by Linda C. Wisniewski
I’ve been teaching memoir writing classes for adults for twelve years, and as time goes by, I have found it necessary to keep reading and learning, if only to stay one step ahead of my students. Some of them have been with me for three or four years, and I want to give them fresh, new material, so I have to create it from resources I access outside my own experience. My own writing teacher has been covering much of the same ground for the seven years I have studied with her, but each class and its accompanying handout offers more for me to practice and absorb, and I know she is still learning too.
When I first started teaching, twelve years ago, two of my students were retired physicians born in India. Nervous and excited, I was lucky my first class was small and composed of inexperienced writers. I’ll never forget the kind remark from one of the physicians: “Have you taught this class before, then?” I gave her an equivocal answer, something about a group I’d led at my church, and she smiled and nodded. At the last session, she presented me with a small pot of mums, perhaps as relieved as I that we had accomplished something together.
By the end of that first six-week session, I had learned a lot about teaching:
- how to keep students engaged (ask questions)
- how to divert attention from myself (pair them off to share writing)
- how to fill two hours (let them talk)
Now, after twelve years as a memoir instructor, I have learned a few things about myself as well. Fulfilling work makes me feel worthy. Not many of the jobs I’ve held over my fifty years as a working woman have done that. Some were soul-deadening:
- clerk at the Social Security Administration, downstairs from the draft board at the height of the Vietnam War
- caseworker for the Erie County Welfare Department in Buffalo, New York, where my entire caseload of fifty families lived in two square blocks
- waitress at the diner where the manager tried to grope me
- server at the New York State Thruway rest stop where my sundaes were never pretty
- plastic swimming pool folder at the factory where my fingers cracked and bled
- clerk at the credit bureau where I reported people’s debts
- telephone magazine sales
I’ll stop there, but I want to point out that I’ve just used a technique I teach my students: Make a list, then pick one item and start your story. I’ll pull this one out next time I’m stuck for a topic.
Memoir writing and teaching have saved me more than once. My family and friends are great, my life is comfortable, but unless I examine and reflect on what I have, I fail to appreciate them.
After one especially good class, when I witnessed my students helping each other make their stories the best they could be, and saw the positive mutual regard on their faces, I drove home in a bubble of joy.
“I can die now,” I said to my husband that night. “My life has been worthwhile.”
His response? “Don’t die yet,” accompanied by an eye roll. Of course, I overdramatized to convey my moment of happiness. A feeling deep inside, so powerful it stayed with me for quite some time, convinced me that I had done something good. Not many jobs get anywhere close to that.
Linda C. Wisniewski lives in Doylestown. Her work has been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Quilter, gravel, The Sun and Ruminate. Her memoir, Off Kilter, was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. Linda’s unpublished time travel novel was a finalist for the 2015 Eludia Award. She blogs at http://www.lindawis.com.