The quiet winter months on the Outer Cape call many to their desks to tell their stories in writing. And in this particularly dark winter, that call can seem more urgent.
Poet and painter Rosalind Pace, who has led the Truro Memoirs Writing Group since 1993, says that “sharing stories is a way of connecting one human being to another and that is how the world is held together.”
Still, the act of writing can feel lonely and daunting without encouragement and guidance from others with some understanding of the craft.
“My background is in television and video production, so I know a good story when I hear one,” says Truro resident Bill Charette. When he retired recently, he set out to put his memories of growing up in writing. A family history was something he always wished his own grandparents had left for him.
Knowing a good story and sitting down to write one are two different things. Charette joined Pace’s group and considers the support he receives there invaluable. “Rosalind sets the tone of acceptance,” Charette says. “The compassion from other members is priceless.”
There are other purposes at work in the group, too, besides encouragement. Charette says that by participating he has learned to focus on the effect his storytelling will have on the reader. Pace encourages the group to zero in on specific elements of a piece that “land in people’s minds, hearts, and bodies.”
Through her almost 30 years of leading the writers’ group, Pace has developed an approach to drawing out feedback that is constructive for writers “at different stages of knowing exactly what their story is.”
Although it is called a memoir group, members write about their memories in different forms, including poetry and short stories, says participant Deborah McKay from Wellfleet. McKay appreciates that informality, and the fact that the group “is not a class with a predetermined curriculum.”
After an excerpt is read, the discussion starts with people talking about what they really like. Next, participants say what they want to hear more about. Finally, people say what part reminds them of something in their own lives. “That tells the writer where the story connects,” Pace says.
Not everyone, though, feels comfortable sharing raw, unfinished writing with a group. There are other ways to find guidance for a writing project. John Clark, a retired professor who taught English literature and poetry at U.C.L.A. before moving to Eastham, has been offering individual support to writers for 15 years.
Clark says his one-on-one work with writers is largely about “seeing their larger plan from the moment they begin.” But Truro resident Stephen Kovacev says that working with Clark also meant “making up for all the college writing courses I never had.”
Kovacev says he found being in a writing group “cathartic” and a great way to launch. But eventually, for him, working one-on-one with a coach made more sense because it allowed him to share larger chunks of writing as his book began to take shape.
Elli Comeau, a writer who moved from Germany to Eastham in 2007, agrees that, at a certain point, a big picture assessment is important. She sought out a writing coach when she felt stuck on a book project she had been working on for many years. Whereas in writing groups she had focused on lone chapters, working one-on-one meant she got a complete manuscript evaluation.
Comeau went on to train with a service called Author Accelerator, and now coaches other writers. Coaching, she believes, can help a writer pinpoint not just where but why a story doesn’t feel right — something that is hard to get to in a group setting.
But in the end, Comeau says, “giving a writer hope is absolutely my favorite part.”
There are those for whom sharing, listening, absorbing criticism, and rewriting just don’t inspire hope. Writing is not for everyone.
That’s why, after turning her own family’s stories into a book a decade ago, Wellfleet writer and historian Chris Wisniewski founded a personal history service.
Wisniewski says she has always enjoyed hearing other people’s stories. She sits down with clients and lets them tell their own stories. Recording their voices, she says, is part of the process. “Everyone has their own style of speaking,” she says. “My goal is that the voice of the person I am interviewing comes through in the writing.”
Working with families can be fascinating, and it is part of what makes the books Wisniewski collaborates on different from individuals’ memoirs. “Everybody remembers events in their own way,” she says. “As family members go back and forth with their memories, they create an interwoven memory together.”
Wisniewski considers her work a privilege. “When people trust me with their stories and let me into their lives, I hold these stories sacred and it means so much to me to save them for future generations,” she says.
Whether getting your story down in writing is a joy or a struggle, taken up alone or in the company of a group or a coach, Rosalind Pace knows one thing for sure: “Everyone has a story to tell.”
The Truro Memoir Writers’ Group
Currently meeting via Zoom
Truro Council on Aging
Or email Rosalind Pace at [email protected]
It’s Your Book
Personal History Service