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February 27, 2023
By Jewel Blanchard, Senior English Major.
Pictured above: SOU Alumnus Daniel Alrick working with memoir client, Stan Luther.
How do we want to be remembered? This essential question is one that SOU alumni Daniel Alrick and Julie Kanta, help answer for their clients. The two freelance writers graduated from the SOU Professional Writing Program in 2014 (which has now evolved to become the Foundations of Professional Writing Microcredential). Much of Julie’s and Daniel’s respective careers since then has been helping clients dictate and preserve their legacies through the writing and production of their oral histories and memoirs.
For Julie Kanta, memoir writing began in a very personal way. An English major with a concentration in Professional Writing, she also had a double minor in EMDA and Shakespeare Studies. Julie got her start in the memoir genre as she developed her final capstone project for the English major, which she envisioned as a way to combine different parts of her degree. According to Julie, “I wanted to do a memoir-type of a project that combined both a written story and the photographs and the media parts of peoples’ memories.” And she saw no better person to center this kind of story on than her own mother, who had emigrated to the United States from Denmark in 1960 with her girl scout troop. Titled American Ice Cream: a Danish Girl’s Discovery of Independence, Julie ghost wrote and edited her mother’s stories of emigration and life in America, incorporating her mother’s old photographs, postcards, and diary entries alongside writing. Julie continued and finalized the project after graduating from SOU, and American Ice Cream was officially published in 2021.
“So part of my goal was to be able to take those physical memories that she had… and to restore them not only digitally but then re-put them in a book so they wouldn’t just keep deteriorating over time and then be lost…So essentially we had a both written and visual memoir.”
– Julie Kanta
A few years after her graduation, Julie got her second brush with memoir writing, when Dr. Edwin Battistella contacted her about a memoir-writing opportunity for retired SOU athletics coach, Dan Bulkley. Bulkley was approaching his 100th birthday, and was looking to write his own memoir reflecting on his eclectic life. Dr. Battistella had seen Julie’s capstone project up close, and knew she would be a great fit for this project. Bulkley’s memoir, titled My Century in Motion, followed Bulkley’s life and career, including his role in the Senior Olympics, which began when he was 80 years old. In addition to helping Bulkley write his memoir, Julie also helped him self-publish his book, as well as curate and include his personal photographs— though Julie notes that this memoir wasn’t quite as visual as American Ice Cream. With these two memoir-writing experiences under her belt (as well as other miscellaneous professional and technical writing and publishing experiences with her company Plumb Creative), Julie was ready for her next endeavor.
Pictured Above: My Century in Motion book cover. Text reads: “My Century in Motion; Dan Bulkley; with Julie Kirsten Kanta.”
Meanwhile, Daniel Alrick’s memoir-writing experience had begun on a similarly personal project. Daniel took up writing in this genre by helping with the memoir of his friend and neighbor, Steven Weiner, who was in hospice when Daniel joined the project. Weiner wrote a newsletter titled “The Suspicious Humanist,” which Daniel followed; it would partially inspire Weiner’s final memoir, titled When Nothing is Real: Notes of a Humanist. Daniel recalls that his contributions to the project put him under “a lot of pressure…because [Weiner] had terminal cancer.” Unfortunately, Weiner passed away before the memoir was finished, but he was able to read and approve much of the manuscript before then.
Since contributing to When Nothing is Real…, Daniel has written or helped write five other memoirs. A lot of his writing process includes a focus on recording and preserving his clients’ oral histories. He always records clients’ stories, whether those audio recordings end up in the final project or not. According to Daniel, “the reason you take oral history is so you can see how a person describes their whole life and their place in it,” and this recording process is integral to memoir-writing. Part of Daniel’s body of work included reviewing and transcribing the recorded interviews of Dan Bulkley, in his first collaboration with Julie on My Century in Motion. After Daniel transcribed these recordings, Julie then pieced together and wrote the manuscript. Again, My Century… was just one of the first memoir projects Daniel has taken on over the years. With all of his expertise and experience interviewing, recording and writing for this genre, Daniel found himself ready for a new project, which would involve him collaborating with Julie for the second time.
“It’s the person’s own voice, they have their [own] words, their voice is what the whole point is.”
– Daniel Alrick
When Julie and Daniel got started on their current memoir-writing project, they had no idea how invested they would become. According to Julie, after a string of past client communication breakdowns and some hurdles in her personal life, she had little interest in writing another memoir. However, only a few months ago, Dr. Battistella emailed both Julie and Daniel with a new and exciting memoir-writing prospect. The memoir would be for World War II veteran Stan Luther, who served 30 years in the United States Air Force, taught community college night classes, raised a family, and, more recently, moved to Medford. When Daniel realized that Stan had served in the navy air force, he knew Julie would be a great fit and encouraged her to join the project. Her past service in the Air Force would give her further insight into Stan’s life, stories, and military terminology, and that was partly why Stan was interested in hiring her in particular. With both of them agreeing to join the project, Julie and Daniel were drawn back into the world of memoir-writing!
Pictured above: Stan Luther sitting at the end of his dining table.
When asked about where his interest in writing a memoir came from, Stan says that he had been ruminating on the idea for years. The way he sees it, he has lived a long life, and wanted to put some of his experiences down on paper, “for the family.” But the idea only grew from there and, at the behest of his sons, evolved into plans to write a full-fledged memoir. Stan and his sons did some investigation into finding ghostwriters before reaching out to SOU and Dr. Battistella, who in turn got him in touch with Julie and Daniel. Stan had been writing bits and pieces of his stories for years, but this work fell into what he calls a “military writing style,” unfit for a memoir in his eyes. This is much of the reason why he values the writing assistance of Julie and Daniel, who can expand and soften Stan’s style.
“I never did like writing a whole lot. It’s not a pleasure, it’s more like work.”
– Stan Luther
From Stan’s perspective, the hardest part of the memoir-writing process is trying to recall his own stories. Thankfully, he jokes that while his short-term memory “track” is slowing down, once he gets started trying to recall his life the long-term “track” comes back to him more easily. Because of his time writing for the military, and in academic settings, Stan says that there was no difficult adjustment period when he got started writing with Julie and Daniel; those prior experiences more than prepared him for this project. Though not all clients have the same level of responsibility in the writing process, Stan has been reading over the manuscript for his own memoir throughout the writing process, making notes, and offering feedback to his ghost writers as they go along. He says that he enjoys the way this transformation of his stories and memories into a memoir “puts things into perspective” as he looks back on his 95 years of life.
For Daniel’s and Julie’s parts, the memoir-writing process can vary quite a bit, and be a huge responsibility. The interviewing, recording, and researching processes, which Daniel is taking on for Stan’s memoir, are intensive, just to be able to get to the point where the actual writing can begin. From there, the writing process, which Daniel is also helming for this project, involves regular consultation with the client. This ensures that the stories included in the manuscript are relevant, written authentically, and in a voice that resembles the client’s. Feedback from clients often includes corrections and input on the specific wording and definitions of technical terminology relevant to their careers and passions. This input can be crucial if Daniel and Julie (or any ghost writer, for that matter) don’t have as much inherent knowledge about these specialized subjects, like athletics or the military, for example. Though this hasn’t necessarily happened with Stan, Daniel recalls times when his personal writing sensibilities have disagreed with those of his client, and he has had to make the respectful decision of an employee, step back, and let the client take the lead on their project.
“You have to almost live the person’s life over again.”
– Daniel Alrick
Meanwhile, Julie works on the formatting, design, and publishing aspects of the writing process. She describes herself as the “editor/project manager/layout designer,” and works from a book design plan that she puts together, which then evolves to include details like page number, typeface, margin size, etc. This also encompasses curating, restoring, and appropriately placing photographs within the manuscript, as directed by clients and their families. However, she notes that to avoid messy, last-minute changes, she waits to begin the book layout until the story is finished. Near this point in the process, the story is reviewed for overarching themes so that a book title can be developed, if a client doesn’t already have their title in mind. Then, Julie will submit this one last draft for client feedback before sending it in for publishing. Altogether it’s an extensive process: “it’s literally months and months of time and effort.”
The hardest part of the memoir-writing process for Julie is getting the first draft completed, when the project is still in the early stages and feels daunting. From his viewpoint as someone who works more closely with clients, Daniel pinpoints the toughest part of this writing process as being the “tremendous responsibility” of encapsulating a client’s life. However, both writers see the even greater value of writing in this genre. “Being able to tell someone’s story as a good one [is] extremely rewarding… their stories have gotten down in their lifetime, whether or not they live to see the final product,” says Daniel. Julie describes the sense of completion—even if it isn’t her own story that she has finished—as being the most rewarding part of the process, especially when she gets to see the delighted faces of her clients and their families.
Pictured above: Julie Kanta. Photo from the Plumb Creative website.
Of course, the practice of memoir-writing is extremely important beyond these warm and fuzzy feelings. In addition to feeling like he is writing something for the posterity of his clients’ families, Daniel mentions the sense of his ghostwriting taking on a greater historical significance, especially as many of his clients have been senior citizens who lived through important world events: “And [clients’] formative years and their life experiences in pursuing their respective marriages and careers… is something that will not recur in the same way again. So in that sense it’s important to gain perspective on what was the continuum of a life lived.”
Certainly Stan sees the writing of his memoir in the same way. Part of his conviction in wanting to write and publish his life stories was initially to document and preserve his historical experiences, especially the Cuban missile crisis, which he playfully nicknames “the little fuss we had down there.” According to Stan, he happened to be “the ranking guy on alert” during a chapter of the Crisis, which overlapped with his time serving in the military. So, from the beginning, “a big part” of his memoir is to preserve a piece of history.
However, that’s not the only significance that Stan has derived from the writing of his memoir. One of his biggest takeaways from this process was recognizing in hindsight how supportive his family has been to him throughout his life, while he was largely focused on his career. He noticed this especially when it came to his wife Nellie, who passed away recently. Stan says that while he was serving in the military, getting his master’s degree, and teaching night school, Nellie was dedicated, driven, and a source of strength for both him and their children. He admits he had always known and been grateful for his wife’s help, but it had never hit him just how much she had given over the years to raise their children and support his passions, before the kids went off to college and she began her own career as a social worker for the Red Cross. It has been these kinds of perspective shifts that Stan has especially treasured, that only came to him through the memoir-writing process.
Pictured above: Stan Luther looking at his wall of awards and mementos.
After several months of work A Life in the Atmosphere: A Memoir of Flight, is available for purchase. Daniel Alrick and Julie Kanta have worked incredibly hard to complete this project and their efforts have paid off. Stan feels proud of the work accomplished and is excited for his story to be shared in hopes of inspiring others.
When asked to reflect on her perceived importance of memoir as a genre, Julie reflects on her own desire to live a “memorable” life. This universal hope can make people feel small when they don’t get the chance or courage to be able to preserve their stories in the way that a memoir can. But the power of preservation can make a person and their life feel valuable again. Julie recalls the writing process of American Ice Cream, and her mother’s incredulity at the fact that someone wanted to write her life stories. However, Julie doesn’t view her mother’s life as less valuable just because she “didn’t have a spectacular job or change the world.” Her interesting stories are meaningful, and deserve to be passed on. If for no other reason, “because then we know her better.” It is this same philosophy that Julie and Daniel offer and apply to all of the clients that are so lucky to work with them in the preservation of their memories.
“I don’t think that anyone has a boring story, right? Everyone has something in their lives that is worth sharing with people….I like to make people feel like their story is worth telling.”
– Julie Kanta
If you’re interested in getting into the memoir-writing industry, Daniel and Julie have a few pieces of advice. They say to start spending some time trying to write your own stories, while considering which life stories you’re choosing to highlight, and how and why you’re choosing to tell them. From there, you can try your hand at taking oral histories and writing short memoir pieces for close friends or family, with whom you have an established, trusting relationship. That way, you will get more experience in writing and collaborating with a client, while also getting a feel for how to tell other people’s stories and help them find their written voice. With an understanding of storytelling as an art, and practice capturing someone else’s authentic voice and experience, you’ll be on your way to writing memoirs professionally.
Blogging for the English Program is another great way to expand your resume; it is a content-management and content-strategist position that exercises writing skills.
If you’re interested in building your content-management and content-strategist skills by blogging for the English Program next year, contact Margaret Perrow.
Interested in being featured on the English Program blog? Or know someone who is interested? Contact English Program blogger Jewel Blanchard at firstname.lastname@example.org.