Women are born storytellers. Like all good stories, the tales they tell about their lives exhibit a vast complexity of plots and subplots, rich ironies and subtle ambiguities, stunning setbacks and happy endings. When these stories are shared, they promote the most satisfying of human experiences: recognition, connection, understanding. In true story sharing, teller and hearer meet at the intersection of their experience, and both are enriched. And like any valuable legacy, women's stories are handed down through their families' generations, enriching the future with an understanding of the past.
This collection of women's stories comes from a fortunate coincidence of purpose and opportunity that grew into the Older Women's Legacy Circle (OWL Circle) Project. Beginning in 1998, the OWL Circle Project created and conducted forty-eight free guided memoir-writing workshops for women over sixty, held mostly in and around Austin, Texas. By its conclusion in late 2000, the grant-funded phase of the project had supported the writing of some four thousand short memoirs by almost five hundred writers—a substantial collection of memories and stories.
Women's story sharing is an activity that is not always valued in our culture. In fact, it is often considered, as the literary scholar Linda Wagner-Martin points out, as merely gossip. Contrasting men's and women's storytelling, she adds, "When men talk together, even though they discuss golf scores, the conversation is business. When women talk together, they are criticized and patronized, as are their narratives" (Wagner-Martin 1994).
It was a group of women talking together who conceived and developed the OWL Circle. Early in 1998, board members of the Story Circle Network (SCN) were making plans for the coming year. SCN, a Texas-based nonprofit organization devoted to encouraging women to write about their lives, had been established not long before. To encourage women's personal storytelling, the organization published the quarterly Story Circle Journal, maintained a web site, supported two chapters and a number of circles around the United States, sponsored workshops and special events, and had already begun thinking about its first national conference. The board was also exploring other possible ways of fulfilling its missions: working with girls in schools, with incarcerated women, with breast cancer survivors, with older women.
It was in the context of discussions about the need to preserve older women's life stories that the OWL Circle Project began. Board member Mary Jane Marks, who was active in various senior organizations in the Austin area, thought that those organizations would enthusiastically support a women's life-writing program, especially if the cost to the participants was low. Another board member, Sister Hannah O'Donoghue, suggested that SCN might apply for funding to her order, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, so that the workshops could be offered without charge. Within a few weeks, the grant proposal had been written. It was funded a few months later, and the project began.
At the time, a few guided autobiography programs for seniors were being conducted around the country (Birren and Deutchman 1991), but none involved only older women—and the women planning this project insisted that it be a "women only" activity. For one thing, their own experience and observation led them to believe that many women have learned to inhibit their storytelling in the presence of men, perhaps for fear of revealing too much, perhaps because they sense that men view women's stories as valueless. On the other hand, they also knew from experience that women share even intimate details about their lives more readily with other women. The planners also believed that men's stories and women's stories are fundamentally different. Women's stories often lack the cohesive, forward-moving narrative line that characterizes the stories of men: the "and then . . . and then . . . and finally . . ." that pulls the story forward along its linear plot, from one adventure to the next. A woman storyteller tends to circle around her subject, to hover. She is often captured by a detail, an emotion, a moment. Her stories are more associative than linear, more character focused and less plot driven.
The author and scholar Shari Benstock (1991) has described the stories of women's lives as a metaphorical fishnet: all strings and empty space, the told and the untold, coexistent. It is like a skein of yarn: tangled, knotted, frayed, but still useful, its creative potential still intact. Mary Catherine Bateson (1990) describes women's lives and their life stories as an improvisational art, discontinuous and interrupted; like braided laces, the strands of new stories are continually interwoven with threads of the old.
The OWL Circle planning group thought of women's life stories as a quilt, pieced out of fragments of lived experience—some vividly recalled, others faded—cut into meaningful shapes, and assembled, with a unique and creative vision, into new designs rich with a lifetime's memory and meaning. As they come together to quilt, women have traditionally joined companionship with creation, not just of something beautiful, but of something valuable and valued for its handcraftedness, something useful to be handed down to children, to grandchildren, through the passing generations. Quilts testify to the experience of individual women, situated as they are in a particular time and place and made for a specific purpose, and yet they testify to the experience of all women. Quilts are something women understand. The writers who participated in the OWL Circle Project could see that their stories were like quilts. And they very much liked the idea of sharing their stories, just as they remembered their mothers and aunts and grandmothers sitting down to quilt together.
From the outset, the OWL Circle planners recognized that they would be working with a generation of women trained to reticence, women who had been taught not to make too much of themselves, to think of their experiences as of little value. They knew that they would have to find a way to encourage participants to write. "Many women I know have kept journals," Mary Jane Marks says, "but when the suggestion is made to share or publish, they deny their own right to do so. I believed that this project could help release some of those stories. Just the experience of having someone listen and care means a great deal." Faye Kelly, a retired professor whose stories appear in Chapters Three and Eight, observed women's reluctance to write about their lives—in part, she thought, because they had learned their cultural lesson well: women's lives just aren't worth writing about.
I was really surprised how women of my generation have said, "Well, I haven't done anything in my life to write about." And I've tried to convince them that their children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren would be very happy to have any information. After all, our generation has experienced as much change and as much chaos as any other one in our history. We all had to go through the Depression. We all had to go through World War II, and through the Korean War. And then our sons had to go to Vietnam. Just purely the act of living has changed so much in my lifetime that my grandchildren can't even conceive of some of the things that we did not have. Indoor plumbing, to begin with. And when we first got electricity it was one light bulb on a long string hanging down in the middle of the room, and we were thrilled to have it. I remember getting a telephone. We had only one in the house—that was it.
But to get it out of them and get them to put it down on paper—after all, writing is hard work. It's a very rewarding activity, but it's still hard work.
Before members of the planning group developed the workshops themselves, they articulated an ethic that would consciously honor the dignity and worth of each participant and create a climate of caring and respect through nonjudgmental listening, uncritical acceptance, and complete confidentiality. No woman would have to worry about what people might think, they decided, or fear that someone would carry tales outside the group. Each woman could say no at any time: participation in all writing and speaking activities during the workshops would be voluntary. And in order to give the women the freedom to look deep within themselves, no men would be allowed—particularly husbands (with one exception: at the Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center in Austin, OWL Circle women voted unanimously to allow a longtime, trusted male friend to join their group).
The planning group turned next to the practical tasks of designing the basic structure and administrative procedures for the workshops. Over the next several months, they created workbooks for participants and support material for facilitators, scheduled workshop sites, selected and trained workshop facilitators, and developed ways to advertise the project and recruit participants.
Initially, the memoir groups (usually eight to ten participants) met four times, weekly, biweekly, or (in one case) monthly. Each meeting was two and a half hours long, with a break in the middle. The workshop facilitator began by introducing the two workbook topics and writing exercises for that session, one before the break and one after. Participants wrote for twenty to thirty minutes on each topic, then were given the opportunity to read their stories aloud to the group. Many began by struggling to produce only a few awkward sentences. But as they became more comfortable and more deeply engaged with their memories, their writing facility increased and they wrote at great length and with greater ease and enthusiasm, often surprising themselves with the quantity and quality of their work. Reading aloud proved to be a more difficult challenge, but it, too, became easier and more rewarding as the work was met with acceptance and (often) applause. Before closing the meeting, the facilitator directed the women's attention to the additional writing topics in the workbook and encouraged them to write between sessions. Some of the longer stories in this collection were composed in this way.
To affirm the value of the women's memoirs and give them permanency, stories from each of the workshops were collected and compiled into a booklet, five copies of which were distributed free to each participant in that workshop. This publication was an important and popular feature of the project, for it gave every woman the opportunity to see some of her writing in print. "Most of the participants had the feeling that their stories weren't 'good enough' to be published," says Project Director Catherine Cogburn. "So the booklets played a critical role, boosting their self-confidence and assuring them that their writing, and their experience, was important and valuable. They were delighted when they got their copies of the booklets and immediately shared them with friends and family."
Another valuable feature of the project was the OWL Circle Workbook, inserted into a three-ring binder, which was created by a team of experienced teachers, psychotherapists, and curriculum development experts. Cogburn remarked on its importance: "Since each participant received her own workbook, she could look ahead and think about the topics for the next session—an important incentive for attendance. She could also insert her own work into the binder, personalizing it. Many women commented that the workbook made writing easy and fun."
Supplied without charge to each participant, the workbook provided the framework, rationale, and writing topics for each workshop session, as well as between-session writing topics, graphic organizers with exercises to help writers structure their recollections, and suggestions for sharing stories. All of the topics and exercises were designed to encourage women to write about themselves, not about other people. There was no particular focus on writing technique.
The first draft of the workbook was tested during a preliminary round of thirteen workshops held between January and May 1999. It was evaluated by participants and facilitators, revised, and retested in subsequent workshops. Because participants and facilitators wanted more time for writing and sharing, the number of workshop sessions was increased from four to five. Participants disliked two of the topics, or found them irrelevant, so these were eliminated and new topics suggested by participants were added, as well as new memory prompts and organizers. The revised workbook also contained a new bibliography on women's life writing and the "OWL Circle Agreement," the guide to workshop conduct. The Facilitators' Manual, which was designed to enable even an untrained leader to successfully conduct the workshops, was also revised to provide additional suggestions for workshop management.
Facilitators came mostly from the membership of the Story Circle Network and received payment for their work. They made an invaluable contribution to the process. "They encouraged participants to look deeply into their experience, to write without fear, and to share without embarrassment," Cogburn said. "Their commitment was a vital key to the success of these groups." Mary Jane Marks, who initially helped to select and train the facilitators, urged them not to instruct the writers, but to encourage and empower them. "The important thing was to facilitate the group's work," Marks said, "not to teach those whose experience was the teacher."
Although the workbook provided a basic structure, facilitators and participants together often modified activities to fit the unique combination of personalities and temperaments within a given OWL Circle group. Groups decided to alter, shorten, lengthen, or skip topics. Some groups suggested topics in response to ongoing events in the lives of workshop participants. Nearly all the participants could write without physical assistance, but a small number of women required assistance or extra writing time to accommodate conditions of aging such as impaired vision and hearing or arthritis, and the session structure was altered when necessary to meet their needs.
Within the workshops, reading aloud was considered an integral part of the writing process. These readings often struck an echoing chord in the hearts and minds of the other participants, evoking deeply felt memories, both happy and painful. One facilitator, Linda Watkins, explained how the hearers often "found themselves" in another woman's story:
Part of the time, the women felt that this really was not fun. And that's true. It was hard work, emotionally, to deal with some of these issues, but important. And I would keep saying, "This is not fun, this is important. This is an opportunity to understand better the meaning and purpose and direction of your life." Of course, the act of writing is wonderful—just to begin to search your past and put that down on paper in a meaningful way. But add to that the experience of reading it aloud. That gets you at a cellular level in a way that just the writing doesn't. When you hear yourself speak the words, they become part of an internal reality. And then to have a setting in which you share that with others and listen to their stories is enormously engaging and rewarding. Women find themselves in the other person's story. Too often we feel isolated and alone. "I'm the only one who's experienced this," and "Nobody understands." But when women come together and share their experiences in a safe, loving, warm environment, it's an absolutely life-changing endeavor.
The workshops took place at a variety of locations, most of them arranged through the Austin senior organizations. Some groups met in the living rooms of facilitators or participants. Others met in municipal senior activity centers, in churches and synagogues, and in public and private retirement residences. A division of one of Austin's largest healthcare organizations, the Seton Good Health School, hosted workshops at several of its facilities. Cathy Butler, the school's director, remarked that the workshops were a good fit with Seton's holistic approach to wellness:
The OWL-Circle memoir workshops were in perfect alignment with what we do in the Good Health School, and totally congruent with what I already knew about body, mind, and spirit integration. I liked the idea of storytelling, and we were starting to do a lot of work to encourage people with journaling, understanding that self-revelation can resolve issues and help people make sense of what's happened in their lives.
Self-revelation through personal writing can indeed play an important role in an individual's psychological and physical health, according to the psychologist James Pennebaker (1997), who has been evaluating the impact of personal writing on the health and well-being of college students for over twenty years. Pennebaker's respected and groundbreaking research suggests that suppressing a difficult experience is likely to make us ill, while writing about it enhances healing. And when the writing becomes a regular feature of our day or week, the benefits seem to accelerate. "Writing," he says, "can be an avenue to that interior place where . . . we can confront traumas and put them to rest."
According to Louise DeSalvo (1999), writing can be a kind of "symbolic repair," a way to put traumatic events and feelings into perspective. As we write about experience, we reenter it, gaining a helpful understanding and clarity, and can then release it and go on to something else. In what DeSalvo calls "healing narrative," we learn how to observe ourselves, how to recognize productive and nonproductive behaviors, how to reframe experience and understand it. In writing, we give coherence to the often disordered fragments of memory; through writing, we become absorbed in the activity of creation. And when we share our written narratives with caring, nonjudgmental listeners, the healing powers of writing are intensified. "How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives" is the subtitle of DeSalvo's book, and it was an underlying theme of the OWL Circle memoir workshops.
Older women, especially, may benefit from the process of writing down important personal experiences and sharing them with empathetic listeners. Older men's stories are often validated by family, community, and culture—witness the proliferation of personal stories about the wars of this century that have been collected, published, and aired on television in recent years. But such opportunities are rare for older women, whose lives have been largely focused on home and family. As they write and talk about their experiences within an environment of support and recognition, they may be able to more fully acknowledge their own personal worth and the importance of their contributions to family and community—acknowledgments that may help to combat the depression that so frequently afflicts older women.
Writing about their lives gives women an authority of voice that comes from self-knowledge: "We're heard when we speak out of our understanding of our own experience," according to the autobiographer Jill Ker Conway (1998). The author bell hooks tells us that women's autobiographical writing both releases us from our past and reunites us with it. "The act of writing one's autobiography is a way to find again that aspect of self and experience that may no longer be an actual part of one's life but is a living memory shaping and informing the present," (hooks 1999). For many women today, the ongoing re-creation of self is both a requirement and a reward of aging. Carolyn Heilbrun writes, "For women who have awakened to new possibilities in middle age, or who were born into the current women's movement and have escaped the usual rhythms of the once traditional female existence, the last third of life is likely to require new attitudes and new courage" (Heilbrun 1988). As a creative practice, life writing can play a vital role in sustaining a woman's healthy maturity.
Although the facilitators and participants felt that the memoir workshops were unequivocally successful, the OWL Circle Project organizers were disappointed in at least one aspect of their work. Despite a serious commitment of will and effort, only one workshop included a substantial number of women from nonwhite and less affluent populations. Allison Downey facilitated that workshop, held at Austin's Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center. As a University of Texas graduate student, Downey had staged a performance based on the life stories of people she met at Conley-Guerrero. Through that work, she had established a rapport that enabled her to propose an OWL Circle workshop to the center, and she had developed the intercultural skills needed to make the workshop rewarding for them. Downey's comments here reflect both the challenges and rewards that might have been met in a more demographically diverse life-writing project:
I would say that anybody working to promote a true representation of the population should either be from the population or should have a very strong connection with it. It's fascinating for me to see what their struggles were. But if they don't want to share, then it's manipulative of me to try to get them to do it. I had to prove I had a reason for being there and wasn't interested just in getting what I needed and leaving. [It worked] because I already had a relationship with them. I had worked with them. They trusted me. They're my friends. Otherwise I would have just been the white lady coming in trying to steal people's stories.
By fall of 2000, the two-year grant-funded phase of the OWL Circle Project was over. "Final? How sad, that word," wrote one participant on her evaluation questionnaire. For the Story Circle Network, however, the project was not over; it moved into a second phase as the Network began to offer the OWL Circle Workbook and Facilitators' Manual to women's groups around the country. [For information about the current program, see "About Story Circle Network" at the end of the book.] The project was not over, either, for many of the women who participated in the original program. Several workshop groups continued to meet for many months; others are meeting still, their members continuing to write and read and share with each other. And in yet other cases, individual women continued to write alone, finding a new and more significant purpose in setting down their memoirs. Faye Kelly writes:
[The OWL Circle Project] was the beginning for me of writing my life story. Of course, I had wonderful intentions to do it for years, and I've always been interested in language and words. But I just never got around to it. Now, I write when I feel like writing and whenever there's something that I want to put down that I remember. I have a few tricks that stimulate me to think about things, and when I do think of something, I write it down in a little notebook—in there, I also put quotes and things that I hear that will stimulate me to write later. At night when I'm not able to sleep and I think of anything that's concrete enough, I write it down on the pad I keep by the bed. If you don't put something down then, it's gone, usually, and you may not ever get it back again. I think about revisions that I can do. Usually I can revise in my mind and then when I get back to it, I can write it down quite easily. And I'm trying to get my children, and certainly my grandchildren, to ask me questions or remember for me incidents that I might not have thought of and that they'd like to hear about.
The creative act of writing about their lives in an environment that honored and authenticated their efforts inspired a real, if sometimes intangible, transformation for the women who participated in OWL Circle.
One such transformation occurred for Marj Batlan, a woman who had gathered a group of her friends to participate in the OWL Circle workshop led by Judith Helburn. Helburn herself must tell the story, because Marj Batlan died halfway through the sessions.
When I started the Older Women's Legacy Circle in February 1999, Marj Batlan came and brought with her seventeen other women. And then, very suddenly, that vivacious woman was gone.
The day of the third class was also the day of Marj's funeral, so I cancelled class. When I arrived at the synagogue, the family was in the small chapel. Mort, Marj's husband, came up to me and hugged me. He said that in the previous two weeks, he would get up about 7 A.M. and Marj would be at her desk, writing furiously. Somehow, a part of her sensed that she would soon be gone. She was lucid for about eighteen hours between her first stroke and the final massive one. She told her daughter-in-law that night that she had to tell her stories for her grandchildren. And as Marj was dying, she was writing with her fingers on the bed sheet.
You never know how much what you do affects others. I'm still awe-struck at what the family told me, how much they appreciated the OWL Circle, what a catalyst it had been for Marj. And what a privilege for me to have participated.
Marj Batlan's story may be dramatic, but it is in many ways typical of the responses of these women memoirists. Once they began to feel the power of their stories, they were possessed by a great urgency to set them down. "I want to tell it before it's all gone," one woman said. "I never thought it was important before. Now I do." Their families are grateful. "I think the children and the grandchildren can gain from the experience of the grandparents," Cathy Butler of the Seton Good Health School says, "whether they made mistakes and learned from them, or . . . were just heroic people, as many of them are."
But it is not just the families who need to hear these stories. Few historians would dispute the argument that a valid retelling of the past must include not just the institutional record but also the stories of our ancestors' everyday lives. We have chronicles of wars, explorations, governments, inventions, and religions. What we lack is a clear record of daily domestic life: the food people ate, their clothing, the details of child rearing or caring for the sick and aged. We also lack a clear record of how people felt, how they responded emotionally to the daily challenges of their ordinary lives. For the most part, these records are missing because the cultural documents were written or compiled by men, who found little of interest or enduring value in domestic or emotional life. Historically, if women had learned to write and had been encouraged to write about their daily lives, it is likely that we would have a far greater understanding of how people of former cultures lived their lives.
Something of the same thing occurred in the earlier decades of the twentieth century. The women in the OWL Circle memoir workshops witnessed a massive transformation of private life, and women's evolving role in family, community, and work was one of its most conspicuous features. The personal stories of the women who experienced these changes make a direct, unmediated, and invaluable contribution to the history of ordinary life in our time. These stories also show us how ordinary private lives were impacted by the momentous events of a century marked by the extremes of humanity's creative and destructive potential. Later generations have only begun to adequately appreciate the character of women and men born before 1930 and forced by events to accept extraordinary responsibility at a very early age. These members of the "Greatest Generation" are dying, Tom Brokaw writes in his book based on their recollections (1998). If we neglect their stories now, they will be forever lost to history.
We have presented the memoirs in the nine chapters of With Courage and Common Sense much as the women wrote them, without significant editorial intervention. We corrected mistakes in spelling and grammar, changed an occasional sentence to make its meaning clear, and applied standard conventions of punctuation and capitalization. We also excerpted a few of the lengthier memoirs.
As they explored the ten workbook topics, most women wrote from six to eight memoirs, ranging in length from fewer than one hundred to several thousand words, and averaging around 250 words. Altogether, the forty-five OWL Circle workshops and their 455 writers produced some four thousand separate memoirs, around a million words, so the process of selection for this book required several iterations. In the selection process, we worked from the stories already collected in the workshop booklets, since the writers themselves judged them to be their "best" work. The memoirs we chose represent unique events, uniquely encountered and uniquely described, and yet typical of events in many women's lives. In that sense, each of these stories stands for the experience of countless other women, whose stories have gone—and will go—untold.
When we originally proposed the outline for this collection, we expected that the chapters would correspond to the topics from the OWL Circle workshops. But a slightly different pattern emerged from the memoirs themselves. We have used that pattern, because it obviously addresses significant themes in these women's lives.
Chapter One deals with the fundamental issue of identity and the formative experiences and cultural teachings that have engendered these women's sense of who they are. The memoirs in Chapter Two offer a strong sense of rootedness in the landscapes of home. Chapter Three presents stories about women's work life and the significant changes in their workplaces during their working lives. In Chapter Four, we have collected the family stories that teach family values and recall the sturdy but sometimes disturbing intimacies of parents, brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren, and extended family. Stories of romantic love and affectionate friendship appear in Chapter Five. The memoirs in Chapter Six reveal the many kinds of personal loss that women can encounter during a lifetime that spans six to nine decades—and the resilience and strong-heartedness that allows humans to live with and even learn from loss. Chapter Seven gives us a glimpse of the abundant fullness of women's experience, as they recollect large adventures and small ones, all personally significant. The stories in Chapter Eight recall decisive and often painful episodes in twentieth-century history from the point of view of ordinary women who were drawn willy-nilly into the extraordinary events of their time. Appropriately, the last chapter deals with legacies: with those physical things, those lessons, and those dreams that we inherit, shape, and reshape according to our experience, and then pass on to those who come after us.
Readers of these memoirs should judge them on their own terms, as the chronicles of small events that have grown large in the memories of their narrators, told plainly and without contrivance, artifice, or striving for literary effect. One of the most delightful things about this collection, it seems to us, is that it captures the wonderfully authentic nuances of women's voices, spontaneous, unaffected, genuine, plain-spoken. Individually and in chorus, these women are memoirists first and writers after that, and their stories ring the truer because they have not been (as one OWL Circle participant put it tartly) "all gussied up."
As a collection, these stories offer a surprising glimpse into the astonishingly rich personal histories of the women who have told them, and who have every right to feel proud of all they have done and seen and experienced in their long lives. But instead of pride, what is most often sensed in these stories is a personal modesty that does not boast of courage in hard times, but rather shows it—courage, yes, and common sense, that most serviceable if unfashionable virtue.
"Only connect," E. M. Forster wrote. Plain-spoken, courageous, heartfelt, these tales do just that. They connect their tellers with the remembered past of a century that has already gone. And they connect us, as hearers and readers, with the tellers, with their pasts and our own, and with the recognition that, at the bottom of it all, stories really do matter.
Susan Wittig Albert, Ph.D.
Dayna Finet, Ph.D.
Excerpt Copyright © University of Texas Press.