Seniors share their stories through online creative writing class

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BETHEL — Seniors Bonnie Pooley and Rosabelle Tifft have participated in a memoir-writing group for several years that began as an offshoot of a Western Mountains Senior College creative writing class.

This spring, both are enrolled in an online memoir class through the Maine Senior College Network.

Using Zoom video conferencing software to connect with each other, the group of 10 participants from around the state and instructor Elizabeth Peavey meet online every two weeks.

Each class member is assigned to one of three smaller critique groups, which meet online during the alternate weeks to read their work aloud. Each of the smaller groups then selects one essay to be read to the full class the following week.

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By the end of the class, all members will have written four essays for their critique groups and read a revised version of at least one of them to the full class.

Peavey, of Portland, is an award-winning writer, performer and educator. She has taught public speaking at the University of Southern Maine for over 20 years, is a regular contributor to Down East magazine, and has performed her one-woman show, “My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother,” to sold-out audiences since 2011.

Through a series of grants, she launched a memoir-writing program for seniors in 2015, offering it at five locations in southern Maine, with a culminating celebration and reading at the Portland Public Library.

The following year, Peavey was asked by Anne Cardale, program coordinator for the Maine Senior College Network, which is headquartered at the University of Southern Maine, to develop an online version of her memoir workshop.

“I had all sorts of reservations,” she said in an email, “mostly thinking that the technology would be too complicated for our intended audience (as well as the instructor) and that we wouldn’t be able to form the community I’d achieved with my in-person workshops.

“I was completely wrong on both counts,” she said. “My seniors cleaned my clock on the tech aspect. The Zoom program is simple to use, and Anne is an amazing coach and troubleshooter” who helped to make sure all of the class members were able to get online before the first class.

The bonding was almost instantaneous

Tifft said she needed to purchase and install a camera for her computer before taking the class, and found she was able to do so on her own, as well as get the Zoom software up and running, with no problems.

The concern that using an online format for the class would mean sacrificing the sense of community she had experienced with her in-person classes quickly faded, Peavey said.

“What was really striking is how quickly the technology aspect disappeared,” she said. “I felt no greater distance in our ‘classroom’ than if the participants were sitting across the table from me. We can all see each other and chat freely. The bonding was almost (instantaneous).”

Pooley and Tifft said they have enjoyed getting to know their critiquing partners through their small-group sessions.

Pooley was assigned to a group that includes Ellie, a minister in the Portland area, and Durrall, a retired engineer from Bangor.

Tifft’s partners are Nancy, from Presque Isle, and Pat, “a widow from Millinocket who is a real outdoorswoman,” she said.

“Nancy is 86, but she runs a business and uses Zoom for that,” Tifft said. “She has also invited me to join her writing group, with members from the Presque Isle area who meet on Zoom once a month.”

In the kitchen

At the start of the course, Peavey provided guidelines for critiquing one another’s work, emphasizing the need to be constructive, courteous and objective, and to offer solutions to problems they identify when listening to an essay.

She gives class members a series of writing prompts to kick-start their memories, and asks them to focus on several important aspects of their writing, including voice.

“She told us to use our own voices,” Tifft said. “We were supposed to imagine ourselves sitting down to have a cup of tea with a friend, and write the way we would if we were just talking.”

For their first assignment, Peavey asked her students to compose a 750-word essay using the writing prompt, “in the kitchen.”

Tifft’s essay begins by describing the sights, scents and sounds of a typical family evening at home. As the oldest child in her large family, she is asked to help her mother, who is kneading biscuit dough, while her father and the younger children are playing in the other room.

Then the tranquil evening takes a sudden turn. As the family gathers in the kitchen, her father searches the radio dial for Glenn Miller’s show, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s voice cuts through the static:

“The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor. We are at war.”

Meeting online with the two other members of her critique group, Tifft read her essay aloud, and the group selected it to be read to the full class at the next online meeting.

In response to Peavey’s suggestions, Tifft said, she added many more sensory details to the essay.

 She was surprised to find that adding just a few words or phrases could provide so much more detail about the characters and events in her writing.

For example, describing her mother’s “nimble piano hands” as she kneaded the dough told readers that her mother was a musician, as well as a housewife and mother.

“She asked me things like ‘What tune was your mother singing? What game were your father and the other children playing?’” Tifft said, adding, “This course is really helping me.”

She said her memory of that evening in her family’s kitchen has always been vivid, but through advice from Peavey and the members of her critique group, she discovered how to draw on the specific sensory details that bring it to life for readers.

Pooley agreed.

“She slows you down,” she said of Peavey’s instruction. “She tells us, ‘Give us details. Take your time.’”

‘The stories are amazing’

“I design the course to be self-perpetuating,” Peavey said. “The fall 2016 group is continuing on its own, as I hope this group will.”

She also hopes to continue to offer the online Senior Story Share course to new groups of participants.

“Funding for the program comes from USM, aside from the small stipend each participant is asked to pay, so it will be up to the powers-that-be to decide if we continue,” Peavy said. “Anne and I have been exploring other ways to offer this programming, so stay tuned.”

“The stories are amazing, and I can’t wait for each essay I get to review,” she said. “I love this teaching opportunity.”

The Maine Senior College Network includes 17 senior colleges throughout the state, including Western Mountains Senior College in Bethel.

Rosabelle Tifft and Bonnie Pooley discuss their memoir class, Senior Story Share, which is sponsored by the Maine Senior College Network and taught in an online format to seniors throughout Maine by Elizabeth Peavey of Portland.

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