How to Create and Run a Successful Memoir Writing Club
Have you ever belonged to a neighborhood book club? Maybe you’ve shared ideas over coffee and come away with new perspectives. Or perhaps you’ve discovered a book that became a favorite. Likely you have made new friends. These are some reasons why people join together on a regular basis.
A Memoir Writing Club offers these same benefits with a different focus. Instead of discussing books, you write and talk about your own life, the one you know so well, the one that offers laughter and tears, and may offer important lessons to others.
A Typical Memoir Writing Club Meeting
The Booker Valley Memoir Writing Club meets once each month. Laura hosts this evening and she has arranged for a few light refreshments. The four members arrive at 7 PM and gather around the table. Greetings are exchanged and Laura starts the meeting. Each guest has written a two to three page story on My Family – My Self, a theme that was assigned at the end of last month’s get-together. Laura reads her story first. The group then offers supportive comments: “You have such wonderful children.” “I love the way you handled her illness.” “I admire your courage.” No judgments are made. No solutions are offered. The atmosphere is one of acceptance. Laura keeps track of the time – each person is given fifteen minutes to read her story and listen to comments. When the five Family stories are shared, including her own, she introduces the next theme, The Meaning of Wealth and the meeting winds down.
5 Steps to Beginning your own Memoir Writing Club
- Get the word out. Think about your friends. Which ones might be interested in writing their life stories? If you are a boomer, your peer group will be especially curious. Many will have adult children and grandchildren with whom they will want to share their stories.
- Decide the group’s size. The ideal size is five to six members. This gives each participant adequate time to share their story. Caution: Group dynamics can play an important part in creating a strong and lasting Memoir Writing Club. You should consider the reason each member wishes to be part of the group. Is it primarily a social occasion or do they want to discover more about themselves? You need to stress the importance of commitment and continuity with the group. Once the participants have started sharing their stories, it is not a good idea to add a new member. This can disrupt group bonding. New members can always be encouraged – the ideal time is after the initial ten themes have been covered.
- Decide how it will be hosted. The host takes on the responsibility of facilitating discussion. This may include keeping members on-topic and providing the writing theme for the next meeting.
- Time: Arrange a set meeting time on either a weekly, biweekly or monthly basis.
- Space: How much room will you need? An ideal location is the kitchen or dining room table. Members will have sheets of paper and a space upon which to write notes.
- Location: The easiest way may also be the fairest. Each member hosts an evening in his or her home.
- Establish Group Goals. There are just three important points to cover with your group. These can be reviewed before the first meeting starts
- Confidentiality: Sometimes a story may reveal personal information that needs to stay within the room. No one should be pressured to reveal more than what they are comfortable sharing. Each member at the beginning can sign an informal contract; it will serve as a reminder of the importance of confidentiality. It may not be legally binding but it is nonetheless a reminder of its importance.
- Active listening: We all like to be heard. Active listening is listening with intent – really hearing what the speaker is saying. Often, when we should be listening to the other person, we are lost in our own thoughts, thinking about what to say next.
- Supportive, nonjudgmental comments: We have all done things we may not feel proud of even when they end up helping us to learn right from wrong. The hardest lessons may be the most important ones. Occasionally you might hear a story involving a poor decision that resulted in embarrassment or tragic consequences. It is not our place to offer advice beyond simple acknowledgement that we have heard the story and we understand the pain it may have caused.
- Develop a Meeting Agenda. How do you begin each meeting? What happens during it? How does it end?
- How do you begin each meeting? Once the members are gathered around the table, the meeting begins with a simple statement such as: “This evening we are meeting to share and discuss our life stories on the theme, My Life’s Work. We will take turns reading our story, followed by short comments.” Michelle, would you like to start first?”
- What happens during the session? When a person finishes reading, often there may be silence. People will be waiting for someone to comment. As host, you can always say, “What a powerful story. Does anyone want to comment on it?” That will open the floor to discussion. Be mindful of time. Allow a few moments for conversation and then move on to the next reader. “Thank you, Michelle. May we hear yours next, Christy?” Because each story may involve several minutes, it is a good idea to break for refreshments after the first three people have read their themes.
- How does it end? Once all of the stories have been read, it is time to assign the next life story theme. The first ten should reflect the sequences shown in this book, starting with Forks in the Road, and ending with My Legacy. Each theme has a description and probing questions that can be reviewed with the group. The final decision will be who hosts the next meeting.
Tips and Ideas
- Give your Memoir Writing Club a name. It can reflect the area you live in, e.g. The Elmdale Memoir Writing Club. If you are unsure of a name, think about what is common with the members. Are they all over 60? How about The Boomers Memoir Writing Club? Is it just a guy’s church group? Men of St. Paul’s Memoir Writing Club might work.
- A Memoir Writing Club works with any combination of members: mixed or one gender, young and old.
- During the first meeting, ask each participant these questions. “Why are you here? Who are you writing your life stories for?”
- There tends to be one in every group, and that is the person who dominates. He or she takes over a conversation and turns it back to themselves. There is no easy way to stop this without causing a rift. Experienced facilitators manage this disruption by waiting for a slight break in the conversation, perhaps a sentence ending, and interjecting with, “Those are good points. Emily, would you add to that?”
- Should there be a weekly charge? If all meetings are held at one person’s home, then a small fee covering refreshments is reasonable. If the meetings will alternate between member’s homes, this fee is unnecessary. A free-for-all policy works best. One option is to collect weekly dues for use as a group contribution to a non-profit. Sometimes even a token, monetary investment will ensure commitment from the members.
- Where do you find the writing themes and handouts for participants? Perhaps the handiest will be this book. It contains everything you need.
- What if someone can’t make it to a meeting? They can still write their 2-page story and have it read by another member. Perhaps this responsibility could fall upon the host.
- If a reader is reluctant to share part of a story, no adverse pressure should be applied. The reader will read only what he or she chooses.
- Any group process can lead to a healthier lifestyle. It is important to remember however, that though this may be therapeutic, there is no intent to change a person’s behaviors. It is not therapy.
- Once the ten primary themes are covered, what happens next? Does the Memoir Writing Club end? There are many additional themes to use, all of which are included in the book, Writing Your Legacy. Or keep checking back to this website for free downloads. Participants may also wish to expand upon earlier themes, turning them into longer stories.