On Dec. 16, three women sat around a rustic wooden table in an outbuilding at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History. Although most of the eight regular members of their group had stayed home that icy morning, the women still talked, laughed and excitedly shared new excerpts from their memoirs.
Joyce Murray, 76, and Jan Blaylock, 75, of Springdale, and Carolyn Anderson, 69, of Fayetteville, are members of the Springdale LifeWriters group, which meets at the Shiloh Museum twice a month. The group, open to everyone but consisting mostly of senior citizens, brings together those who want to write down the stories of their lives and the lives of those important to them.
While the members write their memoirs using various different styles and have different reasons for recording their life histories, the LifeWriters share a love of writing and self-reflection, Anderson said.
“It’s more to be heard, you know,” Anderson said. “The way that it operates, is people don’t do constructive criticism. They respond to things that made a connection with them when you read.”
Blaylock, a retired nurse, said she started writing as a teenager, using the fictional stories she wrote as an emotional escape from high school. Now, though, Blaylock mostly writes true stories from her past, she said. While she writes about her childhood, her biggest focus is on the most important person in her life, her late son Mark. Her only child died of skin cancer in 2009 after a lifetime of health issues, Blaylock said.
“He had a lot of enthusiasm about going places and seeing people,” Blaylock said. “He never met a stranger, and he was not afraid of anything, which gave me all this gray hair.”
Blaylock writes about adventures she and her son had during his life, from attending every science fiction convention they could, to participating in Civil War reenactments, to volunteering at archeological digs in Scott and Dumas, Arkansas, in exchange for college credit. She even donated a kidney to Mark in 1992, she said.
“You name it and I probably have done it,” Blaylock said.
June Jefferson, 72, is the founder and facilitator of several writing groups in Northwest Arkansas, including the Springdale LifeWriters. While some groups are more intensive and exist with the goal of getting published, Jefferson wanted LifeWriters to focus on writing for the joy of it, she said. Recording stories from one’s life is beneficial to people of all ages, Jefferson said.
“For everybody, it pays to examine your life,” Jefferson said. “This doesn’t mean picking at the pieces, although you can if you want to. It means, more importantly, writing something that helps you think about how you feel about it, what happened, how you remember it.”
Murray, a retired occupational therapist who has enjoyed writing since she was nine years old, likes to spend her time in LifeWriters focusing on stories from her childhood and young adulthood growing up in Northern California, she said.
Murray has written about her childhood private school where the students were encouraged to raise farm animals on school land, a boat trip down the California coast to Mexico that she took in the 60’s and her job developing photos for The Daily Californian while studying at Berkeley, she said. She also wrote a series of short stories about her childhood cat, Pat.
Blaylock said that although her son is no longer alive to read and pass down her stories, she hopes someone will take an interest in them, possibly her nieces and nephews.
“Originally my stories were because I just wanted somebody years later to read them and go, ‘Whoah, she had quite an adventure!’” Blaylock said.
Anderson, on the other hand, said she is recording stories from her past, but not necessarily for posterity, she said. One of Anderson’s main reasons for participating in LifeWriters is the sense of accomplishment that comes with creating something, she said.
“There’s something rewarding about doing it for yourself,” Anderson said.
Most of all, Anderson loves that the group brings together people of diverse backgrounds, allowing members to hear stories about people, places and experiences they may have never been exposed to otherwise, she said.
“I don’t think they have to be dramatic,” Anderson said. “I just think it’s nice to know people’s backgrounds. I just like people’s stories a lot.”