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July 31, 2014

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Memoir workshop encourages seniors to explore intimate, sometimes painful memories

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Christopher DeVargas

Christie Haynes reads a writing assignment she completed during a memoir writing workshop at the LDS Family Search Library, Friday, Oct. 18, 2013.

Memoir Writers

Linda Coble reads a writing assignment she completed during a memoir writing workshop at the LDS Family Search Library, Friday, Oct. 18, 2013. Launch slideshow »
An image of Pauline Bukantz's artwork from her memoir. (Photos Courtesy of Pauline Bukantz)

An image of Pauline Bukantz's artwork from her memoir. (Photos Courtesy of Pauline Bukantz)

Five women sit in the quiet upstairs wing of a church, in a high-ceilinged room that serves as a computer lab, desktop computers sitting on rows of long tables. They take turns reading aloud from papers handwritten and typed with intimate stories of their past.

Linda Coble, 73, grey hair falling onto a thick flannel shirt, teases the room with a family secret involving her father. She alludes to homes for unwed mothers, child abuse and domestic violence. She doesn’t disclose details but promises to write it all down so her children will know the truth.

Christie Haynes, 96, her voice shaky, shares a story of a family tradition of going “pine-nutting” in White Pine County. When her children were growing up, they would collect pine nuts after the frost had opened up cones on the trees and bring them home in a gunny sack to roast in the open stove. She passes around black-and-white family photos taken from 1906 to 1920.

Ann Marshall, 71, with curly blonde hair and bright eyes popping behind smile lines, shares a trick on how to draw out memories. She’d found a moon calendar online to check the sky from a night in July 1967, the night she drove her boyfriend’s car — a 1963 white convertible Corvette — into a ditch on the French countryside. The calendar confirmed her memory of the “very, very dark” night.

The women are attending a weekly memoir-writing workshop. Some have been coming for months, others for only a week or two.

The “Life Stories” workshop, launched in 2010, is designed to inspire the members of the older generation to put their most precious memories, good and bad, to paper. Many write for their families, others to tell first-person perspectives of history, and some for therapy, to cope with hard memories and make sense of the present.

•••

Workshop instructor Pam Ramage writes family stories for her children, answering questions they may not get around to asking — how she and her husband met, what it was like to be a mother for the first time, their personalities when they were young. She’s written a short book for each of her three children and 12 grandchildren.

Regina Dodge writes because no one is left to tell her story. Dodge is an orphan and the last living sibling of 11 who grew up in a Great Depression-era orphanage. Her memoir, “Growing Myself Up,” recalls 10 years of her childhood spent struggling with a lack of love, raised by a strict order of Catholic nun caretakers, and moments of mischievous fun.

Marshall writes of a historically important time from her perspective. Her book, which she’s co-writing with her husband, involves being caught between two lovers — one an anti-war activist and the other an American soldier — during the heyday of the Vietnam protests. She wants to contextualize the story to the time the 1960s, “a time of social ferment, both in terms of civil rights and the sexual revolution, women’s revolution, women’s liberation … the Cold War.”

Pauline Bukantz writes as a form of therapy.

“Some people create journals to remember things. I write to keep myself sane,” said Bukantz, who needs the assistance of an oxygen tank. Excited, she talks too fast, not breathing enough.

Bukantz, 67, said she has struggled with mental illness for more than 40 years. She attended the workshop in 2011 and a year later self-published a memoir, “Reach for that Star!” that is illustrated by her own strokes of crayons and colorful markers that depict flowers, suns and stars.

She printed 300 copies and distributed them to neighbors, family, friends, doctors and the medical staff who help her. And she carries a copy with her, to read when her illness flares up.

Having spent much of her life in mental institutions, Bukantz made a habit of using her writing as medicine, for herself and others. She recounts running into friends she hadn’t seen in years and sometimes doesn’t remember. They will tell her she had given them a poem and that when they are sad, they take it out and it gives them hope.

One of her poems, “So Much More,” begins:

I’m so much more than a diagnosis / Don’t label me with a word or two / There’s more than meets the eye / Here’s my point of view:

I am a human being / Struggling with my moods / Calm, depressed, hyper / I don’t always get to choose ...

Publishing the memoir gave her writing a new audience, people with mentally ill friends and loved ones. It’s inspired them to accept the illnesses and to be unafraid of talking about them.

“People will come to me and say, ‘My mother’s a schizophrenic’ or ‘My daughter has a mental illness’ … sometimes it’s their first time ever telling anyone.”

•••

Jean Norman, a journalism graduate assistant at UNLV, taught the workshop through Nevada Cooperative Extension from 2011 to this spring, when its funding was cut. Her job was to inspire her students in recalling and sharing memories in their own distinctive writing voices.

She focused on getting people to share their stories out loud.

“There’s that double magic going on — this is a safe place to share stories, and your stories are worth sharing,” Norman said. “And there’s also the sparking of memories … This person will share a story that’s similar to mine, but different.”

Bukantz said hearing other stories broke the ice and stimulated memories.

“Those workshops were so important,” Bukantz said. “The people in the class bonded and shared parts of their lives they had never shared before.”

Dodge, who grew up in the orphanage, had written before the workshop but abruptly stopped when a relative said her writing was no good. The first time she shared, the group applauded. They told her she could write well. This, she said, is what really encouraged her to complete “Growing Myself Up,” which is nearly ready to be published.

The writing and sharing of stories is cathartic for the authors, Norman says. Teary-eyed, she recalls how one student had flipped her perspective on how she remembered her life. The woman started the workshop believing she had no memories worth sharing, she believed they all had sad endings. But then she started writing them down, and realized that most of the time things worked out OK.

“I’m always humbled when people trust me with their stories,” Norman said. “I think it’s sacred work. It touches people in a place that they don’t often communicate with, that they don’t often go. For a lot of people, it’s finding a part of themselves and resolving issues that had laid dormant for a long time.”

•••

When funding dried up for the Nevada Cooperative Extension project, the workshop was adopted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sessions are now conducted at the church’s Family Search Library at 509 S. 9th St. in downtown Las Vegas. Norman passed the mentoring torch to Ramage, who is on a one-year mission scanning historical records into the church’s database maintained in Provo, Utah.

The sessions are an ongoing, weekly gathering designed to stimulate memories and share aloud, Ramage says. Coble, Haynes and Marshall are regulars.

Norman also acts as the caretaker for the workshop’s website, lifestoriesnevada.org.

Norman helped her father, Jim Reid, publish his own childhood memories, “And His Name, Just Plain Jim.” It is titled after a poem his mother wrote when he was born. It’s available on lulu.com, a website that allows writers to publish and sell their works.

Bukantz now lives in an assisted-living facility in Newport Beach, Calif., where she has been sharing “Reach for that Star!” with her new neighbors and now writes about her new home.

And she’s launching a newsletter where she lives, encouraging residents to share their stories.

Danielle McCrea writes for the UNLV Rebel Yell newspaper.

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