Building Community through Personal Stories
This past fall, six individuals from four different CommonBond housing communities took part in a writing class called Diving In: Writing Life Stories led by teaching artist Rachel Moritz as part of our Arts and Aging programs. For eight weeks, participants attended class via Zoom, learning the craft of memoir and sharing and giving feedback on each other’s work through discussion.
Each week, Rachel focused on a craft idea so that participants could practice a specific technique, and participants had the opportunity to share work and write together. The first three weeks were focused on exploring the art of memoir, looking at the well of memory, and examining the various elements that can spark memory. Participants completed exercises such as writing about an object they brought to class, sketching a childhood home and taking notes about it, and exploring specific scents that trigger certain memories.
Then in the remaining weeks, participants moved on to some fundamental craft techniques such as writing from the senses, capturing dialogue, and writing scenes. The goal was for each participant to get to the end of class with at least one finished piece. This piece was then shared at a reading and celebration at the end of the class.
At the heart of memoir lies an extremely personal exploration of one’s life. Since part of the class required that participants share their work, and therefore personal stories, with one another, there were initially some nerves around the vulnerability of opening up in this way. However, participants warmed up to sharing with one another quickly. Rachel said, “It was a really supportive community…there were a lot of commonalities that started to emerge when people would talk about their lives.” Rachel explained that memoir tends to naturally build community because we all have stories to share. “Memoir has a unique mix of creativity and therapy. You feel inspired, and you feel like you understand who you are on a deeper level.”
Jackie, a resident at East Shore Place who has enjoyed participating in Arts and Aging classes ever since classes began to be offered widely to sites through Zoom, found great value in sharing and hearing other’s work. “It came pretty easily [to share work.] All it took was one time around, and it was pretty clear that we were a diverse group of people with diverse experiences and diverse writing backgrounds, and yet there was respect for everybody and interest for everybody,” she shared. “It’s like you can hear life’s maturity in everyone’s writing. As people talk, you can hear that they’ve lived and they’ve learned, and that’s how they tell their stories.”
Not only were participants able to grow in community with one another, but they were able to see growth in their work and writing from week to week. Rachel said that all class members had a natural ability to write and tell a story. The main goal of the class was to examine the tools they had as writers, similar to thinking about how a painter uses a paintbrush. “You can break [writing] down to some simple steps that make you feel so much more confident in your words,” Rachel said. By the end of the class, participants were able to have that confidence to continue their work and broaden their writing life.
This is especially true for Rosemary, a resident at Oak Ridge Manor who has participated in numerous Arts and Aging classes throughout the years. She came into this class with a memoir that she had started and said, “I knew there was more to say, but I just didn’t know how to bring it out and how to begin it.” The class helped kick-start her journey with memoir and got her writing again. She learned, “There are so many ways that you can close doors on yourself when you’re writing, whereas you should just walk through all those doors. Whatever the door is, if it’s emotion, you walk through that door, whether it’s adventure, you walk through that door. Open the doors, open the windows.” Rosemary also expressed that Rachel helped participants a lot along the way. “She’s such a gentle teacher. She pushed you, with velvet gloves,” Rosemary said.
Jackie also expressed gratitude for Rachel’s expertise and teaching, sharing that it was a very healing and positive experience to take the class. A major takeaway for her was the reminder that “we as human beings probably have a lot more in common than we have differences. When you hear people’s stories and how it impacted them, it gives you a chance to see, ‘Oh, yeah, I would feel that way.’ It’s the human experience.”
This ability to explore the human experience and share stories with one another was also a great way to counter some of the isolation that the pandemic has brought. Rachel explained, “It’s fantastic to have creative classes accessible to people. We all need creativity in all stages of our lives.” Even though in-person classes bring a certain level of intimacy and closeness to the group, Rachel and participants did not feel that anything was lost by the virtual platform of the class. In fact, Rachel explained, the fact that participants could log in from their living rooms meant greater accessibility to a lot of folks.
Jackie expressed that the opportunity to take this class, and other Arts and Aging classes, is incredibly meaningful as it allows those who might not otherwise be able to take free and high quality art classes the opportunity to do so. When speaking to what it means to have classes like this provided, Jackie said, “The ease of it, to be in my apartment and able to do it, and the fact that it would be arranged, and that they went through the trouble to get someone highly qualified [to teach]— that was amazing.” Rosemary agreed. “I didn’t want it to end.” She said, “I told everyone I want an autographed copy of their work. I was really impressed with their writing, their adventures, and their lives.” In fact, Rachel said that participants planned to continue meeting in some way after the class ended to keep the community going.
Overall, it’s clear that although all Arts and Aging classes provide opportunity to build community with the other participants and grow in creativity, writing memoir offers the unique experience to build community through hearing each other’s stories and histories.
At CommonBond, we build stable homes and vibrant communities. Arts and Aging classes are a huge part of fostering that vibrant community. Rachel said, “A vibrant community includes creativity. We all have futures and pasts; the past is a part of who we are and a part of our future.” When diving into our stories, we grow closer to ourselves and closer to others.
You can read work from the participants of Diving in: Writing Life Stories in this e-book!
And check out the Arts and Aging page to learn and see more from recent classes!
Sincere thank you to Rachel Moritz for teaching the class and providing a nurturing and safe place for the writers to explore their stories and further their writing skills.
Rachel primarily writes poetry but is also an essay writer and is currently working on a memoir project. Rachel has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Minnesota. She has published poetry books, Sweet Velocity and Borrowed Wave, and five poetry chapbooks. She is also the co-editor of a collection of personal essays, My Caesarean: Twenty-One Mothers on the C-Section Experience and After, which was a 2019 Foreword Indies Silver Award Winner. In addition to having work appear in numerous journals, Rachel received a Best American Essay Notable mention and Artist Initiative Grants in poetry and prose from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Learn more and check out her work at https://www.rachelmoritz.com.