Storyteller helps others reach within
Column by Ann Macari Healey
He doesn't remember quite what motivated him to offer a class to senior citizens on how to write your own life story. But then, for Garrett Ray, at 77 no youngster himself, life has been all about stories.
The first page of his in-progress book starts this way:
“Our stories begin as fragments in an attic trunk, nearly forgotten, then rediscovered, sometimes to our surprise. We pull out bits of fabric, examine the colors, move the scraps around, enjoy each one as a unique link to our past. Then we begin to place them side by side, discovering patterns we had not seen before, rearranging, looking again.”
When you think about it, that's who we are, isn't it? A jumble of pieces steadily stitched into a narrative that somehow, one day, amazingly and unexpectedly, becomes a good story.
You just have to see it.
“Everybody … has stories to tell,” says Ray, in his soft and quick-paced voice, “if you can just get them to think that way.”
The classes began in 2010 in the Highlands Ranch retirement complex he and his wife of 53 years moved to after a first career as a newspaper reporter and editor and a second one as a journalism professor. He calls this his third act.
Offered once or twice a year for five hours over five weeks, the classes average 10 to 15 students. Even though he wrote weekly newspaper columns for more than 20 years, Ray uses Lois Daniel's book, “How to Write Your Own Life Story,” to help teach his students.
“A lot of them think if you're going to write your life story, you've got to start with the first day,” Ray says.
But you don't.
You look for the moments.
“It might be a happy incident … or a house you lived in,” Ray says. “And that's where you ought to start, and guaranteed … you have enough stories to string together to make a pretty impressive package.”
That's what Dottie and John Talbott are doing.
The couple, in their 80s, attended one of Ray's classes last year. John, who can no longer type or write, is in a motorized wheelchair and speaks very softly. So he dictated his stories to Dottie, who typed them on the computer.
“We figured out what things to talk about and what things to put in his memoir up to his sophomore year in college,” Dottie says. That's when they met.
“It was great fun,” she says, with a laugh. “I heard a lot of things I didn't even know about him and we've been married for 63 years.”
This winter, Dottie plans to write her part, which also will end at sophomore year in college. Then, she and John will compile the rest together. When the story is complete, one of their three daughters will add photographs and print the book.
Their children, seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, Dottie says, “will know who we are.”
Ray's passion for writing started when he was 11 in Greeley, where he grew up. He, his younger brother and sister and a couple of friends published a weekly newspaper called “The Neighborhood News” for three summers. They wrote about lost dogs and vacation trips and home improvements. He learned a bit about storytelling from his mother, a reporter and editor at The Greeley Tribune.
His tenure as editor and publisher at The Littleton Independent from the 1960s to 1981 won him state and national acclaim — he was recently inducted into the Denver Press Club Hall of Fame. And he continued sharing his love for storytelling with students as a professor at Colorado State University until retiring in 2001.
When you get it just right, writing is a gift, Ray says: “The human being … the eccentricities of people, the joys of people, the sadness of lives. … Almost anything will shape itself into a story if you can figure out how to start.”
He smiles, blue eyes earnest behind his glasses, as he answers a question about the writing of his life story.
Working on it, he says.
“I've got to give myself a deadline — I only respond to deadlines, I think.”
But he has a good start.
A white utility binder encompasses 70 or so pages, some copies of the “Scratch Pad” columns he wrote for the newspaper, others written more recently. Each carries a simple title.
There's “The house on the corner.”
“When we turn the corner by the house, I always hope someone will be standing outside so I can stop and say, `I grew up here!' Here is where my parents planted the iris garden, and here, my grandmother grew roses, feeding them coffee grounds each evening.”
And “Playing back the old tapes.”
“We carry old tape recordings in our unconscious minds. …”
And “Farm boys” and “Understanding Dad” and “Thanksgiving at Grandma Ray's.”
And “In 2007 I became old.”
“I have begun to notice the darkening beauty of our mountain ridge against the last light in the western sky. I wait for the dusk, grateful for the purity, the clarity, the nightly gift.
“I dance with Bailey, overflowing with 18 months of toothy grins and joyful rhythms, to `Sleeping Beauty' and `Mary Had a Little Lamb.'
“I cry easily, in sadness, in joy, in gratitude, in celebration.
“In 2007, I became 71. I forgave myself. I began to wonder what happens next.”
Ray calls his in-progress book “Partial Recall” because he doesn't remember every detail. Just bits and pieces stand out.
His life story, he says, is not cohesive.
“This is not going to have the nice, smooth flow that a memoir would have. I don't know if it will work or not. But it doesn't make any difference if it works or not if I'm happy with it.”
In the end, he hopes his grandchildren and their children, whoever reads his words, will think “it was worth their time.”
Remember the first page, where Ray describes stories as scraps of fabric that we constantly rearrange and lay side-by-side into stories that matter?
Here is the last line to that paragraph:
“Before our eyes, a larger scene emerges, full of memories and color. Finally, our patchwork quilts reveal the stories of our lives.”
We all have one. We just have to see it.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4110.