By Justine Powell Kuntz
Eight years ago as a retirement project for church, I introduced memoir writing at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton, FL. Earlier, after twenty-two years of teaching English, I chose to flee the regimen of teaching and accepted a position in the business world. The new position required learning more about computers than what I had used in the classroom but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise when I fully retired nine years later. While in business, I had missed teaching, so developing a curriculum for memoir writing made me feel at home once again and helped ease me into retirement and doing what I loved most—teaching.
The first Monday of retirement, I meditated on guidance of what to do now that I had nowhere to go on Monday mornings. Picking up my opened Bible to turn to the daily reading, my eyes fell upon Psalm 78:2-8 and there was my answer.
“What we have heard and known for ourselves,
And what our ancestors have told us,
Must not be withheld from their descendants,
But be handed on by us to the next generation.”
—Psalm 78:2-8, Jerusalem Bible translation
That’s it, I thought. Why not develop a memoir writing class at church? There are lots of stories and “be-gats” in the Bible. While developing the curriculum, I decided to re-visit some of my earlier writing with memoir writing in mind to identify firsthand what pitfalls teaching memoir writing could present. Besides, I had journals from difficult years, and they might be useful in providing details to “beef-up” the stories.
Not wanting to reinvent the wheel by creating my own syllabus, I Googled “Memoirs” in search of a manual or textbook for students, as well as for me. The first book to pop up was Denis Ledoux’s Turning Memories into Memoirs. It was a winner. The classes were so delightful I wanted to attend Denis’ five-day summer workshop in Maine but it didn’t happen. Meanwhile, I continued writing my own memoirs and taught two 8-week writing sessions each year until finally in 2007 my husband and I flew to Maine for Denis Ledoux’s workshop. In addition, I had gained interest in genealogy through a cousin’s tutelage in the summer months when I trekked back to family reunions in Western and Central Pennsylvania. She researched family genealogy, and I wrote stories.
At my sister’s death, I inherited two boxes of unfamiliar family photos. Some had names and dates going back to the 1890s. By then I had written a number of stories from Mother’s childhood and discovered that some of the pictures nicely dovetailed into her stories. Those stories spilled into my own childhood stories, and eventually made me aware of how different my childhood was in comparison to my grandchildren’s.
My persistent goal of going to college against objections from Dad and my only sibling, a sister twelve years older, grew into themes of perseverance and sibling rivalry. Those mega-themes of conflict and conquest continued into stories of romance, goal setting, accomplishments and careers, and I began thinking about a publishable work that included social history smatterings of growing up in a small town during and after World War II in a coal mining and steel making area thirty miles north of Pittsburgh. And thus a memoir of my early life in the Zelienople and Harmony area took flight.
Early in 2012, a ghostwriter showed up in class, wanting to learn more about memoir writing. He encouraged me to self-publish and that’s how If She Was a Boy…! became a book now offered on Amazon.com. The journey also includes an unexpected visit to Wales, where I found enough about my paternal roots to help understand Dad’s mindset and demeanor and convinced me to include that side of my family tree.
Writing my story was a wonderful way to ease into retirement, and sharing this project on Amazon.com has been an incredible gift. I couldn’t have devised such a plan myself. It all just happened. The nudge from Psalm 78: 2-8, set my book in motion, thrusting me into yet another career. But that’s another story, God willing.
—Justine Powell Kuntz, Boca Raton, FL
Soleil Lifestory Network Memoir Professional