Cameo Life Stories:
Writing Guide for Everywoman

by Deborah Hansen Linzer

Blue Moon Books, Scottsdale, AZ 1999. ISBN 0967482003.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 08/26/2002

Nonfiction: Creative Life

Deborah Hansen Linzer is a member of Story Circle.

Cameo Life Stories was written, Deborah Linzer tells us,

to encourage women everywhere to value their lives as important contributions to human history, to make human history more complete and more accurate by including women's life stories, and to share women's stories as invaluable sources of inspiration.

This is an important and ambitious mission statement, but Cameo Life Stories certainly lives up to it. While most "write-your-life-story" texts focus on the how-to of telling your story, or encourage women to write about their lives because writing is a healing act, Deborah Linzer urges us to write our life stories because "every woman makes history, no matter who she is or what she does." We are all history-makers, she reminds us, and every choice we make is an "exercise in making history."

When we begin thinking of ourselves as history-makers, it becomes a little easier to write our life stories. We see that we have been shaping our personal histories, and the histories of those around us, every day, in both positive and negative ways. Some days, making history may be as simple as catching up with the laundry... Other days, making history may be as momentous as sending a large check to a worthy charity...starting graduate school, staying sober for one more day, leaving an abusive husband...or beginning to write down the story of your history-making life.

This is important enough, and as the central message of the book, is repeated clearly, often, and compellingly throughout. But Deborah Linzer does more. She also helps us to see that when we write our stories, we are contributing to the new and expanding scholarship in women's history, where scholars are now beginning to incorporate the lives of women into the human record. What we write about our lives, she says, will be important not only to our families and friends, but to historians in the future. There are several aspects of women's history, she reminds us, that need the help of every woman: collecting stories from women "with knowledge of a vanishing way of life"; collecting stories about the ways individual women have transformed society; and collecting stories about the ways individual women have transformed themselves. What's more, she says, we need to establish "forms and forums" through which women can communicate these stories. (Sounds like Story Circle, doesn't it? Clearly, Linzer's work parallels our own commitments and activities. Our upcoming book, With Courage and Common Sense, which comes out of our OWL-Circle Memoir Workshops, is a good example of what Linzer is encouraging women to do.)

To guide women in the writing of their stories, Linzer offers several chapters on writing life stories, a questionnaire, and examples. The chapters give helpful advice on collecting and working with memories, while the questionnaire is a useful prompt for recalling details that might otherwise be forgotten, and the examples are strong and interesting. Additional chapters sketch out a plan for archiving women's stories, although it is not quite clear how these stories will be stored or how access to them will be provided in the future.

The idea of archiving is a valuable one, and reinforces Linzer's most important message: that women's stories are not just our own personal affair, they illuminate our contribution to our families and our communities, and hence belong not just to us, but to the world. They must be shared, they must find some sort of permanent form (as in print or oral recording), and they should be archived in a safe place that makes them accessible to those who have a reason to read them. It's a tall order, isn't it? But Linzer's book gives us a useful road map, and Story Circle has created its own journey. Together, we can find the courage to keep going.

You can read more about Deborah and her work on her website.

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