Writing from Life:
Telling Your Soul's Story

by Susan Wittig Albert

Jeremy P. Tarcher/Peguin, 1996, 2004. ISBN 0874778484.
Reviewed by Trilla Pando
Posted on 06/02/2006
Review of the Month, September 2007

Nonfiction: Creative Life

I'm sitting here at the computer with two books spread in front of me. They have the same title, but look nothing alike. I don't mean that they merely have different cover art (both feature roses). One is dog-eared, underlined and annotated, and it flaunts four different colors of sticky notes. I bought it new. However, it is a used book—a well-used book. The other is newer with only a little underlining. I wanted to keep it pristine, but I can't discipline my hand; she keeps grabbing a pen and marking the good parts.

When Writing from Life came out in 1996, Susan Wittig Albert was a pioneer. She recognized the need for women to tell—and to share—their stories. All women—not only movie stars, Arctic explorers or famous women. For women who agreed with Susan but didn't know where to begin, this book served (and still serves) as a starting point.

Over a decade later, other books on memoir writing and related activities burden my bookshop shelves. But Writing from Life, for me, deserves a shelf of its own. I am delighted and grateful that the book came out again, this time with a new foreword and a revised, updated bibliography. Fortunately, the text of the book itself is unchanged.

Susan also founded Story Circle Network (SCN). Like many of its members, I cannot remember if this book led me into the organization or if SCN brought me to the book. It doesn't matter. Both have strengthened and enriched my writing life, no—my entire life.

Susan's new foreword recalls origins of the book and of SCN. She reiterates the reasons that women's life writing is critical, almost essential. Why should women tell and share their stories? It gives perspective and understanding to one's own life. It is healing, even to physical ills. It strengthens families and communities, and it leaves a legacy. Any one of these is reason enough to begin writing.

That's what the reader of Writing from Life will immediately want to do—grab a pencil, warm up the computer. The book lives up to the promise on the cover of both editions; it sets the reader off on "A journey of self-discovery." Early on, it encourages the writer/reader not only to tell her story, but also to create a book of her story. Seems daunting? Susan suggests writing out the words, "I am writing my life. I am telling my true story," and then taping them over a mirror or desk. She encourages,

"Nobody every writes a book all at once. As I write this, I'm writing a sentence, a word at a time. I collect sentences—three or four or seven or eight of them—into paragraphs, and two or three of those are enough to fill a page. A dozen or two dozen pages make a chapter. A covey of chapters is a book.

"But right now, I'm not worried about writing a book. Right now, I simply have faith in this true word, and this one, and the next. I have faith in this honest sentence, this paragraph, this page. That's all I need. Faith. Word by word, sentence by sentence. If I care enough about telling the truth, my truth, my book will speak for itself."

The journey the book promises begins in the beginning, but the road doesn't run in straight autobiography style through sixth grade, first date, marriage. Instead, Susan compares a life to a musical composition with themes and resonating chords that appear and reappear. So we explore our beginnings but also other birthings and beginnings, move on to gifts and graces, and then through relationships, homes, journeys and more. A new and fascinating way of regarding life.

I particularly enjoy the section on "Body Language," where we pause to have conversations with our body parts. Does your uterus have a name? Mine is Polly. (Don't ask me why!) And I'm going to have a serious conversation with my right hand about this constant underlining! Sounds light-hearted. It is. But even "fun" exercises lead to deep thought.

This kind of organization is appealing. Not only does it force our minds into new corners, but it allows for some dipping. If I don't feel like doing "Soul Mates" this week, I can flip forward to "Journeys." Since I've been dipping in and out of this book for quite a few years, I've also learned that time may or may not bring wisdom, but it certainly brings fresh perspectives. I can compare my responses to one chapter written several years ago to one I did last week and see how I have changed and, I hope, grown.

This is also a book about sharing. Susan shares her life story as she explains the process, but she also spikes the narrative with passages from her writing students as well as from published memoirs (plus there is a great reading list in the back). It's almost like belonging to a Story Circle. In fact, the book is designed to be used by Story Circle groups (the book and the organization are almost twins!), although it works well when used independently.

Looking back at the stories I have written, the stories I've shared with other writers (I am a member of an OWL Circle—another group sponsored by SCN. in Georgia and two on-line SCN groups), I reflect on the words in Susan's new foreword... "at the simplest level, many of us find that the truth is often more compelling than fiction, if only because it is...well, true." Amen. Particularly when those truths are our own truths.

Check out our interview with the author of Writing From Life.

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