LEIGHT JOHNSON appeared in my memoirs writing group for the JHU Evergreen Society (now named Osher at JHU) in 1995. I’d started the group a couple of years before. Kathy Porsella, creator of this life-long learning society for Hopkins, was director then. I taught the memoirs class for ten years until it got impossibly large–25 writers and growing! When I sadly bowed out under the weight of too many fascinating people all at one table, happily, Leight was there to continue it, later with help from members Jerry Mandelberg and Al Buls.
Leight and I have been friends now for more than 20 years. This morning as he and I met over a cup of coffee at Cross Keys he mentioned an early essay he’d written about participating in those classes. (Normally, when he mentions my class he makes a point of saying how I would write WONDERFUL! across the tops of his essays, but there’d be lots of “cross hatchings” below. BTW: I still do not find these things inconsistent.) …Anyway, when he went on to talk about his reasons for taking the class, the people he’d met in the class, and what he got out of writing about his life experiences, I asked if he’d resend me his essay. He did. I think it touches on a number of important themes in life and in writing, and we offer it below. ~m
Thanks to Seattle graphic designer Lillian Ripley, LillianRipley.com, for adding the signage to Canterbury Cathedral and to my dear friend Kathy Ferguson, author of Emma Goldman: Political Thinking in the Streets, for describing her visit to the site last fall.
I sit in a circle of strangers, on the first day of class, wondering what the hell I’m doing here. All these people around me look like they have something serious to say to the world. I doubt that I do.
After a few words of introduction, Margaret, our teacher, says, “Let’s go around the table and let everyone tell us why you’re here.”
“…to write about my childhood while I’m still here to do it.”
“…to leave something for my grandchildren to remember me by.”
“…to get these things down on paper.”
“…to record a way of life that’s gone forever.”
It’s getting near my turn, and I’d better come up with something. Why am I here, anyway? This class looked like more fun than Welsh Mythology or Comparative Religion, but that’s only part of it. In truth, I have always enjoyed writing – business letters, personal notes, even technical specifications. Maybe there’s a book in me, buried somewhere deep.
“And what about you, Leight?”
“I want to learn to write like E. B. White.” Margaret shoots me a glance that says, “Yeah, right,” but moves on to the next person.
Next, she delivers her lecture on the elements of an essay – Voice, Structure, Development, Clarity and so on – and I make notes like crazy. Will I ever be able to keep all these things in mind?
The first assignment is to write about where you grew up. Piece of cake – I can picture the house just as it was sixty years ago, and the things I did then. But how can this be interesting to anyone else?
The first round of stories by my classmates makes me wonder again if I have any business here. Ursula has written movingly about her childhood in Nazi Germany. Denise tells of growing up in Quebec, speaking only French for her first ten years. Warren writes about Hebrew School and his Bar Mitzvah. To my mind, pretty exotic stuff.
And then there’s Jane, who describes her childhood in China where her mother and aunts had their feet bound to keep them tiny, and how she accompanied her father, a judge, when he visited men he had sentenced to prison, taking them food. Her special version of English, enhanced here and there with a hand-drawn Chinese character, has a unique charm, and we are all reluctant to suggest changes to it.
As the weeks pass, I see progress in the writing as we learn to tighten up, to eliminate the qualifiers (“somewhat, sort of, very”), to paint vivid word pictures of places, to stick to the topic, include pertinent facts and omit irrelevant ones. We learn to rearrange paragraphs (thank God for word processors) in the interest of emphasis and clarity, and to reach insights that make a story worth telling.
And most of all, we learn to reveal ourselves. The group of strangers has become a gathering of friends. We have heard the ups and downs of one another’s lives. Warren was twice expelled from school, but earned his degree after five years in four different colleges. One woman left an abusive husband and moved on to a successful career in medical research; another’s father abandoned his family before she was born, but she grew up happily in an extended family household.
I have no dark past to expose, but I find that digging around in memory brings up situations that my grandchildren may some day find interesting. Without these memoirs, they would probably never know of my grandmother’s venture as a tea-leaf-reading fortune teller, of my father’s diary description of Armistice Day in 1918, or about the evolving relationship between my parents during their long marriage. They would know nothing of my nearly being shipwrecked on an ocean sailing cruise, or of my impromptu role as conductor of a funeral service.
So, in spite of my initial trepidation, I decide that this has been a useful exercise after all. Writing my stories has been immensely satisfying. I haven’t made it to E.B. White’s level, but I’ve gained the confidence to keep trying.
March 2016: Leight continues to write about his life experiences and to participate in the Osher memoirs group. He was co-editor of the JHU “Evergreen Journal” for several years and is now editor/photographer of the newsletter for the Glen Meadows Retirement Community. Leight was a reader at our August Moon 2012 Deepdene Writers “farm party.”