Everybody has a story to tell. Rodney Richards is sure of it. So sure, in fact, that in his retirement years he runs a weekly workshop in memoir writing to make sure people get their stories down on paper. This, after all, is the most important thing, Richards says. Get the story on paper, even if it’s terribly done.
“The editing, the polishing, that comes later,” Richards says. “Just get it down.”
Richards’ own memoir, which he expects to self-publish in about six months, is going through its polishing phase right now. And his life story, he says, did not start so auspiciously.
Richards was born Washington, D.C. in 1950, but grew up in Trenton with his mother and younger brother. He attended Catholic school until eighth grade and then “barely graduated from Ewing High in 1968,” he says. “I tried Fullerton Junior College in southern California for four months but dropped out and came back to Trenton/Ewing.”
Where Richards was heading was either the morgue or drug rehab, he says. The troubled young man got a job with the state Department of the Treasury as stock clerk in the computer room in 1970, which helped somewhat, but it was, he says, his conversion to the Baha’i faith that same year that ultimately saved him.
He married his wife, Janet, in the faith that year and the couple raised two children — a son, Jesse, a writer who wrote “The Secret Peace: Exposing the Positive Trend of World Events” in 2010 (Book & Ladder Press), and a daughter, Kate, a claims adjuster for AllState insurance in central New Jersey.
Richards stayed with the state Treasury Department for his entire 39-year career, working in IT and contracting, doing technical writing, and purchasing energy for the state. He retired in 2009 and took to “putzing around the house,” he says.
Not long after his retirement, Richards’ wife suggested he write his memoirs. “I get up at four o’clock every morning anyway,” he says. “So I got up and wrote for a couple hours every day.” A year and a half later, Richards had a complete book, “A Blessed Life In America,” which he gave to his wife and son for some honest criticism. “They both thought it was pretty much the most boring thing they’d ever read,” he says.
Richards set to finding some help for his writing and storytelling skills and landed in a memoir writing class at the Lawrence Library. In the group, everyone wrote short stories and gave each other “ a nice, gentle critique,” which Richards appreciated. He started attending every week (and still does, plus other weekly memoir classes in Princeton and Warminster, Pennsylvania).
Soon the idea struck: “I live in Hamilton, why not start a memoir class in Hamilton.” The Hamilton Library immediately accepted.
He now leads the class every Monday from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. His class, he says, is more of a guided critique, with exercises and supportive feedback that help people get past their personal hang-ups about writing. To find out more about the group, visit www.meetup.com/Hamilton-Memoir-Writing.
The group started in March and so far has seven regular members, Richards says. Others float in and out. Most are seniors, but the class is open to anyone and “each class stands on its own,” he says. So don’t worry, there’s no homework.
Why? People write for as many reasons as there are books, but Richards has found two overarching reasons why people write memoirs. One is because they think they have great stories and want to publish them and tell the world. The other is the more common, particularly among seniors — family legacy.
“They want to leave something for their children and grandchildren,” he says. These writers will typically self-publish because they are less interested in glory than they are in making sure their families know their own history.
The fatal flaw. “Show, don’t tell.” It’s the one thing you are guaranteed to hear if you ever take a course in writing. Yet it is a concept that so few seem able to put into practice. And it is the most common flaw in memoir writing that Richards comes across.
The thing about memoir, Richards says, is that it is supposed to be the story of the person who wrote it. The person, not just the fact or the resume. In other words, it is about the emotions and the experiences; the perceptions and thoughts and lessons learned; the trials and successes.
“Most people have a very easy time writing about what happened,” Richards says, “but it takes guts and courage to write about your emotions.”
Components of a good memoir. Richards takes no credit for some of the things he teaches his students about writing. Instead, he defers to Stephen King, whose seminal “On Writing” discusses the fundamentals of putting stories down in print. The book has a chapter on memoir writing that offers seven keys to crafting an effective memoir. Four jump out at Richards immediately.
“The first rule of memoir writing is, you gotta write it down,” Richards says. After that, get to the point. Memoir writers often are people who have never written a thing, and as new writers, they have a tendency toward long preambles and stories without direction. Nix that and get to the point, he says.
Good memoir is also relatable, Richards says. No two people have exactly the same experiences, but everyone has experienced the same emotions.
We have all been afraid of something. Mad at something. Overjoyed by something. It doesn’t matter what the reason is so much as the emotion, the experience. The relatable part is not the city in which you lived, it’s life among other people.
And finally, Richards agrees with King in regard to how to become a better writer overall — read. A lot. Read everything and anything. See how other people see and feel and express their thoughts. It will teach you a lot.
Richards says that when he finishes polishing “A Blessed Life In America” he will self-publish and not worry about how well it sells. He is grateful that his wife suggested the project, and he would like to see her do her own story. “I can’t get her to do that,” he says. “But I’m working on her.”