Written by Carl Rosenberg; copy edited by Katie Beaton
So, are you thinking of writing about your childhood memories? Or maybe someone has asked you to edit a childhood memoir? In either case, on Saturday, January 26, 2019, Editors BC will present a seminar just for you. This six-hour seminar on writing and editing childhood memoirs will be presented by Carolyn Redl. She will introduce memoir writing and editing, with a mix of conversational learning, hands-on training, and practising a variety of memoir writing techniques.
Throughout the day, you’ll complete exercises that will make your own childhood experiences come alive. You’ll explore ways to organize events into stories using description and dialogue. You’ll hear editing hints for developing themes, settings, and personalities associated with childhood. By the end of the day, you’ll have written a draft chapter of your memoir!
This seminar is ideal for editors at any level who are considering writing their own memoir or are editing memoirs. Each participant is requested to bring an item from their childhood (a picture, toy, or item of clothing, for example) to the seminar. Attendees should bring a pen and paper or laptop with a word processing program—whatever they feel comfortable using to write. See the registration page for more details.
For over 30 years, Carolyn has taught seminars on memoir writing for colleges, universities, and various organizations. She lives in Victoria and is the author of poetry, short stories, book reviews, travel articles, and her own memoir, A Canadian Childhood.
Carl Rosenberg, a volunteer on Editors BC’s communications and social media committee, spoke to Carolyn about her writing and teaching.
Hello, Carolyn! Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. How did you come to your career as a writer and teacher of memoir writing?
I began writing as a child and always found that writing offered an avenue to a deeper understanding of my experiences. Although I finished pre-med after high school, I was side-tracked by marriage and child-raising and didn’t return to university until I was in my 30s. By then, I had been seduced by literature and knew the study of literature augmented writing as my destiny. I also realized that I’d be taken seriously as a writer if I had degrees. My original idea was to complete a BA in creative writing at the University of Alberta. I determined that if I must write poetry in the required courses, I would have it published. To my surprise, Borealis Press put out a collection of my poems. About the same time, CBC’s Alberta Anthology produced one of my short stories. However, seduced by learning, I soon found myself pursuing graduate studies—first an MA and then a PhD—teaching undergraduate English courses, and writing.
What became more and more interesting for me were the life stories of authors—first, the subject of my thesis, Henry Kreisel, who came to Canada as a young boy escaping war-torn Europe and then, the subjects of my dissertation, selected Canadian prairie women writers of various ethnicities. I also became increasingly involved in designing and teaching with a university’s extension department’s writing programs. Around this time, I wrote countless book reviews and travel articles, most often for the Southam newspaper chain.
During my tenure at Keyano College in Fort McMurray, I was drawn to Arctic women’s narratives, leading me to design and teach the course that I taught, along with others, for Athabasca University until my retirement two years ago.
In 2016, I published my memoir, A Canadian Childhood, and I am currently writing a memoir focused on my experience of natural events beside the Salish Sea.
What stands out for you in your experience as a teacher in this field?
Every individual has a unique story, and the more each person delves into their bank of memories, the more interesting the memoir becomes. Many people claim that they have not done anything outstanding, nothing that would engage readers. Not true. I don’t mean to downplay the achievements of certain people, but the lives of everyday folk are every bit as intriguing as a list of notable accomplishments from a celebrity. However, interest in a memoir is directly correlated to the delivery of those everyday experiences, and herein exists the need for seminars.
I derive immense pleasure in watching new writers express ideas in words and then realize in the seminar that others find their writings interesting. There is nothing more rewarding for new writers than reading their words and looking out to see an audience in rapture—sometimes bent over in laughter—over what has been revealed.
What does the experience of writing memoirs have to teach editors in particular?
The genre of memoirs has blossomed exponentially in recent years. Even as recently as 10 years ago, there might have been a small shelf in stores and libraries dedicated to memoirs; now, memoirs occupy several shelves and often more than one aisle. The Internet, through blogs, etc., provides another avenue for memoirs. Editors will do well to familiarize themselves with variations in the genre—memoirs can be broken down into memoirs of adventure, travel, childhood, survival, politics, and so forth.
The same principles used in assessing other genres apply to assessing memoirs. Yet memoirs offer editors some complicating challenges. By writing their own memoirs, editors experience first-hand many issues the memoir writer faces and resolves. These can range from straightforward concerns, such as limiting explanation (or, in the lingo of writing instructors, showing rather than telling) to ethical issues, such as naming individuals who play unsavoury roles in the writer’s life story.
What I offer is primarily a writing seminar, and I’m hoping that through writing memoirs themselves and talking about the memoirs of others in the seminar, editors will recognize the extra layer of responsibilities facing them when they take on a job editing memoirs.
What is unique about editing memoirs compared to other kinds of writing?
The editor of a memoir needs to have a sharp eye for identifying situations that truly relate to the memoir writer’s main theme and even identifying what constitutes that theme. I mention these requirements because memoir writers are themselves often wary of revealing causes of certain behaviours, for example. A sharp editor might notice an incident that the writer has described, but only superficially. With the editor’s probing, the writer will realize the benefits of elaboration. I think an editor of memoirs is, to a large degree, always playing psychologist or psychiatrist, sensing on a much deeper level of understanding than the writer has for what has prompted specific later behaviours. After digging out deeper meanings, the editor can then engage in the usual practices implemented in the editing of other genres.
What are some of your favourite books and publications, writing- and editing-related or otherwise?
Oh, so many! I’ll name only a select few. Three of my all-time favourite memoirs are Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika, and Andy Merrifield’s The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World. No sooner do I list these than alternative books and authors spring to mind. Isabel Allende, Sara Wheeler, May Sarton, and Ann Patchett have delivered multiple memoirs.
Many travel writings are memoirs, as are regional accounts, such as Edna Brush Perkins’ The White Heart of Mojave: An Adventure with the Outdoors of the Desert or Gretel Ehrlich’s This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland—and only now, at the end of this list, do I begin to scratch the surface of the hundreds of Arctic memoirs.
Of writing- and editing-related references, what comes to mind are Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Natalie Goldberg), Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art (Judith Barrington), and Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature (Tristine Rainer). These three books work well for writers and editors alike.
Carolyn, thank you very much for sharing your experience and expertise! We’re looking forward to your seminar on January 26.
Carl Rosenberg edited “Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine” from 1998 to 2016. He has a diploma in Latin American studies from Vancouver Community College and a bachelor of arts in Spanish language and literature from UBC. He is a volunteer with the communications and social media committee of Editors BC.
Katie Beaton recently discovered her love of editing and decided to enrol in the Editing Certificate program at SFU. She hopes to one day work as a professional editor. Until then, she continues to pursue her other love: travel. When she’s not exploring the world, she can be found teaching yoga, writing, and enjoying every brunch spot Vancouver has to offer.
Image provided by Carolyn Redl