Rachel Morin of Auburn adjusted her glasses, smiled warmly into her computer monitor and started to read aloud from the essay on her desk.
“Ah, yes, looking at me now in the winter of my life, white-haired, with the ever-present eyeglasses, it is hard to picture how graceful and natural I once was on water skis,” she read, her voice unwavering. In individual small windows on her monitor screen, 10 fellow students of memoir-writing and their instructor listened attentively.
Morin, who is 80, went on to describe a long-ago summer on a local lake with her boyfriend’s family, when there was an expectation that she would learn to waterski and love it and her cute new red-plaid, one-piece swimsuit showed off her trim figure with a narrow belt at the waist.
She described her struggle to master the sport, the ignominious spills, how she plowed, panic-stricken, under the water “like a gigantic whale” and finally the elation of learning not only to remain upright behind the speeding boat but, eventually, to glide and spin like a dancer across the curling wake, in full control of her athletic young body.
The assignment was to write a short essay — 750 words or fewer — with a theme of “You might not believe it to look at me now, but…” Each of Morin’s Maine Senior College classmates composed a similar piece. By design, only three would be read aloud and workshopped during the hourlong class, though all would be critiqued by the instructor. The other essays read that morning included a piece on rodeo bull-riding — by a man who suffers from a chronic disease that affects his muscle control — and one about a perilous kayaking adventure on a rough, 8-mile stretch of the Androscoggin River by a woman who has lost much of the strength in her legs.
The Maine Senior College memoir course, available only online, is led by Portland-based writer Elizabeth Peavey, 57, who has had a long career as a personal essayist in Down East magazine and other venues. The group meets every other Monday morning and draws together aspiring older memoirists from across the state — Presque Isle, New Gloucester, Whiting, Auburn and more.
On alternate weeks, the students meet in groups of three to work on their assignments.
They use the online conferencing tool Zoom, which is similar to Skype and creates a casual, interactive environment without anyone having to leave home. A staff member from Maine Senior College helped the participants, many of whom are only passingly familiar with digital technology, install Zoom on their computers and showed them how to use it.
Peavey, who lives in Portland, has been teaching the art and craft of writing memoir for more than 25 years, primarily through classes offered by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. But more recently, she has been finding eager students in senior housing communities, at community centers, libraries and through Maine Senior College, a statewide network of eclectic, low-cost educational programing for Mainers 55 and older.
“We all get to a point where we’re looking back more than we’re looking forward, assessing our lives as we go,” Peavey said.
And for many people, the idea of writing down life stories and events takes on a kind of urgency as they get older, she said. “People want to leave a legacy and not have their stories disappear when they’re gone.”
Memoir is a kind of personal history that is “memory-based rather than fact-based,” Peavey said. That means it is grounded in truth as interpreted through personal perspective and memory. Memoir is not the same as autobiography, a full-blown, fact-based life history. Instead, it asks the writer to focus on a specific event, story, relationship or period of time.
Peavey’s ongoing reflections about her relationship with her mother, for example, recently coalesced into a 90-minute performance piece titled, “ My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother.” The show has drawn appreciative audiences across the state and beyond, with an upcoming performance slated for Nov. 30 in Portland.
“I have been writing about my mother for years,” she said, adding that the process of writing and reflecting over time helped her develop “deeper truths” about the relationship. Now, she’s thinking that her insight and experience may help family caregivers meet the challenges of caring for aging loved ones.
The legacy of a life story
Memoir can take the shape of short, standalone compositions, collections of linked essays or long, multichapter volumes.
“To me, the best memoirs are personal stories that exist in a much larger context,” author and playwright Monica Wood said. Wood, 62, now lives in Portland but grew up in the western Maine mill town of Mexico. Wood, who has written numerous novels, is also author of the play “Papermaker” and a memoir, “When We Were the Kennedys.”
She also teaches writing, including memoir.
“I tell my memoir students, ‘Nobody wants to read your personal drama,’” she said. “They want to read a story that resonates for them. That calls for bringing in lots of context. I ask them, ‘What’s going on in the world beside your small tragedy?’”
In 2012, Wood took a break from writing the fiction she’s best known for and published her memoir, “When We Were the Kennedys.” It started as a short essay about the day in 1963 that her father died. But in revision, it grew to encompass the broader social landscape of the assassination that same year of President John Kennedy, against the backdrop of a major labor strike at the local paper mill that was the economic lifeblood of her community.
While it still examines a pivotal moment in Wood’s life, the broad lens of the story strikes a chord with many readers. At book signings, readings and other promotional events, Wood said, “people came up to me all the time, even if they really had nothing in common with me, and told me how much they identified with the story.”
Some had grown up in a factory town. Others had lost a parent or been raised Catholic or had a special needs sibling.
“They would find some door to open into the book,” Wood said.
A love of storytelling led retired game warden and memoirist John Ford, Sr., 69, of Brooks to a late-life career as a writer. “My stepfather is the one who told me to keep a diary of all the stories that made the job worth doing,” he said. “He said, ‘It’s all going to go by so quickly you won’t even realize it until it’s gone.’”
Those diaries have proven a rich vein of story and insight, serving as the inspiration for Ford’s three published books of short essays: “Suddenly, the Cider Didn’t Taste So Good,” “This Cider Still Tastes Funny: Further Adventures of a Game Warden in Maine” and “Deer Diaries.” As the titles suggest, most of Ford’s stories are lightly humorous, but a few, including reflections on his experiences as a cancer survivor, strike a more serious note.
Lately, Ford has been on a statewide speaking tour with his longtime friend and law enforcement colleague, state Trooper Mark Nickerson of Unity, who in 2013 published his own volume of stories, “Blue Lights in the Night: Real Life Stories of a Maine State Trooper.”
Their “Two Old Cops” schtick draws a lively crowd to large and small venues, Ford said.
“I was a kid who couldn’t get up in front of a class to give a book report,” he said. “But when you’re talking about a topic you and know and love, it actually comes pretty easy.”
Connection, reflection and legacy
While published memoirists such as Wood, Ford and Nickerson are connecting with readers through their work, the writers in Elizabeth Peavey’s online memoir writing class have other goals.
Jackie Lowe, 70, moved from New Jersey to rural Washington County five years ago, along with her teenage granddaughter. She took an in-person memoir class through Sunrise Senior College with Peavey, who made the weekly drive to Lubec and got her started writing about the experience of raising her granddaughter.
“Then I started thinking about other things in my life, and since then I have written many personal essays. I want to keep learning and writing. I may share some of it with my family, but it’s mostly just for myself,” she said.
Joan Miller, 79 of Marshfield wants to write several personal essays, primarily as family keepsakes. Being in the class helps her sit down at her desk on a regular basis and hone her skills as a writer.
“I want to share my life experiences with my family,” Miller said. “I want to write stories that say ‘Enjoy!’ or ‘Take heed!’ or ‘Well, wasn’t she something?’”
For the recent assignment, Miller wrote about big-game hunting in Alaska when she was a young woman.
“I wrote about one episode when I stayed in camp to nap while all the others went out hunting,” she said. “While I was sleeping, a big deer walked right past my tent — we could see its footprints. I got a lot of razzing when the guys came back.”