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Dear Life: Memoir Writers Hold On, Let Go, and Bear Witness 

click to enlarge Members of Abby Thomas’s memoir-writing group: Front Row, L to R: Kathy Burgher, Perri Ardman, Suzanne Dean, Annie LaBarge, Ruth Wahtera. - Middle Row: Nancy Henry, Micky Shorr, Sharon Stonekey, Phyllis Silvers, Craig Mawhirt, Barbara Sarah. - Back Row: Abigail Thomas, Carol Dwyer, Robert Smith. - Not pictured: Roberta Jehu,  Nancy Juretie, Marjorie Leopold, Marge Roberts - ROY GUMPEL
  • Roy Gumpel
  • Members of Abby Thomas’s memoir-writing group: Front Row, L to R: Kathy Burgher, Perri Ardman, Suzanne Dean, Annie LaBarge, Ruth Wahtera. Middle Row: Nancy Henry, Micky Shorr, Sharon Stonekey, Phyllis Silvers, Craig Mawhirt, Barbara Sarah. Back Row: Abigail Thomas, Carol Dwyer, Robert Smith. Not pictured: Roberta Jehu, Nancy Juretie, Marjorie Leopold, Marge Roberts

We are a storytelling species. Every human being has tales to tell, and the impulse to pass them along—both to loved ones and strangers—is primal. So is the urge to leave something behind when mortality calls. The remarkable new anthology holding on, letting go (OSP Memoir Group, 2013) collects stories by people who've learned to look death in the eye and to savor life's gifts. It's hard to imagine more meaningful work.

Abigail Thomas (A Three Dog Life; Safekeeping) leads the Memoir Group at Kingston's Oncology Support Program of the HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley. In 2011, after her daughter was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, the bestselling memoirist volunteered to lead a five-week writing workshop. Nearly two years later, it's still going strong, with a waiting list forming for a second group. "There was just so much talent," she says. "Extraordinary talent. How could you stop?"

The Oncology Support Program was founded by Barbara Sarah, a breast cancer survivor and one of holding on, letting go's 15 contributors. Now in its 20th year, OSP offers support groups and counseling, with Healing Arts programs in photography, theatre, art, writing, and music; Ellen Marshall MS, LCSW, is its director. For the past five years, this vibrant program has been housed in the Reuner Cancer Support House at 80 Mary's Avenue, across from the hospital.

The butterscotch-yellow house is modest and welcoming. Inside, the lighting is soft. There's a sectional couch draped with chenille and crochet throws, a coffee table with dishes of pretzels and fruit, a door to a deck overlooking a burgeoning garden. You might not notice it right away, but there's also a striking sculpture of a female torso with one full breast and a red rose where the second should be.

Three women sit on the couch, talking with the writer they all just call "Abby"—it's all first names here. Everyone wears dangly earrings and sensible shoes; a woman named Ruth is wearing a beautiful pastel silk headscarf. More writers arrive, trading news as they settle: Roberta's in the hospital, Bob is away on vacation, Perri's at Rosh Hashana services, Craig will be late. "None of us like to miss Thursday afternoons," explains Carol, who's bright-eyed and willowy. "Something's got to be wrong."

Every Thursday, this group—17 at last count—gathers to share work aloud. Most, though not all, have been writing for years; many have published in various genres. But this is different, a place where lives touch. You can sense the excitement and warmth in the room.

A strong-featured woman with a tumbleweed of blonde hair and big silver rings, Abby kicks off the meeting by reading three excerpts from books. "This is from My Struggle by Karl Ove Something-or-Other...Knausgaard. It's 800 pages of every sandwich he ever chewed and it's riveting." She reads a passage in which the writer watches a woman in a coffee shop and imagines what she's thinking. Then she gives a writing prompt for next week: "Two pages of what you don't think about in a coffee shop."

Abby's "two pages" assignments are legendary; her 2008 book Thinking About Memoir is full of them. She offers two more, both inspired by poems. (There are always three choices; the fourth choice is "anything you want.") Then she starts calling on writers. No one demurs, and only one person has not brought new pages.

The group keeps expanding. Phyllis and Marge arrive, dressed in bright colors, like tropical birds. They're followed by Craig, whose peppery beard and bandanna conceal scars he alludes to in his author bio: "After losing his vocal cords to cancer, he has found a new voice in Abigail Thomas's Oncology Support Memoir Group."

Just as Kathy starts reading, Nancy Henry enters, her husband pushing her wheelchair. She's followed by Marjorie, who's brought her white poodle and an armload of notebooks. "Are you supposed to be carrying all that crap?" someone asks her, concerned. "Oh, probably not," says Marjorie blithely. "I forget. Which is a good thing, till I feel stitches pulling." Everyone settles, and Kathy starts over. Each reading is met with appreciative sighs and a flurry of comments; heartfelt thank-yous are frequent.

Annie's piece portrays a beloved aunt with an impossible husband. "You show the dark and the light, and it's seamless," sighs Marjorie. Craig notes that the uncle is never named; a lively discussion ensues.

Speaking of...

  • A profile of Abigail Thomas’s memoir-writing group for cancer survivors.

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