Women writers share the stories they keep in a drawer

On the Internet, Memoir Cafe has grown into a supportive place for critiques and community


In a faraway corner of the Internet, in a room cluttered with mountains and dogs and children and lovers and souffles and beloved grandparents, the women of the Memoir Cafe share pieces of their existence.

A few aspire to be published, but most Cafe members simply want to fine tune their ability to make written sense of their lives and to add their thoughts to the collective experience of women around the world.

They work in a cyber community brought together by Stephanie Montgomery, a Walpole, N.H., writer and teacher who launched the Memoir Cafe last February.

"You find them talking about sexuality, dating, clothes, careers, writing and the role of reading in their lives," says Montgomery, 56, whose nurturing, insightful presence informs the spirit of the Memoir Cafe. Frequented by young and old, the cafe has become "a whole series of gently interrupted dialogues. It's also incredibly supportive," she says.

In a natural process she didn't anticipate, the cafe built itself into a community. "Almost all of [the members] don't really think about community when they start," Montgomery says. "It's just a computer screen. But as they read the stories and respond to one another, these women become so real to one another."

When one member disappeared from the cafe for six weeks, others were alarmed. Then, she "suddenly posted a letter from Tanzania, in an Internet cafe," much to everyone's relief and delight, Montgomery says.

The cafe itself has a way of crossing the virtual divide, members say. It has "become so real to me," says Barbara Dretzin, a retired librarian who lives in New Hampshire. In summer, when so many members were on vacation and off-line, the cafe was "sparse and lonely," she says. "There were only [a few] of us there for two weeks."

In cyber drawers with labels such as "The World of Things," "Love Stories," and "The Things We Make with Our Hands," cafe members, who often use screen names, enter memoirs of limited length that are then subject to "respectful and helpful" critiques.

In the "Family and Private Life" drawer, Dretzin, who writes as Giselle, remembers her grandfather: "One of our favorite memories is of watching him while he shaved. The sun seems always to be shining through the frosted window near the sink, glittering in the cut glass facets that edge it. Lifting the lid from the small wooden bowl of Yardley's Lavender, he whips up a fragrant lather with a soft white brush. After giving each of us a dab on the nose or an outstretched hand, he slathers it all over his face."

In the "Love Stories" drawer, a woman with the pseudonym Psyche writes about adopting a daughter in China: "In the morning we were awake long before she was and simply watched her sleep, dazed by her presence and the indisputable reality of her soft breathing. She woke up quietly, sat up in the crib, and subjected each of us to a long, sober, cold appraisal. We looked weird; we were old; our intelligence was dubious. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, she flashed a dazzling movie-star smile and cast her lot with us."

Psyche was a member for a long time before she posted a story, Montgomery says. When she did, other cafe regulars soon responded "with praise and appreciation." It was validation that she was truly a writer, Montgomery says.

The Memoir Cafe began with a hunch, its founder says. "If you make sure a woman feels safe writing her story and you guarantee to her she would get positive, interested feedback ... that would prime her pump, keep her stimulated and keep her writing."

Memoir Cafe member Kristin Hodgkins Macomber lives in Cambridge, Mass., where writing groups abound. But she prefers the virtual cafe's diversity of voices and geography. And she likes a community that "you can drop in or drop out of," says Macomber, one of the first to contribute to the cafe with a wise discourse on the Boston Red Sox and making apple sauce.

Washington, D.C. resident Laurie Coburn has always been a writer, but the Memoir Cafe has allowed her to connect each of her works into a continuing narrative of her life. "I began to think of this as a metaphor -- as beads on a string," says Coburn, a retired "progressive public policy advocate" and frequent cafe contributor. "I think of all of these beads as an offering to my children and my grandchildren."

Within the Cafe, Montgomery provides a continuing course in memoir with daily prompts and monthly tutorials on topics such as "The Truth about Truth and Other Lies" and "Mortality and Metaphor."

Montgomery's own drawer brims with essays on life in rural New England. Recently, she wrote about the day when "Mr. Beebe," a dowser from Bellows Falls, Vt., came to her property to look for a place to "pound" a new well. Beebe "didn't talk much but allowed as how he would dowse to find the best spot on our bony hillside," Montgomery writes.

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