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Bear witness to history through memoir writing

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    Teacher and author of “Telling Your Story,” Joyce Murray Boatright, told the Two Rivers Heritage Foundation audience, “I teach memoir writing because I believe it’s crucially important to bear witness to our history.”
  • Article Image Alt Text
    Teacher and author of “Telling Your Story,” Joyce Murray Boatright, told the Two Rivers Heritage Foundation audience, “I teach memoir writing because I believe it’s crucially important to bear witness to our history.”

When Navasota resident Joyce Murray Boatright, Ed.D. presented “Writing About Life” to the Two Rivers Heritage Foundation in February, no one foresaw the impending constraints on our lives imposed by COVID-19, or the timeliness of her topic.

Boatright told the audience, “Tracing our blood line isn’t the same as capturing our stories. Our bloodline traces our history, but our stories put flesh on that, bringing our heritage to life. I teach memoir writing because I believe it’s crucially important to bear witness to our history.”

A gift for words

As often found, the talents and abilities of one generation are a gift from the gene pool of another. Boatright’s father was a professor of teacher education and worked as a freelance writer after his military discharge.

She said, “He was a third generation Irish Catholic and had a great imagination for storytelling.”

The creative apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Boatright enrolled at Sam Houston State University majoring in English and journalism.

She said, “My classmates and I were so fortunate because the Houston Post’s working editors and popular columnists were our professors.”

That included award-winning columnist Leon Hale. Boatright credits Hale’s style for learning to “trust my own writing voice and not try to be some intellectual genius.

I’m a Texas small-town girl and I’m convinced there is room in this world for that regional voice.”

After graduation Boatright went to work as a reporter and proofreader for the Huntsville Item. From there she went on to Spring Woods High School where she sponsored award-winning high school publications. That was followed by a position at Lee College in Baytown where she served as the college’s first fulltime journalism teacher.

Transitioning to the public relations arena, Boatright was hired as Houston Community College’s Public Information Director and later, at North Harris Montgomery Community College District, her abilities made her their choice for the system’s vice chairman of institutional advancement, “responsible for marketing, government relations, fundraising and alumni affairs.”

An illness prompted Boatright’s return to teaching, but she continued to freelance for publications that included Texas Business, the Houston Chronicle and Houston Woman.

‘A slice of life’

Boatright has since retired from the workforce but not from writing, and certainly not from encouraging others to find their voice through outlets like journaling or memoir writing.

She describes journaling as facts, impressions or scraps of insight, and points out there are all kinds of journals, from dieting and weight loss to garden journals, inspirational quotes and prayer journals.

She said, “On the other hand, a memoir is a ‘slice of life’ memory, perhaps a single incident or a phase of your youth with some kind of reflection about what it meant.”

Boatright admits she is not a consistent journaler, saying, “I usually journal through challenges, emerging ideas and things I don’t understand.”

She cited historic events such as the Bay of Pigs, the assassinations of President John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Sept. 11 attack on the Twin Towers and the current pandemic as opportunities for reflection on the event’s impact on her own life.

On a more personal level, Boatright said, “My own life changing events – the birth of my son, the divorce from his father, the death of my parents, have given me time to record my evolving feelings of joy and bereavement.”

Revisiting her earlier writings, Boatright said, “I’m always interested in how my mind works. When I was much younger, most of my difficulties were someone else’s fault. As I have grown older, I see my part much quicker and that maturity is what shapes my life today.”

Alike but different

According to Boatright, the most common excuses for not putting pen to paper are lack of time and the belief that no one would want to read it.

Boatright related how in the 1990s she organized a group of 50-year-old women to write their stories. She speculated that initially it was the social aspect that brought them together, but as they began to write about simple, everyday life such as dinnertime or their father’s work, they discovered how alike their lives were even if the details were a little different.

Boatright said, “It brought them together as a community and they continued to meet for over a decade. Most of them shared their stories, but a few kept them for themselves only and eventually destroyed them rather than leave them to their children. It is always a personal choice.”

Write it!

Over the course of her career, Boatright has been involved in a teaching capacity with a number of organizations for writers, in some instances, on their board of directors.

She said, “Writers League of Texas is a statewide organization for writers who want to publish their work in the public arena. They offer meaningful workshops online for fiction, nonfiction and memoir writers.”

Boatright’s favorite organization is Story Circle Network, an organization for women only.

She said, “The core mission of the organization is to help women give voice to their stories. They offer great resources for journal and memoir writing.”

A free online source Boatright finds user-friendly is

For those uncertain about how to begin, is there a right or wrong way?

Boatright said, “The only wrong way is not to do it. In as soon as three generations, your story can be forgotten. Do you really think your long life has no lessons to pass along to your descendants? Leave your stories and you leave a treasured legacy.”

She continued, “That precious memory of your grandmother making Sunday dinner, or that time you had rheumatic fever and became a prolific reader and the Hardy Boys became YOUR gang, your first thoughts when you heard about the planes flying into the Twin Towers – whatever it is that tickles your memory, write it.”