Judy Omelusik has some shocking stories to tell from her nearly eight decades on this Earth.
It started in her 20s when she discovered her adoptive mother was, in fact, her grandmother and the girl she knew as her sister growing up was really her birth mother. She has also survived different types of abuse over many decades.
Now a widow, the 79-year-old spends several hours a day, five days a week, writing her memoir. She wants her own two children, her family and friends to know her story and what her journey has meant to her. If it ever finds a larger audience, that’s just a bonus.
“It’s been a very cathartic journey,” she says. “I don’t think things like this should be kept a secret because I lived with secrets for so many years, and it’s just very healthy to unload.”
Ms. Omelusik started her memoir in earnest in February, writing in long hand and sending the pages to her sister-in-law to type up. Her goal is to finish the manuscript soon.
She plans to print copies in book form for her son, daughter, and others in her immediate circle and possibly submit her story for publication somewhere. But her main goal is to share the memoir with her loved ones, which now includes the dozens of cousins and relatives through her father, who she finally located and met in 1996 when she was 54.
“I don’t know what the reactions are going to be,” she says. “My friends want to read this, and they don’t know very much about my life. They probably will be shocked, but that’s okay. I think the most important thing is the truth.”
The ease of small-run self-publishing today makes it possible for anyone to leave behind their story.
“I do urge people to get their stories into a book because once you have a book, it’s there forever,” says Beth Kaplan, who teaches memoir writing in the University of Toronto’s Continuing Studies program.
A pile of printed papers or a computer file can be easily lost, she says.
“You get them in a book, then it’s on a shelf and, who knows, 100 years from now, someone can take it down and there are your stories captured.”
Kaplan published her first memoir, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin, about her great-grandfather, in 2007 at age 57. She has gone on to publish All My Loving: Coming of Age with Paul McCartney in Paris, as well as a guide to memoir writing, True to Life: Fifty Steps to Help You Tell Your Story. Her most recent book, Loose Woman: My odyssey from lost to found, came out in 2020.
Ms. Kaplan’s students have ranged in age from teenagers to people in their late 80s.
“Of course, when you’re older, you have many more stories in your arsenal,” Ms. Kaplan says.
Writing a memoir requires honesty and vulnerability, she adds, and says her classes are populated largely by women whose children have left home or are retired.
“It’s a crazy thing to do,” she says. “I joke with [students] that the sensible people are at the mall, buying watches, and we’re in here poking ourselves in the gut.”
It’s hard work, but many people feel driven to get their life’s story on paper, Ms. Kaplan says. The hardest part can be choosing which stories to tell from a lifetime.
One of her favourite students was an 85-year-old woman, a naturally powerful and vivid writer whose book was published by a small press. Shortly after, the student began to show signs of dementia.
“I feel we got those beautiful stories out just in time, and they’re there forever. There’s a book, and Margaret will live forever through her book,” Ms. Kaplan says.
Memoirs can range from a printed chronicle to video interviews or an annotated cookbook, says Claudia Cornwall, who teaches non-fiction writing at Simon Fraser University’s The Writer’s Studio, including the course How to Write a Family Memoir.
The key is cherry-picking events that illuminate a life, says the author of seven books, most recently British Columbia in Flames: Stories from a Blazing Summer.
“A number of people are interested in just writing something down for their family or friends, not necessarily for publication,” she says. “They’re just doing it to see how it’s going to turn out, and if it turns out really well, they might consider publishing it. Or they might not.”
A writing group or course provides a means of feedback and perspective, she says.
“It’s sometimes intimidating if you’re comparing what you’re doing to best-selling memoirs,” she says. “But if you are with people at your level, you can see you have something to contribute … It’s helpful to be with peers who are at the same stage of exploring this. It’s encouraging.”
Whether the goal is to publish just for family or seek broader publication, Ms. Cornwall says a professional editor can be a worthwhile investment. Still, she suggests people interested in independent publishing do their research. Some so-called “vanity” presses can cost much more than simply taking a book to a printer.
Every province has writing associations that may be able to provide recommendations, Mr. Cornwall notes. In Canada, creators have copyright, and there is no need to register the work, but the same applies to diaries or photographs a writer may wish to use. If the plan is to publish, she says the author will need the permission of those creators.
It’s also important to keep in mind that you’re writing about real people, and the stories you tell affect real people, Ms. Cornwall adds.
Yet the effort that goes into writing a memoir is very rewarding, she adds.
“It’s better to get those stories before your parents or your grandparents pass away and can’t hand it on to you,” she says. “You can try to piece it together from letters and journals and diaries, but it’s better if you can actually ask people about their lives… It is a wonderful thing to have.”