Updated: Aug 24
In 2012 I was living in the Sarasota/Bradenton area of Florida. If you’ve lived in Florida or know much about the demographics of the state, you likely realize that a considerable number of retirement-aged people from all across the United States spend all, or a significant portion, of their “golden years” in the Sunshine State.
I was finishing up my Masters of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing, hoping to find a job teaching writing and literature, but not having much luck on the university level. I’d had experience with teaching and tutoring children and teens, but not much with adult learners, so I made a proposal to the Lifelong Learning organization in Sarasota to teach an eight-week course I titled, “Your Legacy of Words.”
Over the next several years, I taught a variety of courses through the program, including a handful of Legacy classes, several fiction writing classes, and a series of literature classes I called, “Reading as a Writer,” which were some of the most fun I’ve ever had standing in front of a group of people.
As time went on, I transitioned to leading classes, seminars, writing groups, and day-long creativity retreats to small groups. Over eight years I interacted with hundreds of writers and would-be writers in the area, and I saw people finish long-planned projects, explore their artistic side, or create a written legacy to leave their kids and grandkids. Novels, poetry collections, memoirs—How fun to be a part of helping folks see their writing ambitions come to fruition!
Legacy of Words
The clientele of the lifelong learning programs were mostly retired folks who were living in Florida—or Snowbirding, for the winter—and wanted to explore new things in their leisure years. Even though there were a fair number of people interested in writing that novel they’d always dreamed of penning, there was a far larger group interested in writing about their own life story. The most popular class I taught was “Your Legacy of Words.”
Before I taught that first Legacy class, I had major reservations. I was a guy in his late 30s, “teaching” mostly-senior adults how to unlock the story of their life via writing. I was very comfortable discussing the elements of fiction writing, but I knew getting adults thirty, forty, even fifty years my senior to get comfortable writing about themselves was a different challenge.
Knowing this, I stepped out of my comfort zone and began to research the peculiarities of autobiographical writing. I wasn’t specifically trained to teach memoir or biography, but I knew, as Liam Neeson says ominously, in the movie Taken, “What I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career.” I drew on my own inter-family experiences, my education, and my particular skill set to design a course that was easy to participate in, and also very flexible.
What I attempted to do was provide a method that would be beneficial to writers of all stages: Some folks had never written anything about their life, others had a stack of journals, some had written essays and anecdotes. And, the goals were equally as varied. Some people were happy with a few short-stories they could share with the grandkids. Others wrote longer pieces, spanning the decades of their lives. Still others were content in using the simple workbook I developed to answer some basic questions about themselves as a way to pass on a written legacy.
Of course, when the Covid pandemic hit, things were turned upside down. It's been almost three years since I have taught an in person class. Realizing that kind of left me in a funk. Had my classes made any difference, or was I just fooling myself?
Two Recent Wins
Recently, I received an email from one of the Legacy writers who’d taken my class in 2012, Caroline Hodge. She said she’d been working for about a decade, but had finished a book-length project which told her personal story. She had taken the first steps toward writing a personal history in my class, and persisted over the next ten years to finish a book-length visual memoir!
Caroline is an artist, and she approached her Legacy of Words in a very unique way. In addition to writing in-depth essays on her life from childhood through the start of the Covid pandemic, she also collected a wide variety of personal photos, historical and sentimental illustrations, and a variety of other artistic visuals which she then fashioned into over 220 pages of collages. Each collage is painstakingly crafted and every page is a work of art!
Caroline then worked with a printer to have collage pages scanned, printed, and bound into a book. She had a couple dozen books printed for family and friends. What an awesome work to share with her loved ones! And I was extremely happy to hear that she had taken those first attempts to write about her life and turned it into something so stunning!
Here are two more photos of the awesome interior of Caroline's visual memoir:
Another former Legacy of Words student, Yvonne Aarden, recently finished her second memoir. Yvonne and I worked together in all stages of her book’s creation. She started in a Legacy of Words class in 2014 and took several other classes with me over the years. She sought out one-on-one critique and editing services to develop her storytelling.
In 2018, with her first book-length manuscript ready to go, she worked with me via my “guided self-publishing” program to publish, Intersecting Heartbeats, the story of her marriage and family. Yvonne was able to give the gift of her story to her kids and grandkids, but also share it with a wider audience. To date, she’s sold or shared around three hundred copies of her book.
Over the following four years, Yvonne developed the second book, this time focusing on her childhood on an Indian reservation and early years as a Catholic nun. The book, Intersecting Traditions, went live on Amazon and other book sellers a couple months ago. What an amazing gift Yvonne has given her children and grandchildren! Plus, so many of her friends and acquaintances from a lifetime of teaching, traveling, and community involvement have been able to get to know her at a much deeper level.
Yvonne utilized my "guided self-publishing" services to turn her two memoirs into shelf-worthy books.
The Future of Legacy Writing
The pandemic certainly changed the way I could interact with clients and would-be clients. Much of my focus has shifted in the last two years to ghost-writing biographies on behalf of others. It’s work I enjoy, and there is value in passing along a written legacy, in whatever format, but I also believe there is something even more special about writing your story, yourself.
It’s not easy.
It is, however, beneficial.
I've always deeply identified with Flannery O'Conner who said, "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say." I've often found that the deepest, most true revelations about what I really think, feel, and believe occur when I'm putting pen to paper and allowing the inner self to communicate with the outside world. This is true of philosophical and spiritual matters, and even more so when it comes to cracking the most difficult and complex subject: myself.
Over the last several years, I've engaged in a self-directed study of depth psychology and expressive writing as tools for overcoming trauma, dealing with difficult emotions, and generally adjusting to unexpected twists and turns of life. I'm more convinced than ever that writing is a powerful tool for promoting the ability to reckon with my past, assess my present, and prepare for a more fulfilling, more authentic future. The self-excavation has been tough, at times, but I've emerged with a renewed vigor for my writing, and for developing these ideas.
It's not easy.
But it is, I firmly believe, beneficial.
And, I'm hoping to find ways to share those ideas with you.
My intention is to develop a process to deepen the Legacy Writing experience. I've begun to write some essays and develop new writing exercises for a "next level" of Legacy Writing. Along with the deeper writing of a new Legacy course, I'm also intrigued with using writing as a tool for deeper self-discovery. With a focus on understanding, evaluating, addressing, and healing, another initiative—the Self-Reclamation Project—is a logical extension of the work I’ve done over the last decade.
The Self-Reclamation Project and Legacy II concepts are just two of several, big projects I currently have in the works. I have so many irons in so many fires, that I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. So I developed a way to keep myself on track, and moving forward. I have a new video series coming out very soon detailing my efforts to reignite my creative life, and I'm looking forward to sharing more with you, then!
Stay tuned to this blog, or connect with me via other avenues (links here for contacts) for more as I continue to develop my personal writing life, and extend the Legacy of Words concept. If you’d like to know more, reach out via email or leave a comment below. And if you know someone who might be interested in the work I do, or the content I provide, be sure to share this information with them.
Remember: Words matter. Make yours count!
Happy writing, everyone!!