The risks and rewards of Life Writing

What are the risks of writing non-fiction about real people, real family heartbreaks, real relationship challenges? Does writing about life’s difficulties produce any catharsis and relief? Why would a writer want to revisit tragedies in his or her past?

Cadboro Bay Book Co. Event

Cadboro Bay Book Co. Event

Those were just a few of the questions addressed last week by authors Barbara Stewart, Lynne Van Luven and Jane Johnston. In an engaging evening panel discussion at Cadboro Bay Book Co., the three shared their experiences and insights as writers and, in Van Luven’s case, as an editor of many others’ memoirs.

 The standing-room-only crowd spoke to readers’ appetite for the genre.
Lynne Van Luven kicked off the evening by observing that we live in a celebrity and social media culture where public sharing of life’s complexities is everywhere we turn. Her entertaining mini history of ‘life writing’ illustrated (with examples from Montaigne to Frey) that the human impulse to record and share life experiences is not something new.
Somebody's Child - Stories About Adoption by Jane Johnston

Somebody’s Child – Stories About Adoption by Jane Johnston

Life writing demands much more than the telling of a personal story, Jane Johnston says. The writer’s larger challenge is to weave together the personal and the universal. “Each of us is part of a greater tragedy,” she says of her own experiences as a birth mother during what she called “the baby-scoop era.” Her non-fiction account of that experience is included in Somebody’s Child: Stories about Adoption.

Barbara Stewart’s Campie is a memoir of (in one of many self-definitions) “a sober, celibate, bankrupt vegetarian who mops floors, cleans toilets, burns garbage, does laundry, makes beds and picks up after rig workers” in a northern Alberta oilfield camp. Talking about the challenges of remembering and recreating life stories from many years ago, Stewart explained that she relied heavily on her considerable stash of artifacts. Her letters, notes, matchbooks and miscellany from the past “helped me remember the smells, the sounds and what it felt like.”
In response to audience questions, each of the writers recounted how publishing their life stories in itself created new family and relationship tensions. Yet each believes that the personal and social insights gained were worth the risks and discomfort.
And asked about the pain of revisiting life events that were extremely difficult, the panelists all spoke of rewards – albeit rewards that are not easily earned. “Once you tell a story, you set it free and set yourself free,” Van Luven said. “It frees up space for something else.”



  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for sharing this and yes it was a great evening. There are many incredible personal stories to be told in the world but it is a true blessing when those that have a story to tell can tell it so wonderfully. It takes more than bravery – it takes honesty and I thank Barbara Stewart for that.

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