Today’s guest blogger is writer and editor Lanie Tankard who is a long-time friend. My husband Stuart enjoys taking credit for Lanie’s romance and marriage to Jim Tankard, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, because Stuart suggested that Lanie contact Jim about a summer program–back in 1972.
This picture of Jim and Lanie was taken by their daughter Amy Tankard Hill and shows Jim in the last stages of cancer. His death in 2005 was the force that led Lanie to discover the power of memoir and a group of other writers who serve a special, intimate sounding board for each other. She tells her story below.
Constructing Memoir Clusters
By Lanie Tankard
“In our family an experience was not finished, nor truly experienced,
unless written down or shared with another.”
—Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Can you construct memoir alone? Certainly, but why would you want to?
The initial flood of mental images and feelings must naturally be gathered on our own. Fingers on keyboard or pens in hand, we dash off first drafts at desks, in airplanes, on tiny scraps of paper scrounged in frantic desperation as descriptive words flash through our minds.
What then? True disciplinarians let them sit and age, like fine wine. Then they return for revisions, shaping those first drafts into more polished forms while hearing the voices in their heads reading the words. Some even use their computer speech function to recite their pieces to them.
At this point in memoir construction, I find it helpful to read my writing aloud to a cluster of people going through the same process. This procedure has not only improved my individual memoir pieces, but also deepened my general writing skills-while also providing enriching friendships.
How did I find this group? My late husband Jim, a journalism professor, signed up for a memoir class at the University of Texas at Austin in 2001 taught by Laura Furman. Advertised for age 55 or older, the class met at the university. By its second meeting, Jim was diagnosed with lung cancer, although a nonsmoker. He grew quite close to these individuals with whom he shared his life stories, as well as his chemo experiences.
When the class ended, most of the twelve people wanted to continue meeting. They moved off campus without a teacher to public libraries and homes. Jim once coordinated the self-publication of group writing for members to give as holiday gifts, placing a copy in the library where they met most often.
When Jim died in 2005, little did I realize that I would inherit his spot. One of the members brought me a notebook of writings dedicated to him, and told me how much the group missed Jim. They did not feel comfortable expanding their ranks with just anyone, as they had grown quite close. One day, however, a member called and invited me to a meeting, saying they felt they almost knew me through Jim. Instantly I felt right at home. I also felt Jim’s presence among them, and I still do.
Our stalwart band of seven gathers around someone’s dining room table every two weeks now. The difficulty of reserving a library room in advance, and canceling it if necessary, could not compete with the coziness of our homes. Eventually, several more members passed away and one in her nineties asked to be an associate as it became harder for her to hear and attend. At that point, we had dwindled to five regular attendees, one so connected that she drives all the way from another city. Once again, the group felt a need to expand, and we added someone whom most of the group knew.
We meet every second Wednesday, with a deadline of the previous Sunday for circulating writing by e-mail for all members to print. We mark notes or corrections at the meetings, and follow along as each person reads in order of first submitted. After a reading, we go around the table to offer verbal comments. Often our discussions range far afield from misplaced modifiers and the Oxford Comma, to more global discussions of a certain place or time and its context in contemporary society. We hand all copies to the writer, operating under a tenet of trust that nothing discussed or read in the group goes outside.
Several members are in other memoir groups, too. A Lifetime Learning class of about twenty meets weekly for eight weeks, and does not circulate writing ahead or pass out copies. Writing is read aloud by alphabetic roll call of last names, followed by applause but no comments. Pieces are often discussed at intermission during the two hours. Another group meets every two weeks, with no writing beforehand. They begin after the teacher assigns a topic such as “Nature,” with no reading, discussion, or criticism.
Clusters are a productive way to bring forth memoir, no matter how they are composed. We construct a network of our lives, both past and present, and the resulting web continues to sustain us all. Recently my group added yet another new face known to only two of the original members, but we trusted them to determine who would fit in. And they were right. Already our bunch has absorbed her as we huddle together to write, share, and expand our memories together.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2009 by Elaine F. Tankard All Rights Reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without permission.