They enter the room slowly. Some push walkers. Others move with careful steps. Their bodies don’t always behave the way they want but their minds are sharp, their memories clear and vivid. How I enjoy listening to their stories! And listen I do because I hear history made alive.
I am privileged to help with a writing group for West Side seniors. In the beginning most were reticent to say much of anything, let alone write something. The coordinator, a friend of mine, expected them to write poetry, but that is a difficult medium for those just starting to find their voice. So we ask that they just write – prose or poetry. Usually we give a prompt or subject to write about.
“I can’t write,” one woman insisted. She never brings paper or pen, yet willingly shares her stories orally. I hope she eventually will put something on paper because these touching narratives should not be lost.
Sue Monk Kidd, author of “The Secret Life of Bees,” says, “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”
Before my grandmother died, she told me about her life as a young girl back in Ireland. Today I wish I had asked her more questions, filled in more details. Now I am left with too many blank spaces and my grandmother is dead so she cannot tell me more. I can only regret seeing the empty spaces in the story of her life.
That is why I encourage the women in our group to write their stories. Their families will some day be happy to have and to read them. Before my husband died, he kept a journal. I have not yet read through it, but I think of it as his last gift to his family so we could understand what he experienced in his final illness.
Some days we group members sit and chat and do little writing or reading of what we have brought. So I have heard stories of one woman who was a “Rosie the Riveter” and about her correspondence with John C. Penney. We even saw some pamphlets the store founder sent to her. Now there is a story!
One woman who lived on a farm down South has shared colorful descriptions of the place. So colorful I can nearly smell the earthy scents and see the landscape.
She is a gentle soul and recently told us of a horrible experience she suffered as a young girl. A woman, also black, told the girl she didn’t like her because she was “too black.” Clearly the words still wound. Hopefully sharing her pain lessened it. Her tale makes us aware of how words can wound.
Writing helps us work through our disappointments and hurts. How we write about our life experiences can spread the cruelty out, thin its impact on us, help us heal. Words also connect us. Another’s struggles can help us cope with our own.
Willa Cather said, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of 15.”
So the people in our group reach back into their past, back to their childhood, and put words to paper, words that tell who they are and how they became the storytellers they are today. They may leave their stories for their grandchildren to read someday. Or, they might simply share them with their fellow group members and have the satisfaction of having written a story that others wanted to hear.
Writing is more meaningful when it is a shared experience. And we discover how alike we are.