“Quilt squares,” I like to tell my memoir students on the first night of class. “Think of your memoir as a quilt. Right now, you’re creating some quilt squares. Later, you’ll decide how you’re going to stitch them all together. But for now, write the scenes that come to you most urgently. Soon, you’ll have a whole stack of them, and you’ll start to see the pattern of the quilt.”
I have been teaching memoir writing for 11 years, most frequently at Seattle Central College, but until the pandemic, I had never taught online. A month before my first virtual class, I had not even heard of Zoom. And then, on April 14, 2020, there I was, staring at 11 students, and myself, all of us shrunk down to tiny doll-sized quilt squares on a screen. Three-dimensional human beings, miniaturized and reduced to two dimensions. But my students were so alive. So hungry for human contact, for storytelling, for any activity that somehow would make sense of their suddenly locked-down lives. Ditching lockdown via time travel to the past must have seemed like a good option.
But I didn’t want to teach. I almost didn’t. Eight days earlier, my nephew died of an overdose. He had been addicted to heroin for 10 years, but this was fentanyl. On April 14, 2020, all I wanted was for it not to be true. I also wanted the pandemic not to be true, and a month of obsessively writing down “the numbers” every day in my journal—cases, deaths; worldwide, national, local—had only made me more manic and less able to think about anything else. Except for my nephew’s death.
I didn’t want to teach, but I understood that I had to, even if it had to be on a tiny screen, or I might lose my mind.
That first night, my students saved me from myself. It was their unadorned eagerness—to learn and write and be together in this awkward new thing called a “Zoom Room”—that did it. I began to work in earnest on an essay, which was eventually called “Regeneration,” and was published later that year in About Place Journal.
My essay was inspired by the regeneration of Mount St. Helens after its 1980 eruption.
I ended it by speculating about how the world might regenerate after the pandemic. At the time I was writing, vaccinations were not even on the horizon. I imagined there might be one big breakthrough, one headline declaring it was all over. But, as with the regeneration of Mount St. Helens, there was no such moment. And there will never be one.
Karen Willie was in that first Zoom class, hosted by Seattle Central College. She had never taken a writing class in her life. She was just days into her retirement from a long and fulfilling law practice. And now she was, as she put it, “isolating at home with her family of origin,” which she meant not literally but figuratively, because she was writing about them. Willie’s childhood was difficult. But the need to write about it “had been calling for a long time. And I think COVID and isolation made the space for me.” Willie has continued to write prolifically, but she’s now savoring a few breaks for long-delayed travel.
Seattle Author Priscilla Long had “a very good writing time throughout the entire pandemic,” for which she credits the hard-earned wisdom of old age. “Old people had many more deaths and all that, and it was terrible, but at the same time we’re more resilient, we’re more experienced, we have a lot of relationships,” said Long, who is 79. Her latest book, Dancing with the Muse in Old Age (Coffeetown Press, 2022), is a testament to the joy and meaning of creative engagement in the third act of life.
This was also true for Alice Shorett (author, along with Murray Morgan, of Soul of a City: The Pike Place Public Market), who found the pandemic to be “really conducive” to writing, although her output slowed a bit in 2022, when she could travel at last and visit her grandchildren. Like Long, Shorett, who is 78, says age is a strong motivator: “You better focus, because who knows how much time is left?” She also found the quiet of 2020 and 2021 to be excellent for the reading and research that are essential to the memoir she’s writing, which includes some fraught episodes of environmental history.
“You can follow the news,” said Long, “but you cannot allow it to destroy your own creativity, your own life, because that’s what you have. That’s what your light is.”
We are all wired differently. I often felt emotionally pummeled during the pandemic, as did some of my students. Sometimes my creative light flickered. Sometimes it went dark.
“What wasn’t good was the deflation I felt about having both Trump in office, and all the crazy ridiculous frustrating politics that went on, and then the pandemic as well. And between the two of them I ran out of juice,” said Doug Ostergaard, who signed up for that Spring 2020 class, and others, because he knew the camaraderie and the deadlines would be good for his writing. “And of course, those classes helped enormously. But even with all the support, I just felt like I had a hundred-pound backpack on. Weighing me down.” What often lifted that weight, and inspired his writing, were Zoom get-togethers with his brother and sister, in which their topics ranged from remembered songs to their father’s kindness to long-lost advertising jingles.
One of the first things author and memoir teacher Theo Nestor did that spring was join an online writing group hosted by Hedgebrook, the Whidbey Island retreat center for women writers. “We did silent writing together. That really helped me a lot. There was something about it being the quarantine period of the pandemic—you just have time. Even if you’re online all the time, you still have more time than you used to because you’re not doing anything or going anywhere.”
Nestor now finds herself very busy as an editor. “So many people found the space to write in, and then after maybe six months, people really wanted editing help. They’d taken writing classes, or joined a group, and so from March 2020 on, I started getting more work. And it hasn’t let up.”
Cho Shimizu, 85, who was incarcerated with his family at the Minidoka internment camp during World War II, told his family’s story in his 2014 memoir, Cho’s Story: From the Eyes of a Nisei Son. Shimizu said that the pandemic gave him time to think and to sharpen his writing skills. It also reminded him of being incarcerated—that sense of being in a situation beyond his control—which, in his case, was useful to his writing. “Maybe because of what I’ve gone through, whenever I get into a situation I just say, well, that’s what it is. I’ve just got to live with it and go on and see if I can improve it and make it better.” He is now working on pencil sketches and written vignettes for the new Remembrance Gallery (opening in 2024) at the Washington State fairgrounds in Puyallup, which was the assembly center for Japanese families at the beginning of the war.
Shimizu was in a memoir writing class I taught virtually in 2020 and 2021 at Wesley Homes, a retirement community in Des Moines, Wash. Then-Recreation Director Kathy Burrows, who was instrumental in helping residents attend the class via Zoom, was moved by how the Wesley writers rose to the challenges of writing about their lives and sharing what they wrote with each other. “In our third act, we’re oftentimes less busy with the stuff of life—raising children, work—and we have time to reflect,” she said. “And it’s important to look back on our lives and search for the meaning.”
Many of the Wesley writers shared their stories with their adult children. “My older daughter said, Mom, I didn’t know this!” said Hisako Leatherman, 83, who is writing about her childhood in wartime Japan, adding that although COVID felt at times like a “cloud” looming over her upended life—she had just moved in to Wesley in 2020—writing helped. Leatherman has often wished she knew more about her own parents’ early lives and so it is important to her to share this story with her children.
Nina McKinney was also new to Wesley in 2020. Joining the memoir writing class was a way for her to connect with her new neighbors (when meeting in-person was almost impossible) and a way to begin something she had long wanted to do: Write about her mother’s childhood in Mexico, and her father’s on an Idaho wheat farm, and what it was like for her and her brother and sister to grow up the children of two such different worlds. “I want to do it for my nieces and nephews,” she said. She wants to write about her late husband’s life, too, for her stepchildren.
October 1, 2022, was a dazzling Saturday—no smoke, no clouds, just brightness everywhere. I was walking the leafy streets of Seattle’s Central District, from my first five-hour class on teaching English to speakers of other languages, up to Hugo House on Capitol Hill, where I was about to teach my first in-person memoir writing class in two and a half years.
I now think of it as the day I let go of the word “OVER.”
As I walked, I felt it happening. “Look at this day,” the wise-counselor part of my brain counseled. “How lucky you are, to be both a student and a teacher. How lucky you are, to be doing both of those things in-person, on this day, with other three-dimensional human beings who, like you, are fortunate enough to feel able to take these steps without inordinate danger.”
And, I now would add, with people who understood—as I finally did on that day—that the key was to get over the word “over.” There would be no moment when we could declare the pandemic “over.”
I remember that I had been concerned about Hugo House’s mask policy. I understood the need for it, but I wondered how we would relate to each other, with masks on, for three hours in the classroom. And yet the minute the class began, it became a non-issue. There were 10 of us, seated around a large table, and I was instantly captivated by the honesty and nuance with which we communicated without being able to see each other’s mouths.
I felt a hum in the room, a palpable, shared awareness that for all of us, this was an electric moment. Not because this was sure to be the most wonderful class ever, but because no one in the room had taken a writing class in-person since before the pandemic. We had all spent time in classrooms on Zoom, and we were all grateful for having had that option. And we all had in common the desire to plumb our pasts for stories and insight and wisdom.
And now we also had all been through something. All alone and all together.
This something—the pandemic, yes, but also the seismic cultural shifts triggered by the Trump years, by the murder of George Floyd, by January 6, by Ukraine, by rolling climate disasters—how would all of these somethings we had all lived through change us, as writers and as humans? How could we not now see our own memoir drafts, our own lives, differently?
The name of the seminar I taught at Hugo House that day was “More Questions Than Answers: When Memoir Writing Becomes the Story of the Search.” I had asked students to take a minute before they got to class to privately fill in this blank, “I’m here because the question that drives me crazy is_________.” When we went around the table and introduced ourselves, we shared our crazy-making questions with each other.
“How can you love someone and hate them at the same time?” asked one student.
“How do I move forward, at age 64, after all the things that have gone wrong?” asked another.
“Who would I be had I not been born into this family?”
“Why do I carry this self-doubt? Is it related to my mother’s suicide?”
“Why is my family politically divided?”
“Why did I take so much crap from the men in my life?”
As I listened, I felt a churning of urgency and strength and resolve in the room. As if the two-plus years of living with the pandemic had burned away inhibition and fear in these writers. As if they needed only to see, in-person, that other writers also felt this new sense of clarity. This need to finish work that might’ve been started during lockdown, only to get shelved when the demands of caregiving, parenting, and jobs roared back up, with the added stress of doing it all remotely, or in-person in a mask, or full PPE, or while grieving COVID losses or changes.
“Reflection and just storytelling in general, I feel, have taken on a whole new power,” said Keri Pollock, who was in that October class. Though at first she had been swamped by the pandemic challenges of working as the communications director for an aging life care practice, she gradually began to find a new kind of energy, as a writer. It was “the power of No,” of becoming very focused with her time. “The pandemic has given me an excuse to pause, and take a step back and say, what do I want to do?”
Purpose is a word you hear geriatricians, psychologists, philosophers and priests use when they talk about what older adults want and need. It is often paired with meaning. Louise Aronson’s comprehensive, passionate, highly readable book Elderhood (2019), includes this quote from the late sociologist Sharon Kaufman: “The old Americans I studied do not perceive meaning in aging itself; rather, they perceive meaning in being themselves in old age.” For many people, writing can help them find that meaning, and perhaps this was more true during the pandemic than it has ever been.
At the Gerontological Society of America’s 2022 convention there were dozens of poster presentations and seminars on the toll of pandemic loneliness among elders. But among them were some intriguing variations on that theme—a poster on how “creating a life history” significantly increased older adults’ “sense of identity and integrity;” another about how “having a high sense of purpose in life consistently predicted a lower allostatic load” (meaning less of the wear and tear on the body caused by stress), and yet another on how “life story reminiscence” not only increased a sense of well-being in people with dementia, but also led to better care, because the caregivers who helped facilitate the reminiscing got to know their clients better.
Pollock has seen that happen in her work, but also in her own writing life. “You get it on paper, and it’s like—whoof,” she said, gesturing a feeling of release. “And so what do we do with that? I don’t know. Maybe it just rests there, and when you move on, maybe your grandchildren will be delighted to find it and read it.”
Long put it this way: “We eat, we cook, we write. And we do the best we can to help this broken-apart world that we’re in now.”
After Mount St. Helens blew its top, it was “the steelhead salmon that charted the most astoundingly creative paths to regeneration,” I wrote in my 2020 essay. “Though their origin stream no longer looked anything like the one they had left for their long migration to the Pacific Ocean and back, they could smell that it was home.”
I believe memoir writing is like that. It can take you home. It can take you back to yourself, your true stream, at a time when home and self feel unrecognizable.
Ann Hedreen is an author (Her Beautiful Brain), teacher of memoir writing, and filmmaker. Hedreen and her husband, Rustin Thompson, own White Noise Productions and have made more than 150 short films and several feature documentaries together, including Quick Brown Fox: An Alzheimer’s Story. She is currently at work on a book of essays. This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations, and the Silver Century Foundation.