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Life Writing and Creativity

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By: Dr. Jim Clark, English Professor Emeritus, NCSU

Writings from Life – Dr. Jim Clark, widely known for his scholarship in folklore and literature, is shown above, standing with Winnie Apperson, Springmoor librarian, and five members of his writing workshop, who are seated, left to right: Barbara Hunsley, Phyllis Johnson, Elmer Johnson, Dorothy Rutledge, and Kitty Munn. A sampling of their work, which they read at a gala celebration at Springmoor on July 9, is included. Since his retirement from NCSU in 2005, Dr. Clark has collaborated with librarian Apperson to encourage residents to write personal and family histories, published as “Springmoor at Fingertip.”

“ What you write about your life will find you!”

This simple statement is not easy for some professional memoirists to believe. It is almost unbelievable to older adults who have not thought of themselves as writers or imagined that their life is worth writing about. Yet when they enroll in life-writing workshops where they live or in senior centers, Encore, or churches that organize workshops, I open and close the first session by saying: “What you write about your life will find you!” For as William Faulkner wrote in Chapter six of Light in August (1932): “Memory believes before knowing remembers.”

As soon as the pressing episode or experience finds the workshop writer, the energizing creativity of setting out to live again on paper is released. The first two or three pages will bring into focus any number of other memories or individuals to be subjects in subsequent writings.

It does not matter if the first topic that has found each writer comes from early or late in life. It is always possible to fill in the years between the written pages. As this surge of memories comes forth, some happy, some very sad, the life writers will be encouraged to forget that their memory—the ability and will to recollect—had seemed to be going away, leaving life empty and frightening. As rewarding as the experience of getting life down on paper is the recognition that this new found-creativity has restored a certain new grasp on memory itself. Confidence rebuilt! That’s fantastic.

In the sessions of each workshop—usually two-hour meetings every week or every other week for six weeks—what each writer reads to the group will have the effect of bringing additional life experiences to mind for each other member. Soon it is clear that where each writer started is less important than that the impulse to do so was honored. Now there could be a flood of keen recollections. If someone in the group reads a selection that makes tears come forth in the reader and in others, that shows that the subject needed to be faced and put into perspective. Creativity itself has been successful in making the episode effable, something essential, important to be shared, even with relative strangers. Of course, each writer who joins a life-writing workshop knows the work is self-assigned. It is also self-censored. Every single memory is never said or written down. Nor should it be.

No one can be forced or fooled into life writing, but all who take up the task need an audience. Options include a new spouse, the offspring, grandchildren, a caregiver, or friends. Knowing the audience with certainty helps any life-writer focus. This achievement of focus—writing for someone in particular—is another way for confidence in the creativity of writing to be realized by the writer. Just as in building confidence in the faculty of memory that had seemed to be weakening, pursuing in words for the benefit of loved ones a life already experienced is life affirming in and of itself.

The writer who finds life worthwhile again through writing is enriching the intended audience, whoever it is, and also showing the way for other older adults who may doubt their capacity to remember the past or to recreate it. Thus the writing done by each workshop participant should be preserved as each writer sees fit. If census documents, kinship charts, photographs, letters, and other forms of documentation have been used in bringing the writing to life, include them too. It’s very nice to gives copies of the result to family and friends and especially to the intended audience. All feel enriched as they read. Dr. Clark can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and at 809 Gardner St., Raleigh, 27607.

Springmoor Writers

Barbara Hunsley

I had written a couple of stories about the ten years my husband was a Methodist minister, so when I saw the workshop notice, I decided to attend. The encouragement and enthusiasm of my classmates made me go back to my apartment and start writing again.

I write from the perspective of a minister’s wife in 1950-1960. In those days a minister’s wife was female and did not have a job or life separate from her husband’s. If the church hired a minister, it got two-for-one. I was an extension of my husband. I was a partner; I did not have a life of my own.

Dorothy Rutledge

During my genealogy work, I remembered a funny incident my mother had told me about when I had tape-recorded her. It was a trick a couple of men played on my very religious Aunt Leah who ran a boarding house in Alabama. The men referred two newcomers to Tuscaloosa to Aunt Leah’s when they were actually looking for a couple of women for the night in “a house of ill repute.” When the men arrived and asked Aunt Leah about the women, she showed no emotion. She left the room, returning shortly with a Bible which she proceeded to read to the two men. After several appropriate scriptures, she kneeled down, saying, “And now we are going to pray.” While she had her eyes closed in prayer, the visitors quietly sneaked out of the house. They were never seen again. although she had been intent on saving them.

Elmer Johnson

I grew up about 12 miles south of Raleigh in the Clayton area. One piece I wrote was about a typical southern boy going up north to work. I was about 23, and this was my first professional job as a Public Health Educator. I described the differences I found in food, names and other parts of the northern culture. My early memory of Raleigh was selling watermelons and cantaloupes at the old city market. I also sold chickens to boarding houses around town charging them so much per chicken since we didn’t weigh them. They kept the chickens in coops out back and killed them as they got ready to cook.

Phyllis Johnson

Since I was the fifth of six children, I figured I needed to get some things down on paper about our early life. After I sent the stories to my older sisters (the oldest is 91), I received a lot of phone calls as they remembered details that I didn’t, especially about our grandparents who immigrated from Germany and Switzerland. My grandmother was very feisty. Coming over on steerage, she asked for a glass of cold water. The steward brought her water that was warm and stale. She threw it in his face.

Kitty Munn

I was a career Registered Dietitian and writing was the last thing I thought I would do. I first took an NCSU Encore course and got started writing some. Then, this workshop with Jim and it really pushed me to write. I also have collaborated with my brother. Fortunately I have had a lot of life experiences and need to write them down for the grand kids.