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Composition Forum 22, Summer 2010

Winterowd, W. Ross, ed. Senior Citizens Writing: A Workshop and Anthology, with an Introduction and Guide for Workshop Leaders. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2007. Print and CD.

Reid, Bill, ed. Senior Citizens Writing II. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2009. Print and CD.

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Jennifer Maloy

For the past 13 years, W. Ross Winterowd, whose long career has focused on rhetorical study and the history of the English department, has been facilitating writing workshops with senior citizens in Huntington Beach, California. Senior Citizens Writing: A Workshop and Anthology, with an Introduction and Guide for Workshop Leaders, released in 2007, and Senior Citizens Writing II, released last year, document some of the work that Winterowd’s group of fourteen seniors have composed in their weekly writing workshops at Murdy Community Center. Winterowd served as editor of the first volume of this publication and then passed editorial control of the second volume to Bill Reid, one of the workshop participants.

The work created in Winterowd’s workshop and documented in these anthologies represents a mix of genres— fiction, memoir, historical writing, poetry—and is a testament to the writing workshop’s important function in participants’ lives. Most of the work is autobiographical and written in first-person narration; however, some pieces are written in third-person and focus on fictionalized characters. These include Bud Brower’s “Jake Davis,” who manages a crew working on an oil rig in Santa Barbara, and Royal L. Craig’s “Brinnell,” a man who is haunted by the phantoms of an ex-lover and their child. One writer, Michelle Barany, blurs the line between non-fiction and fiction, stating in her preface, “These stories are autobiographical, revisiting my childhood in France before and during World War II. They are in the voice of Janine, my alter ego” (1:29). Regardless of the positionality of the writers to the characters in their work, the writing in these anthologies draws heavily on the life experiences of the contributors who, through their workshop with Winterowd, seem to have embraced new identities as writers.

Many members of the workshop write about growing up during the Depression; learning lessons of sacrifice as they watched their parents support large families during wartime; and making their own difficult decisions while raising children, migrating within and emigrating to the United States, and dealing with the inevitable losses of death and divorce. In the second volume, Marjory Bong-Ray Liu writes about her attempts to move from Japanese-occupied Shanghai to Free China near the end of World War II. In the first volume, Art Weiland documents, through photos and text, the (often handmade) hats his late wife Stell wore from childhood onward, in a multi-media piece called “Hats.” The short work chronicles the life that Weiland shared with his wife and acknowledges the artistry of Stell’s hat-making, which Weiland says he “never paid much attention [to] until [he] looked back and could see how much it was a part of her” (1:252).

The effectiveness of these anthologies is two-fold: they demonstrate the ways in which community writing projects can inspire and motivate members of the community to see themselves as writers, and they also encourage readers to contemplate the ways in which our lived experience composes history. Indeed, many of the writers reveal that their motivation for writing is to create a sense of history and to record their lives for their children and grandchildren. Through the process of sharing their writing in their workshop and now with a wider readership through the publication of these anthologies, the contributors discover a space to document their own histories. Barany reflects upon this in “Into the Night of Time,” an epistolary exchange between a grandmother (not identified by name) and her granddaughter, Elisse. These letters call into question the relationship between family history, “the kind which, in the old-fashioned way, was handed down from generation to generation through stories” and “official” history, of the kind her granddaughter “will present…before [her] fifth-grade class.” Grandmother writes, “I didn’t realize before that I was a part of history, but upon reflection, I suppose I am” (1:39). Ultimately, this realization—that one’s life stories compose history—is the theme that fuses together the diverse writing in these anthologies.

In addition to representing a broad spectrum of work produced by participants of the workshop, the introduction to the first volume of Senior Citizens Writing also details Winterowd’s pedagogical approach to this writing workshop. Winterowd relies upon a tried and true model for this writing workshop, one that is similar to those used since the 1930s in creative writing programs. Here, “the whole dynamic of the workshop is a community of writers” (1:5): the leader of the workshop does not teach writing but rather creates a space where participants offer one another constructive feedback on their work. Winterowd claims this approach supports personal growth and development of an individual’s writing through focused group discussion of the formal and stylistic elements a writer chooses in her work.

In the “Nuts-and-Bolts” section of his introduction, Winterowd provides practical advice on the duration of workshops (around two hours) and desired number of participants (no more than fifteen) and even suggests possible sponsors for such workshops (adult education programs offered by local school districts or community centers). His sample feedback and examples from the workshop model the elements of writing that should be discussed— issues related to diction, style, organization, and description— and, likewise, Winterowd points out the limited effectiveness of discussing mechanical errors in such a context. For readers who might be interested in starting community writing groups, this type of straightforward and simple advice is constructive without being overly didactic, and it promises to be an effective model for any group of writers regardless of age or past writing experience.

In the first volume of Senior Citizens Writing, contributors offer their own insights into their creative writing in short prefaces to their work. In many cases, I found the writers’ prefaces as interesting as their creative writing, for the prefaces often reveal their authorial desires. The writers want to chronicle their lives as part of history, to share their stories with family and friends, and to devote themselves to writing after spending decades in other professions and with other priorities that silenced their stories. For example, Craig writes, “I started writing in first grade at school. I was promptly accused of plagiarism. I went underground with writing for years” (1:129). Ann Hinton begins her preface by stating, “I want my children, my grandchildren, even my great grandchildren to know that this aging woman they sometimes visit has not always been this aging woman” (1:173).

Unfortunately, these prefaces are left out of the second volume, replaced by Winterowd’s commentary on the work of each writer. Winterowd’s notes assess each writer’s strengths and point to what particular contributors accomplish in their writing—providing emotional impact, revising personal stories for a larger audience, and distinguishing between “chronicle” and “history” (2:196). However, this commentary by the leader of the workshop disrupts the careful balance within the “community of writers” that Winterowd outlines in the introduction to the first volume (1:5). This ultimately puts Winterowd in the position of authority that he claims to resist in his initial description of the writing workshop.

Nonetheless, the participants’ insights into their own identities as writers appear in rare moments in the second volume. For example, this quote from Phan Vu, describing his emigration from Vietnam to the United States, appears in Winterowd’s notes: “At last, at the age of 60, I became completely free: beginning a new life, a free life, in a new country—the United States, with a new citizenship—American; and learning a new language—English” (2:253). Winterowd uses his preface to Vu’s work to focus on whether workshop participants should be encouraged to edit their work so that it is written in standardized English. This does pose an important question to readers who might look to this as a guide for facilitating their own workshop; however, I would have preferred that the preface provide Vu’s reflection on his own work, a discussion of when he began to see himself as a writer, or details of his experiences learning a new language at the age of 60. These moments in the anthologies when a participant’s identity as a writer is revealed show the success of Winterowd’s project to create a community of writers, and I only wish I could have read about as many of those moments in the second volume as I did in the first.

Overall, though, the Senior Citizens Writing anthologies are significant contributions to the field of community literacy because they offer a model of a writing workshop that can be adopted fairly easily by those who want to start their own community writing projects. They also convincingly demonstrate the ways in which writing can become a valuable part of life for participants. Furthermore, through the engaging writing included in both volumes, they prove that the work of community writing projects can, and should, be appreciated by an audience that extends beyond the participants themselves.

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