Memoir-writing group in Prince William shares memories, gives voice to treasured past

When Cecilia Hassett’s husband died in 2007, she had plenty of stories to remember him by. She had her own memories, dating from the day she saw him at a dance hall and was paired off with him because her friend didn’t want to, and ended up dancing all night. And she had his memoirs.

“I’m so happy I have, like, 35 stories that he wrote,” Hassett said.

Hassett and her husband were among the earliest members of a group of Prince William County residents who have been writing and sharing the stories of their lives every month for more than a decade. The group, which has no formal name or designated leader, sprang from a month-long memoir-writing class at Bull Run Regional Library in Manassas in 2003. After the Tuesday-night sessions ended, the students decided to keep meeting on their own.

At least four members of the original group still attend, bringing a new personal story and reading it aloud every month. Others have joined over the years; the group has about a dozen members. At least three members have published work that was written in the group.

Unlike other writers’ groups, this one focuses on joint recollection rather than mutual criticism. After each member reads his or her piece, other members are more likely to note similar childhood events than to suggest a different approach to the telling of the story.


A group of Prince William County residents has been writing and sharing the stories of their lives every month for more than a decade. (Julie Zauzmer)

At the group’s Tuesday meeting, Anne Sharp read a segment from her ongoing memoir about growing up on Chincoteague Island. She recalled the tension when her school was integrated when she was in fifth grade, and the surprise when her class got a young, sharply dressed teacher. “I didn’t know teachers had knees,” she read, drawing an appreciative laugh from her fellow writers.

Carol Jean Locke amused the group as she read aloud her description of her mother. “Mother wasn’t a baby person,” Locke wrote. “There is a photo of her with her first child where she looks like someone just handed her a grenade.”

Barbara Klein, who said she hopes to publish a collection of recipes interspersed with stories of her childhood, described the snowstorm during which her baby brother was born. Her father told her the stork brought the baby through the blizzard. “He was wrapped in a blue blanket and dropped down the chimney,” he explained.

Tuesday’s stories included Mary Ellen Colandene’s poem about her brother’s three-year struggle with polio, Barbara Deegan’s musings on animal behavior and an episode in the life of a Navy man by Denton Larson. Larson, an early member of the group, has meticulously organized his monthly writings in a three-inch-thick binder with a title page promising, “A journey through 1,001 cities and towns.”

Although the members’ stories vary widely, their motivation for getting them down on paper does not: Most want to share their experiences with their families.

“I started writing memoirs when I became a grandmother, because I realized with my parents gone that I didn’t know their stories,” said JoAnn Hollis, who catalogued the imaginative games of her childhood at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I want to write stories that my children and grandchildren can keep.”

The group meets on first Tuesdays at 10:15 a.m. at Bull Run Regional Library, and welcomes new members with old memories. 703-792-4500.

Julie Zauzmer is a local news reporter.
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