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Phifer ready to lead memoir-writing seminar

Nan Phifer, author of "Memoirs of the Soul: Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography," believes there is a big difference between memoirs and journals.

"Memoir writing is more selective than journal writing," Phifer said during a telephone interview with The Park Record from her home in Boulder, Colorado. "Journals contain everything from trivia to the mundane.

"While these things may be important to the writer, they don’t necessarily make for compelling reading," she said. "Memoir writing takes the reader straight into significant, meaningful experiences."

That’s one of the main reasons Phifer will lead a memoir-writing seminar at the Silver Baron Lodge at Deer Valley this weekend from Oct. 10 to Oct. 12. She wants to use the seminar session to help people tell their stories in a "fun and exciting way."

During each of the individual workshops (see accompanying story titled "Life Story Library Seminar Schedule"), Phifer will set up a safe place for writers of all levels to begin composing their stories.

"I begin with an idea-gathering exercise where they write down quick notes that identify the most significant events, people and places from their lives," Phifer said. "I ask them to use their emotions and come up with examples that happened when their feelings were the most intense, like when they felt strong gratitude, joy, contentment or terrible misery."

She also asks them to dig into some of their aspirations and to list some of the causes they supported.

"I also ask about the turning points and failures in their lives and places where some of these events happened," Phifer said. "These are always meaningful stories behind these examples."

After the writers have gathered their ideas for subjects, Phifer asks them to circle the ones that may work for short or long chapters.

"I tell them a chapter can be as long as they want or as short as a paragraph," she said. "Then they start writing about what they want to for that day."

Once the writers have a pretty good idea of where their stories are going, Phifer has them partner with another writer and gives them two minutes to discuss their writings.

"This gives them a time to reflect on what they may do with the information they have," she said. "They may also change their mind or think of a more important subject to write about. Then we go back to writing."

Throughout the session, Phifer encourages the writer to let their thoughts take "those unexpected turns."

"That’s when most of them come to this wonderful self-discovery and the stories that they are composing become more exciting," she said.

To help them lose their thoughtful inhibitions, Phifer tells them not to worry about mechanical correctness and grammar.

"I also tell them that their writing need only be legible to only themselves and that proofreading should not interfere with their thoughts," she said. "In fact, proofreading should only be the next to the last step of memoir writing. If they want to write a legacy copy, or a story that will be handed down in their families, they only need to do any proofreading before they do that."

Before the session wraps, Phifer asks for volunteers to read what they have to the whole group.

"I admonish everyone to not be judgmental and that they will guard the confidentiality of the writer at this time," she said. "While we are not doing any literary critiquing, I do tell the listeners to express what they liked about what they have heard, and then have them ask questions to help the writer go back and fill in the blanks."

Phifer also tells the writers to shy away from writing chronologically.

"That is so dull and plodding and what happens is they give all the facts like where they were born and what schools they attended," she said. "Those can all be looked up by anybody at anytime, and don’t really introduce the person they are writing about."

Phifer became involved with memoir writing while teaching a class of alterative high school students in Eugene, Oregon, a few years ago.

"This came at a time in my life during the recession, when I found there weren’t many jobs for school teachers," she said. "I needed to find a job and the one I landed was at this school located on the campus of a community college in Oregon."

Many of the students enrolled in the school were mostly "drop outs."

"Quite a few of them were what most English teachers called ‘reluctant writers,’" Phifer said. "I knew this would be a challenge, but I felt so lucky to have the job."

She first realized that the conventional ways of teaching as an English teacher weren’t going to work very well with her new students.

"Most of them were preoccupied with turmoil that was going on in their lives and I knew that’s what would interest them and where their writings would spring from," Phifer said. "I also didn’t use grammar books, but the way I taught the conventions of standard English was by projecting their own writings on a screen. I would manipulate their comments into a grammar lesson and they learned a lot and we had a lot of fun."

Afterwards, Phifer thought she would also enjoy leading older and more mature people in writing memoirs.

"I started at a retirement residence in Eugene and in the spiritual-care wing of a hospital through a national program that had a location in Oregon," she said. "Now I lead workshops in libraries and retreat organizations."

The path Phifer has taken has capped off an already rewarding career, and she is happy to help others develop a joy in memoir writing.

"I think the most fascinating thing about memoir writing is the moment when people’s eyes light up when they see connections in their own lives," Phifer said.

"Writing Meaningful Memoirs," an interactive seminar presented by Nan Phifer and the Life Story Library Foundation, will be held October 10 to 12, 2014 at the Silver Baron Lodge, 2900 Deer Valley Dr. East. Register online at http://www.lifestorylibrary.org/writing-meaningful-memoirs . The cost is $259. For more information email info@lifestorylibrary.org or call Bonnie Park at 435-655-1635 .


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