An Interview with NAMW Member of the Month, Dawn Parrett Thurston

Linda Joy:  What drew you to memoir writing?

I have been a genealogist for many years and naturally developed an interest in family stories. About fifteen years ago, I wrote and published a family history of my maternal grandparents, a Scots coalmining family. I learned so much through the process I realized I could teach others how to write their family stories. I had been a freelance writer for a number of years, so I felt comfortable teaching people how to write. My educational background is in English and communications. A local college hired me to teach a couple of life story writing courses, and I’ve been at it ever since. I learned early on that it was easier to teach people how to write their own life stories, since it didn’t involve teaching them how to do genealogical research.

At first, I thought I’d come up with this new idea—helping retiring baby-boomers leave a record of their lives for their descendants. It didn’t take me long to realize that my class was part of something much larger that was sweeping the country, something often called the  “memoir craze” or the “memoir boom.” Books like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Russell Baker’s Growing Up, and Mary Karr’s The Liars Club were topping bestseller lists and even winning literary prizes. At the same time, computers and the Internet made writing and publishing within the reach of the average person.  Angela’s Ashes and other popular memoirs in the ’90s were suddenly about average people, and they served as powerful role models and inspiration for the rest of us.  The “boom,” if that’s what it is, is still going strong, as far as I can see. Memoirs continue to make bestseller lists, and people are still interested in writing them. There are classes like mine all over the country.

Linda Joy: Since you teach memoir writing, are you writing your own memoir?

Dawn: I’ve written about some incidents in my life, but I haven’t become seriously engaged in my own memoir. [Laughs] It’s kind of embarrassing to admit. I’m obviously not practicing what I preach! My biggest writing project is another family history, this one about my paternal ancestry. I’ve invested so many years collecting information about these people, I feel it’s important to shape my research into some kind of story so it’s accessible to my family. My children and other family members aren’t going to learn anything by looking at charts full of names and dates. It’ stories that touch and teach people, don’t you think?  I feel a responsibility to put flesh on the bones of ancestors long gone so their lives can inspire generations yet to come. Life stories of all kinds have a powerful influence for good.

Linda Joy: Could you share with our members some of the things you emphasize in your classes.

Dawn: My biggest role is to be a cheerleader…to make my students believe that their lives are worth writing about, that they have an interesting story to tell, and that they are capable of writing a story other people will enjoy reading. All this is true, of course. Everyone has had an interesting life. Once I get students writing that first story, something happens…nearly always. They suddenly become excited about their lives as they start recalling interesting events from their past. I can see it in their eyes after the first few weeks of class, and I recognize they’ve caught the bug. It’s a wonderful thing to facilitate that process, to help students realize their lives have been interesting and meaningful. From then on, I just need to inspire them to keep writing. It takes a long time to write a memoir—longer than people realize when they first begin—which is probably a good thing. [laughs]

Linda Joy: I agree.  Besides cheerleading, what do you teach them about the writing process?

Dawn: Obviously, my first job is to get them writing. But, frankly, what I find most interesting and satisfying is showing students ways they can make their writing more interesting. I’ve done a lot of writing and editing over the years, and I feel I have something I can teach people in this area.  I don’t want to intimidate my students so they become more critical of their writing than they already are. I often begin with something easy, like showing them how their writing can be more engaging by adding sense details—describing how things smell, taste, feel, and sound, in addition to how they look. Beginning writers mostly focus on how things look. From there, I show them how to reveal feelings in their stories, how to create scenes and dialogue, how to anchor their memoir in a specific place and era. I bring in examples from memoirs I admire to show them how the pros do it. Of course, writing is like anything else: you get better with practice. I love seeing my students’ writing improve over time. I have some talented writers in my classes—a number who continually win writing contests.

Linda Joy: You mentioned memoirs you admire. Any recommendations?

Dawn: I’m not trying to make points with you, Linda Joy, but I really admired your memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother. I have read parts of it numerous times, analyzed how you structured the book, and shared examples of scenes and engaging descriptions with my students. I mentioned Angela’s Ashes and Growing Up earlier, both great books I admire for their fine writing. I also like Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and any of Rick Bragg’s fabulous memoirs. I posted a list of my recommended memoirs and family histories on my website: http://www.MemoirMentor.com.

Linda Joy: In addition to your website, do you have any other resources that share your memoir writing ideas?

Dawn: My husband and I co-authored a book, published in 2007 by Signature Books, called Breathe Life into Your Life Story: How to Write a Story People Will WANT to Read. We frequently lecture together, and he’s as interested in personal history as I am. Our book includes writing techniques I teach in my classes. I think it will help expand the vision of anyone trying to write a memoir.  The book can be purchased through Amazon and from my publisher.

Linda Joy:  How did you discover NAMW?

Dawn: Several of my students heard about you, joined your organization, and then told me about it. What a fine resource you’re providing for all of us. Your videos, articles, interviews, and books give us so many ways we can learn from you. I appreciate what you’re doing.