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Editor helps Lowcountry writers transform memories into memoirs during pandemic

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Mary Johnston

Mary Johnston reads a memoir of her father that she helped write. Helping on that memoir led her down the path to become a professional memoir consultant. Brad Nettles/Staff

Angela Williams knows something of disarray, and of salvation.

The former aptly describes the disintegration of her well-to-do family when she was just a child. The latter was embodied in the person of one Eva Aiken, a Black woman who worked for her parents.

Angela Williams

Angela Williams of Mount Pleasant wrote a memoir about the disintegration of her family and being raised by a Black woman who worked for her parents. She worked with Mary B. Johnston, founder of Tell-Your-Stories.com. Provided

In her memoir, "Hush Now, Baby" (Texas Review Press, 2015), Williams tells the story of how Aiken rescued and raised her. Williams, a Mount Pleasant resident, would go on to an accomplished career in education, retiring in 2008 from the English/MBA Program at The Citadel. That she emerged from an imperiled childhood to enjoy a successful life is owed in no small measure to the woman who gave her the strength to persevere and the confidence to achieve.

Her story, with a powerful message on race relations, is intended for an audience extending beyond her two children and two grandchildren.

Dr. James Freston’s early personal history is rather different.

Emeritus professor of medicine and Boehringer Ingelheim chairman of clinical pharmacology at the University of Connecticut Health Center, he also was professor of medicine and pharmacology at College of Medicine, professor of biochemical toxicology in the School of Pharmacy and director of the gastroenterology/liver and clinical pharmacology divisions at the University of Utah.

Dr. James Freston

Dr. James Freston is working to complete his memoirs on his passion for medicine as well as his love of flying. Mary B. Johnston is helping him tell his story. Provided

His achievements and honors fill pages. At 84, he still works as a consultant. But one gets the feeling that flying was at least as much a passion as medicine for the current Charleston resident, a long-time member of the Air Force Reserve.

He and wife Margie, who has enjoyed a distinguished career of her own, have four children and 11 grandchildren. He wanted them to know his story.

Unlike Williams’ book, Freston’s is only now nearing completion, but both memoirists are exemplars of the challenging exercise of memory, selection and composition that is the personal history, a project tailor-made for this moment of the pandemic.

“Telling our stories can transform how we see them and the power they have over us,” says Mary B. Johnston of Charleston, founder of Tell-Your-Stories.com. “But it is one thing to experience an event, another to recall it, and still another to shape and narrate it. I believe that it is in this third iteration that we not only garner a story’s meaning but can help determine it.”

Mary Johnston

Mary Johnston works in her home office on a client's memoir. Helping her father with his memoir led her down the path to become a professional memoir consultant. Brad Nettles/Staff

As editor, coach, mentor or collaborator, Johnston has been helping people tell their stories for quite some time, regarding it as a form of “narrative therapy.”

Williams and Freston are among her clients.

As the pandemic locked us down, many turned inward in constructive ways. But having already sifted, sorted, trashed, donated, recycled and reorganized materials in every drawer, closet, cabinet and shelf in their homes, plowed into gardening, planned redecorating or other home improvements, some are turning their gaze to more personal and edifying pursuits: taking stock, re-evaluating what’s important in their lives, trying on new creative clothing. Like writing.

Setting out to write a memoir or personal history is more than a mere diversion. It can be hard, stressful work, but also something joyous and meaningful, with particular resonance in a difficult time.

For Williams, it was more than her life story.

"Hush Now, Baby"

"Hush Now, Baby" is a memoir by Mount Pleasant resident Angela Williams is about how Eva Aiken, a Black woman, rescued and raised her. Texas Review Press/provided

“My book was not to be a memoir, originally,” she says. “It was simply to honor Eva Aiken, who lived with us in the Moncks Corner area until I got married. It wasn’t to be about the (racial) turmoil in the country or in our family until I started writing and these things started pouring out. It wound up being a family story with Eva being the most important person in our family.”

The late Pat Conroy, no stranger to familial strife, encouraged Williams to proceed, but it was her choice — a difficult one — to use real names.

Williams had already invested 10 years in the book before Johnston came aboard to bring it to fruition.

“I hired Mary when I signed on with a publisher," recalls Williams. “I needed help with organization. She helped me move things around and questioned why certain things were included, or not included, as a means to move the story forward. She held my feet to the fire. Mary is definitive about what she wants the outcome to be and she wants you on the same page. But of course, you make the final decisions.”

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Freston intended his memoir chiefly for family, friends and a few colleagues, and has found the process demanding but invigorating. He recounts his career to date, his continuing community service and a late-in-life religious turnaround, with considerable candor about his successes and regrets.

“My children and grandchildren encouraged me to write down some of these stories about my life, and especially my career,” he says. “Mary got wind of the fact that both my parents were deaf and that my siblings and I grew up in a silent house. I had expressed some interest in having her help me write this story, but everything came to a head last fall when I became quite ill. I’m stable now, but I figured it was now or never.”

Freston has had four, mostly parallel, careers, and each of them fulfilling well beyond his expectations. Distilling and arranging all the information into a useful framework has been the major task.

“The organizational challenge I faced with the book was whether to do it chronologically or thematically,” he adds. “We began with a chronological treatment, then transitioned to a thematic.

“In dictating this material, I had stories in different sections relating to family deafness, my career in medicine, my adventures as a private pilot and stories of world travel with my wife, Margie. The process of putting them all in the right place isn’t entirely resolved yet, but with Mary’s help we’re getting there.”

Mary Johnston

Mary Johnston helped her father write his memoir which led her down the path to become a professional memoir consultant. Brad Nettles/Staff

Johnston says roughly a third of her clients already have something written they know needs a greater sense of coherence and more detail or explanation.

“Others have something written, but it’s incomplete and they want to know how to finish it, flesh it out and make it more interesting,” Johnston says. “Others don’t want to put pen to paper at all. They want me to interview them and family members and also gather and scan or capture photos. So it’s the whole gamut of involvement.”

But Johnston does not assist as an intermediary in the publishing process. She concentrates on getting to know the client and their story and then crafting it so that it is clear and engaging and has a consistent voice.

“My experience is that people either are or are not invested in writing their personal histories. People cannot be persuaded to do it — only guided in how to. I have had a couple of clients who have been cajoled into writing their histories; working with them is terribly difficult. From them I have learned to have a very soft marketing approach.”

Williams, who did almost 400 speaking engagements after the book’s publication, says her process was exhilarating but also devastating because of her family’s reaction.

“They did not speak to me for so long. We still never discuss the book. But I did it for the greater good, and for catharsis. The reception from others has been phenomenal.”

Johnston says that “because we are vessels of so many memories,” it is hard to know in advance what you want to include or not include. Part of her job is to guide the author through that thicket.

Mary Johnston

Mary Johnston helped her father write his memoir which led her down the path to become a professional memoir consultant. Brad Nettles/Staff

Imagine the daunting chore that confronted Freston, with so much material to sift through and integrate.

“Professional friends urged me to write about some of my adventures as well,” he says. “But I found myself starting to divulge things not only about my exploits but about deeply personal matters, including the experiences of patients that were dear to me, so I decided to limit its audience.”

He says that what the pandemic has done is help him find the time to realize the project, with Johnston as collaborator, coach and guide.

“Mary has acted as all these, but also as an instigator. Actually, she was writing a book about my wife’s career as a midwife when Mary first encouraged me to do this. She’s been a very capable guide in showing me how to approach it. And she is a very experienced, adept editor.”

Johnson says a prospective author should have the freedom to determine what they want to remember, that the act of choosing is itself part of the retrieval process. She asks about “pivotal epiphanies or the leitmotifs” of the writer’s life but does not expect them to be clear and ready to roll so much as prepared to explore the possibilities.

Tapping into universal themes and novelistic strategies often are integral to crafting a successful memoir, but motivation and commitment are the key components.

“If they don’t have a burning desire, I do not want to be doing this with them. I want to be the midwife, not the taskmaster. Unless someone is choosing to write about traumatic events, I don’t feel like I have to do much guiding. But there are very emotional moments in this process.

A member of the Association of Professional Historians, Johnston says that for her, each book is fresh terrain and endlessly interesting. She focuses exclusively on print books, anything from a slice-of-life series of vignettes to a full life story. Ultimately, she enlists the skills of a book designer in bringing the story to visual life.

“I try to determine what a client wants and the three of us kind of co-design the book together. I love that part,” she says. “It’s like Christmas morning.”

Bill Thompson is a writer based in Charleston.

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