your life, chances are that you shouldn’t begin with “I was born on December 14, 1954.” Now if that date were December 7, 1941 or September 11, 2001, the suggestion may differ, because those days are special for very compelling reasons. The point is that your life’s merit probably didn’t begin with your birth, unless it was somehow traumatic or miraculous. The way to begin a life story is with an event and reflection upon it that gives the rest of your life an angle, as we say in journalism, or a point. An excellent memoir or life story has a rhythm, flow and plot much like a movie. Its creation involves analyzing a life and seeing a struggle faced, a continuous message or an outcome that surprised. Once the most poignant event in your life it discovered and well described, it becomes the anchor from which your references can move back and forth in time, somewhat chronological but always relevant to the point; the reason your account must be told. The beauty of memoir is a single perspective on history. As the world has revolved throughout your lifetime, you have evolved through circumstances and events. A memoir tells us who you have become and...

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Posted by on Jul 30, 2013 in Memoir | 0 comments

A client shared this with me, and I found it so helpful and true that I tweaked it a bit and am passing it on.   HOW TO STAY YOUNG 1. Try everything twice. One woman wrote her own tombstone’s epitaph: “Tried everything twice; loved it both times!” 2. Keep only cheerful friends.  The grouches pull you down. (Keep this in mind if you are one of those grouches!) 3. Keep learning:  Learn more about the computer, crafts and gardening; whatever interests you. ‘An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.’ And the devil’s name is Alzheimer’s! 4. Enjoy the simple things. 5. Laugh often, long and loud. Laugh until you gasp for breath. And if you have a friend who makes you laugh, spend lots and lots of time with him/her. 6. Tears happen: Endure, grieve and move on. The only person who is with us our entire lives is ourselves. LIVE while you are alive. 7. Surround yourself with what you love, whether it’s family, pets, keepsakes, music, plants, and hobbies. Your home is your refuge and a place to be nurtured. 8. Cherish your health. If it is good, preserve it. If it is unstable, improve it. If it is beyond what you can improve, get help. 9. Don’t take guilt trips. Take a trip to the mall, even to the next city, county or to a foreign country, but do not let guilt tell you where to go. 10. Tell the people you love that you love them at every opportunity. 11. Forgive those who’ve made you cry. You might not get a second chance. Lost time is gone forever. 12. Be kinder than is necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.    ...

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“Similes and Metaphors”

Posted by on Jul 10, 2013 in Memoir | 2 comments

Yesterday, I met with nine residents at Wyndemere, a retirement facility, to begin a six-week Story Hours workshop. At the end of the day’s session, George, a retired attorney, handed me his copy of The Story of A Lifetime, a keepsake book half-way completed in neat pencil penmanship. He said, “I’m not finished with this, but please help me make it an interesting story with similes and metaphors rather than just a bunch of facts. I’d like to give it to my children and grandchildren.” How touching and true! That beautiful book may otherwise collect dust on a shelf or disappear when its pencil can no longer be read. I’ll be helping to see that George’s story lives and inspires. In answer to my introductory discussion question, “Why Write?” the four men and five women in the workshop replied: To remember my blessings To support family relationships and share experiences To pass on my values and spirituality For my grandchildren To fill gaps To capture the delicious memories before, as with my parents, they are forgotten To organize my thoughts and make them interesting to readers To improve my writing To record family history To cleanse my conscience and brain To share life experiences in the context of world/U.S. history To pass my stories on To tell others what made me who I am To say what nobody else can To capture a voice in time To document what people don’t know, even if they haven’t asked or think they do Where would you like your writing to lead? Who will read it? What does it satisfy in you? If you are not writing, how could some form of support make accomplishing the above objectives easier for...

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Why We Write

Posted by on Jun 11, 2013 in Memoir | 0 comments

The following newspaper article tells of Canadian high school students meeting with seniors over five weeks to capture their stories in a biography album. http://www.insidehalton.com/news-story/3413171-woss-students-pen-memoirs-for-seniors-in-bio-project/ It’s appropriate that the young people in this program are encouraged to listen to heretofore strangers with early stage Alzheimer’s, and then to help them record their memories. If only every family would do the same, there would be no need for last-minute, stressful obituaries; regrets about being too busy to visit or wondering about questions never asked when they could have been. We write with and for our loved ones before it’s too late because the next generation will be just like the prior one. It will see the same challenges, if not the same world. It will care about the same issues and strive to understand them better. It will have the same types of memories—albeit intensely personal—to pass on again. By valuing life enough to share our experiences and those of elders, we invest in the people who follow us, helping them to become more peaceful, more insightful and readier to face each day. Janette Quinn...

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Vetting Beliefs that Hinder or Help

Posted by on May 14, 2013 in Memoir | 0 comments

                                                       Some notions about how we live life are worthy of inspection in the spirit of spring cleaning. I’m choosing my first four that come to mind. Two are up for modification or eradication, and two are keepers that have served me well.  What are yours? The Vulnerable:  A lady is judged by her home’s cleanliness.  This comes from Mother, who always said, “You never know who’ll visit.” I guess she was the opposite of a hoarder; someone who makes sure no one visits. The result of her belief was constant busyness and a mom who didn’t take time to smell the roses. From dishes to laundry to dusting, vacuuming, cooking and shopping, she left no job undone for long. My struggle today is toward clean enough to relax a bit, to live comfortably and to find things. Who doesn’t prefer a beautiful house where the contents are in place and order prevails? The balance I seek is elusive when others aren’t committed to the cause and when I remember that homemaking mother who sat down only when she was exhausted. I don’t have time for that. This is such an easy comeback for anything we’re not doing. Mainly, I don’t have time to weed, to bake or to talk on the phone. Those also happen to be things I don’t enjoy; I’d rather be planting, attending a play or writing an essay. Still, sometimes we use “I don’t have time for that” as a socially acceptable way to avoid responsibility. In reality, everyone has the same amount of time:  24 hours per day. We choose how to spend it. So if a husband asks, “Why don’t you take a cooking class?” the reply could be “Because that’s not the way I which I choose to use my time.” My time is available, but if my heart’s not in it, I won’t invest. So whenever someone says, “I don’t have time,” I hear it as “That’s not something worth finding the time to do.” The task then becomes describing the benefits well enough to motivate the doer. The Embraced:  Always wear a little smile. Again, Mother taught me this one among other “young lady” admonitions. The idea was to present a positive face, literally, no matter what was happening or likely to happen. (Sadly, that also applied when Daddy came home way too late.) The habit has served me well, because no matter what my challenges, it’s unfair to meet others with a scowl or even a look of contemplation. Why scare people or have them worry before we’ve spoken? Why make a blank or somber expression the first one they see? Giving everyone the benefit of a smile promotes the kinds of connection I prefer. Offer it up to Jesus.  We were taught this by Sister Alphonsus in the first grade, usually when we began to cry about something. Whenever we were hurt, challenged, depressed or angry, we recalled His sacrifice for our sins. Somehow, that was to help our pain seem minor or to mirror His own. Considering all those who’ve endured horrible diseases and insurmountable challenges is still helpful to me. They believed and persevered through trouble, and that should energize us to weather hardships. How they overcame and survived are fascinating stories, and hearing them...

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I-PHONE Redemption

Posted by on Apr 15, 2013 in Memoir | 1 comment

A friend’s constant absorption with his I-Phone can be annoying, but yesterday he referred me to an article sent by “quick page,” whatever that means. You can find it at  http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2013/04/14/tell-me-who-are-3-reasons-to-share-your-story , but I’m presenting it in entirety here: ‘Tell me who you are’ — 3 reasons to share your story Apr 14, 2013 6:00 AM EDT (from Fox News Opinion Quick Page-from Robert V. Taylor) It was a life-shifting question from South African social right activist and Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu inviting me to tell him about my life – “Not what you’ve done, but who you are.” No one had ever asked me such a question before. Most of us expect the inevitable question of “What do you do?” from strangers. When you can respond to “Tell me who you are” a dramatic shift happens in your engagement with others and your experience of life. It was 1980 and I was in my first one-on-one meeting with Tutu. I had decided that instead of serving in the South African military — which enforced apartheid — I would go to jail. I didn’t know if I could survive prison so I went seeking Tutu’s advice. I was a 22-year-old privileged white kid in the presence of a 49-year-old internationally known human rights activist who was an iconic figure to me. I was honored to be in his presence and my nervousness quickly gave way to being floored by his unexpected question. As I told him about the physical pain that had transformed my life during two spinal surgeries as a teenager I wondered why I was intuitively telling him these details. I spoke about the loneliness and fears while hospitalized for six weeks at a time. I related how a book I read and re-read in the hospital by Trevor Huddleston had upended my life. Huddleston described the vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-cultural community he had served outside of Johannesburg that had been bulldozed by the apartheid government because of those defining qualities. I described Huddleston’s book as my first conscious awakening to the realities of my own country and an invitation to be involved in the anti-apartheid movement. When I told Tutu that Huddleston had been like a visitor to me in the hospital he burst out laughing! I wondered what I had said to evoke such a reaction. After settling down Tutu told me of the loneliness and fears he had experienced as a teenager hospitalized with tuberculosis. Then he said, “Trevor Huddleston was my priest. He used to visit and read stories to me.” In that moment I realized how profound Tutu’s simple question was. “Tell me who you are” is an invitation to discover who we are in oneness with others revealed through unexpected connecting stories. It is why the question matters for the sake of our well-being and that of the world. On the surface anyone might have assumed that there not much of a common thread to our lives. Yet his question revealed shared transformation, decades apart. On this new common ground he said that there would be a time for young men like me to go to jail for refusing to serve but that time was not now. He arranged for me to leave the country and within ten days I was on a flight to New York City. So how do you respond...

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