Memoir writing is becoming a true experience for many

Retired English teacher Emily Rodavich didn’t plan to devote her late 70s to a book about the many unusual experiences in her life.

But the more other people heard her stories, the more they urged her to write them down. It just seemed she had accumulated more amazing coincidences than is common. Never a serious writer, she hesitated, fearing her stories would seem outlandishly untrue to others.

Finally one morning in 2014, her live-in companion in Cecil compelled her to take her coffee up to her office, get on her computer and start typing about her troubled childhood and subsequent events.

Now, at the age of 79, Ms. Rodavich has a published book: “Mystical Interludes, An Ordinary Person’s Extraordinary Experiences.” It cost her money to publish through a small, independent press last year, but she makes a few dollars back every time someone orders one online through Amazon or Barnes & Noble. More important, there’s a record of her life’s journey for her three children, four grandchildren, many acquaintances and even strangers she hopes to inspire.

“When I sat down that morning the first time, I had no intention of publishing anything — I was writing for my grandchildren, basically,” Ms. Rodavich said. “Once I got into it, something happened,” and she sought to put something out to a broader audience, even if it involved expending several thousand dollars.

Memoir-writing and publishing is a pursuit becoming all the more popular for today’s retirees. The digital world has made it far easier and affordable than in prior generations to put a life story into many people’s hands or make it available for order as an ebook.

Combined with that ready access to publishing is the fact that increasing numbers of baby boomers are slipping into retirement with time on their hands. They have more education and better writing backgrounds than did their parents, and many believe they have got interesting stories to tell.

Through various outlets, including Amazon’s own CreateSpace publishing service, they’ve got a chance to leave a legacy in a sturdier manner than that shoebox or album full of photos and letters their own parents may have left them. Why leave it to others to piece together your life story when you can do it yourself, sometimes for just hundreds of dollars if you have know-how?

“People are writing memoirs like crazy,” said Kitty Axelson-Berry, founder of Modern Memoirs Inc. in Amherst, Mass. “There are a lot of classes, and it’s a very popular pastime, a lot like gardening. Computers make it so much easier, and digital publishing makes it easier as well.”

Her “private publishing” company, as she calls it, provides all kinds of editing, formatting and publishing assistance to people who want to create a book about their lives and are able to pay for it. Modern Memoirs caters to those who look to produce such autobiographies only for friends and family; Ms. Axelson-Berry says people rarely have both a life and a writing style that strangers would find worth their time and money.

“We discourage people from thinking they’re going to sell their life story to millions of readers,” she said. “They might write about things instead like how much Grandma really disliked that rose of Sharon tree that grew in her backyard. It’s not interesting to the public at large, but it might be really interesting to descendants of Grandma.”

Linda Assard of Hempfield used Modern Memoirs to take the life story written by her late husband David — a prominent businessman who headed Elliott Group of Jeannette and other firms — and put it and many photos into 150 copies of a long-lasting hardcover book. She will give it away to his relatives and friends. It will end up costing about $16,000, though Ms. Axelson-Berry notes it can be done for far less, depending on production choices and level of editing assistance.

Ms. Assard deems the price and effort well worth it to complete her husband’s biographical mission. He was a former Navy pilot who survived being shot down by Soviets and crash-landing in Alaska during the Cold War. Before his January 2016 death at age 82, he spent a year typing out that and other life stories.

“He thought it important for his children and his grandchildren and future grandchildren to know about the family, and also to know about him,” Ms. Assard explained.

Ann Howley, 57, of Bethel Park published her own commercial coming-of-age memoir, “Confessions of a Do-Gooder Gone Bad,” in her early 50s, and now teaches memoir-writing workshops at Community College of Allegheny County and elsewhere.

People attend her sessions for different reasons, Ms. Howley said, but the older ones “are primarily interested in documenting their lives. Sometimes they have painful backgrounds, and writing about it helps them to make sense of it. ... The most important thing I try to convey is that when you do write about your experiences, write it 100 percent to the best of your integrity and your memory.”

Kathy Rizza, 57, of Pleasant Hills has more than memory to go on of her difficult youth living in foster homes and group housing for teenagers. She has kept detailed journals through most of her life, which will assist her hopes of producing a book for a wider audience than just those who know her. The writing doesn’t come quickly, however, because she’s no pro at it and she’s not yet retired. She attends various community writing groups to get helpful ideas.

“I’ve been at this two years and some months,” she said. “I’m not to the point of being ready to publish, but it’s definitely going to happen — it’s just a question of when.”

Now that Ms. Rodavich has her book, with the help of Florida-based Citrine Publishing, her goal is a sequel using “extraordinary experiences” of others who wrote to her after the first one came out. Though she found the writing experience difficult as a newcomer, she encourages others to hack away at it. The more she did it, the easier it became, leading to something not just she but her relatives are proud of — and she says they’ve learned from it.

“If you have a desire to write your life story because you think it is interesting, or even if you think it would be cathartic, absolutely sit down and write and let the chips fall where they may,” the former high school teacher urged.

Gary Rotstein: or 412-263-1255.


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