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“Writing Life Stories” – a guide to writing memoir

“Writing Life Stories – how to make memories into memoirs, ideas into essays and life into literature” by Bill Roorbach & Kristen Keckler, Ph.D.

F+W Publications, 2008

A book review by Dr. Sangeeta Mahajan

Bill Roorbach is a professor at the University of Maine and lives in Farmington, Maine, USA. He is also a construction worker. A member of a Rock band, a dedicated family man, and an accomplished gardener. On top of that, he had written many award-winning books of fiction and non-fiction. ‘The Smallest Color’ and ‘Big Bend’ to name a couple.

I was 48 when I was kicked into the world of writing by a potentially unsurvivable event. Writing became an uncomplaining friend, a punching bag, and a hook to hang my days on. It happened all by itself, like breathing. I didn’t care about the punctuation or the grammar. It was a crutch I desperately needed and I wasn’t going to create a fuss.

For a thousand days I wrote every day. Over that time, I partially unearthed myself and fell in love with the process of releasing words onto paper. But now, I cared about everything – the form, the craft, the grammar, every hyphen, dot and cross. I went as far as dreaming up a book. About my life and learning. Yes. Even though it felt arrogant and self-indulgent, I had something to say and I wanted to say it artfully.To transform that dream into a project, I needed help. Sharing events and stories from one’s life can be a lonesome pursuit. To me, it felt like I bumped my head on a low ceiling, each time I attempted to stand up and speak. I enrolled in an online course called Writing Lives with Oxford University (https://www.conted.ox.ac.uk/). They recommended Roorbach as essential reading. I started reading it, expecting it to be a serious instructional textbook but soon I was hooked as I was having so much fun. His friendly and conversational style made me feel less alone in my pursuit. I learnt to look at things from jaunty angles. I also un-learnt some bad old habits.

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This book lays out a series of exercises, from ‘Getting started’ to ‘Getting Published’. The chapters are well designed and sequenced. They helped me tease out gold and silver threads from a mass of jumbled wool, that is the past. Though, the word ‘exercise’ sounds officious, many of them are not so. The text is vitaminised by a range of useful examples that give it a playful texture. This book feels like a long spacious sunlit corridor with a row of large rectangular windows. It has a definite start and finish. Yet, the reader is free to turn in any direction at any time, any number of times. The light does not dim.

Churlish as it sounds, he reminds us to ‘Relax’ as we write. He asks us to draw a map of a remembered neighbourhood. He sends us on tasks like a ‘vagueness patrol’ and a ‘library excursion’. He tells us to tap our feet to the beat of repetition. To record a monologue and listening out for a small talk. To interview a stranger. To get pissed on paper and tell the goddamn truth for once. Roorbach’s enthusiasm is catching and inspiring. There are umpteen ‘laugh out loud’ moments in his writing. Like riding a bicycle, working through this book is experiential. Hard to explain.

The last 50 pages (one-sixth) of the book contain 2 short stories and an essay written by the author and co-author. While I enjoyed reading them, I felt they did not belong in this book or in this context.

‘Write something good’, he says. “Take as long as you like. 10 years. Or 20.” His positivity was interspersed with nice big doses of realism and shrewd common sense. It kept my feet firmly planted on Terra firma. While he created fabulous imagery through his words, the child in me felt that including some pictures or illustrations would have given the book another dimension. Establishing parallels and contrasts between writing and other forms of expression would widen the remit and impact of the book. They would also aid the principles of motion, clarity, rhythm, density and precision that he emphasises throughout. 

Finally, this book has earned the status of my ‘go to’ when I am stuck. If you aspire to be a method writer of stories from your life and have fun while doing so, this one is for you. Incidentally, I haven’t bumped my head on that ceiling for a while.

Dr. Sangeeta Mahajan

About Dr. Sangeeta Mahajan

Sangeeta Mahajan is an anaesthetist, a mental health activist and educator as well as a writer. She lives in London with her husband, Simon and their cat, Milkshake. Her main area of interest is the well-being of youth all over the world. Through writing and public-speaking, she endeavours to engage with as many people as she can so that together we can offer support and understanding to young people through raising awareness and breaking stigma surrounding mental ill-health.

She has been an avid blogger for the past 5 years and has participated in the Blogging Workshop at the Himalayan Writing Retreat. Her blog posts are a series of life writing of all shades, flavours and colours. They include poems, short-stories and personal reflections. She is working on her first book.

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2 Responses

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