AWP 2014: Teaching Memoir to Older Writers

March 4, 2014 § 3 Comments

awp manA guest post from Marie Hartung:

The last session block on the last day of AWP.  What was I thinking, choosing this time slot to blog?  My feet are hurting, I’m lugging an ungodly amount of free and purchased books in three separate bags, and I’m tired from two late nights with too many adult beverages. To leave the still crowded book fair where cake, cheap beer, and clandestine cigarettes were actively being pimped to milling throngs of writerly-types, was in a word, difficult. It’s clearly the end of the conference, I say to myself, as I glance around room 3-B at a scatter of twelve diehard AWP’ers.  It takes courage to be a last session.

But as it’s been said, sometimes the best is saved for last.

The Power of Perspectives:  Teaching Memoir and Creating Community Among Older Writers, delivered case-study depth despite the session time coinciding with cocktail hour.

60 million baby boomers in the world today, Boston 60+ year-olds the targets for the Memoir Project. What can we all do to replicate projects like this in our communities?

The Project started eight years ago and has since reached 16 neighborhoods, 185 participants and enabled four anthologies.  The final Boston neighborhoods will be reached this year, encapsulating stories of seniors from the whole city.

What are the challenges?

Seniors may not have the money to take the class, be able to travel, have energy, have disabilities. There are often cultural barriers, medical conditions, and a range of how comfortable the seniors are talking about themselves.

The ultimate goal: Create community in the classroom.

City of Boston, the Elderly Commission, and Grub Street worked in collaboration to find participants. The class, notebooks, and lunch are provided free.

That means finding funding for a project like this is important.  So is finding locations and volunteers to make it happen. And money. Lots of money.

How is it done?

Morning classes go for 4 week. The first class always start with the prompt:  “My mother never…”  They are asked to share after every prompt because sharing creates the community of writers and gets them comfortable.

The teacher’s job is to praise the work, identify narrative craft are working and encourage them to keep going.  Participants get strong friendships, a writing practice, and a new perspective on their life experiences.

And what else makes it work?

The coaching aspect. Coaches work 1:1 for a month after class ends to help the seniors find a story that is interesting to them, their family and community. The key to coaching? Meet people where they are, wherever they are.

Finished essays, bios, and photos are assembled into print anthologies and are sold in the communities, put in libraries, passed down to family.

The Memoir Project proved an excellent case-study for anyone wishing to start up a similar project.  What there wasn’t time to touch on?  How the work in this specific project could be translated into other teaching efforts working with seniors?  This session was targeted to those replicating this nonprofit project than for individual educators looking to enhance their skills in working with a senior community.

Survival. Work. Love. Loss. War. Stories that bring neighborhoods together.  And writers.   Worth missing a cheap cocktail and hanging at AWP for the final session of the conference.

Marie Hartung (@MarieHartung) is an double-MFA candidate for Poetry and Nonfiction at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.  She’s also Poetry Editor for Soundings Review.  Marie works a day-job as a Realtor and is proud her home houses seven different species of domesticated pets plus her two children, all of whom she loves.


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