Santa Cruz poet Robert Sward to gather writers together in a workshop aimed at making sense of family stories
By Wallace Baine, Santa Cruz Sentinel
Acclaimed Santa Cruz poet and teacher Robert Sward is offering to help writers get a handle on their family story in an all-day workshop on Saturday, July 28, at the Capitola Book Café. "Writing Family Stories, Writing Family Secrets," a part of the Memoir Writers Workshops, sponsored by Memoir Journal, is designed to reveal the secrets of family upbringing and grapple with the occasionally thorny issues of writing about family memories.
Sward -- who recently released his most recent collection, "New & Selected Poems, 1957-2012" with Red Hen Press-- said that he begins the often daunting task of writing about family with photographs.
"We ask everyone to bring family photographs," he said. "It could be anything, but it should be some meaningful photograph of themselves or other family members. It gives people a focal point on dealing with the subject."
Sward said that he has taught this class for several years in many venues, and that the photograph idea has been instrumental in getting writers to find their voice when writing about their families.
Still, writing about family can be fraught with all kinds of delicate problems.
Writing the truth can often mean damaging, sometimes even destroying family relationships, particularly when it comes to disagreements over memories. Sward said that his workshop is a place to work over such issues in a safe atmosphere. "We hold to a strict confidentiality on these matters," he said. "What is said in the room stays in the room, and no one is forced to read something that they don't want to read."
Of course, not all writers interested in taking on their family stories have to face traumatic episodes in their family life. Sward is quick to emphasize that the workshop is open to all, even to those with the most tranquil of family backgrounds.
"We'll sometimes have teens interested in their family line. Many times older people are asked by someone in the family to write the family story. And we'll often look at family mythology, family anecdotes, what you role you played in the family, birth order, what your nickname was in the family, etc."
Participants will pair up and interview each other about their respective families, with pertinent photographs in hand. Sward, who has taught at Cornell, UC Santa Cruz and the Iowa Writers Workshop, said that he promotes the natural voice in writing. "I emphasize writing in the same manner in which you're talking about your photograph."
Sward said that he has grappled with writing autobiography himself, and he knows from experience what the process entails. Though he doesn't necessarily recommend that writers show their work to family members for approval, he does encourage people to interview family members. He also encourages people to fictionalize their stories if that emerges as the best way to get at the fundamental truth.
Still, he said, he's not there to act as a kind of psychiatrist in helping people transcend the emotional traumas of childhood and family life.
"That's just something I'm not qualified to do," he said. "I'm interested in the story people have to tell about their lives. But I'm there as a listener, an editor and as a sounding board. Our job is to find the ring of truth in these stories."
Causes Robert Sward Supports
Audubon Society, National Geographic, "Green," the Environment, SPCA...