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Long Island seniors take up memoir writing - for themselves, families

Memoirists who are part of the Long Island

Memoirists who are part of the Long Island Breakfast Writers Club hold their books at a recent meeting in West Hempstead. Back row, from left, Valentina Janek, Susan Capurso, Linda Springer and Christine Ruggieri, and seated, from left, Donna Cariello, Gaetane Martin and Stephanie Larkin. Photo Credit: Howard Simmons

After Valentina Janek was downsized in 2004 from CMP Media in Manhasset, she founded the Long Island Breakfast Club for people seeking jobs and support. The club, with a catchy name, met over breakfast as people shared struggles, successes and experiences.

But after Janek began writing a book — “From Fired to Freedom” — about her downsized life, she noticed others in the group were interested not only in talking, but in writing, about their own life stories. Janek met with Donna Cariello, 58, of Levittown, who leads Long Island Way, a networking group, and decided to do something different.

“We wanted to help people tell their story, their legacy,” Cariello said.

They invited Stephanie Larkin, a publisher and writing coach, to lead meetings for a very different book group — where people work on stories typically based on their life. The first meeting in May 2016 had 18 people.

Explained Janek, “We read passages. We meet, we eat, we seek. We help each other. What’s stuck? Why can’t you go to the next page?”

So while the Long Island Breakfast Club meets the second Saturday of every month to help people turn a new page, the Long Island Breakfast Writers Club meets monthly, typically the third Tuesday, to help people put their lives on the page.

“This is a new niche,” Janek, a Stony Brook resident, said of the group, which attracted more than 30 people to the May meeting. “We’re here to help each other.”

Cariello sees sharing a life story with loved ones and friends and those who are interested as a valuable experience. “I think everyone has a story,” Cariello said. “Write that book.”

Age of the author

While self-publishing is nothing new, many people are writing their or their loved ones’ life stories not simply to tell the world, but their families.

“Lifewriting groups” fill meetup.com and the National Association of Memoir Writers also attracts those interested in recording the narrative of their lives. The process can matter as much as the product.

“For the ones writing personal stories, the goal can be to share with their family,” Larkin said, noting writers also seek “to uncover their own selves, their lives.”

Larkin said some write autobiographies beginning at or near birth, and others focus on briefer portions of their lives to create memoirs. In large part, these books are self-published.

Bob Verneuille, a 64-year-old West Babylon resident who retired from his job as an analyst with the New York State Unified Court System in 2010, then worked as a consultant until 2017, is writing a memoir centered on 1,000 days he spent in a Vermont commune.

“I remembered pieces. Each memory helped with other memories. I pulled memories from photographs,” said Verneuille, who attended the Breakfast Writers inaugural meeting. “I talked with my friends and family who had been there.”

Verneuille described his memoir as being about his time from age 19 to 22 among “Long Island wannabe hippies living on a mountain.”

Another member, Sandra Arthur, had just completed a children’s book, “Millicent the Rainbow Frog," and is working on two more. “They’re all based on my life,” Arthur said of the books inspired by her childhood. “We interacted a lot with nature. When I read the story, I look at it and say I’m able to share my memories.”

Company on the journey

While writing about one’s life can be lonely, a book writing group can provide camaraderie in the journey from past to page.

“We’re cheerleaders for one another and we’re very result-driven,” Cariello said. “We’re about community, making a commitment. And we hold each other accountable.”

Gaetane Martin, 71, of Northport, said she received “support and encouragement” from Larkin and the group that helped her finish her book.

“I phone people and nag them every week,” Larkin said. “There is a difference between reams of journals and turning it into a story that people can read.”

Arthur has just finished the first of what she hopes will be three children’s books based on her childhood, but she came close to stopping along the way.

“There were times I’d get stuck,” Arthur said. “Am I going to be able to do this?

“They helped me to move forward,” she said.

For many, the process can be highly personal and revelatory.

“Writing your story is as much about validating yourself, finding out who you really are and finding the next step into your future,” Larkin said. “Writing your book is a step toward self-awareness and making decisions about your future.”

In January, Martin finished “100 Pennies, a Journey to Forgive the Unforgivable,” a story about a geographic and spiritual journey. “This is my life story,” she said. “The purpose for me to write this book was so my children never suffer what I did.”

Martin, who grew up in New Brunswick, Canada, as the oldest of nine children said she wrote her autobiography about moving out and discovering happiness.

“This is how I lived all these years,” she said. “I left at age 19. I came to Brooklyn. This is where my happy life started.”

While many authors write about their own lives, Susan Capurso, a Holtsville resident who worked for 1-800-Flowers.com for 18 years, wrote a book to help others write theirs.

After her husband died five years ago when he was 52, Capurso also lost her mother, sister, brother and a cousin within the next two years.

Capurso, 54, who became an end-of-life doula in 2018 to advise people close to death, wrote “Remember Me — The Story of my Life,” a book with prompts on each page to help readers write about their lives.

“I love stories,” Capurso said. “People weren’t leaving stories. Once they go, the memories go. I’m a big believer in the story.”

Cariello said group members typically attend a publication party, marking the completion of their story-writing process. “We cooperate with one another,” she said. “We celebrate with a book launch.”

Janek published "From Fired to Freedom" in January 2018 and "launched" it at a February party the same year, marking a milestone in her life.

“We had so many people there, you couldn’t find a parking spot,” said Linda Springer, a 62-year-old Farmingville resident who wrote “There’s Always Hope” and attended Janek's book launch at the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island in Garden City.

Capurso received the first copies of her book the day of the May meeting. “I was so excited,” she said.

A major moment

The authors' family and friends often agree that completing a book is an important moment in the life of the author, as much about their past as moving forward into the future.

“She had been talking about doing it. I’m happy that she did it,” said Jim Sheridan, Martin’s life partner. “It’s given her a purpose and a focus.”

Carol Verneuille said she’s glad that her husband put part of his life on paper, although he’s still polishing it.

“He’s had it inside for a long, long time. He finally had the time to let it out,” she said. “It’s reinvigorated him. I think it’s made him younger.”

Stephanie Larkin’s mother, Christine Ruggieri, wrote a book with and about her husband after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The 75-year-old Glen Oaks resident said she noticed that her husband’s long-term memory was strong, even if his short-term memory was fading.

“It became his reason for living,” Ruggieri said. “If he remembered something, he would start writing it down.”

After he died in 2011 when he was 85, she finished the book, “Time was … Reflections on Life, Love and New York City,” listed her husband, Dick, as the author, and gave it to her family in 2017.

“Everybody got a Christmas gift — that was the book,” she said. “They were overwhelmed.”

Although writing one’s life can be difficult, these Long Island memoir writers say that simply putting one’s life on paper often interests others — who may suddenly look at the author a little differently.

“When I tell someone I’m writing a book, they listen,” Janek said. “I don’t know why, but they do. People listen to me.”

Want to write about your life?

  • Long Island Breakfast Writers Club (http://longislandbreakfastclub.org/, facebook.com/groups/LongIslandBreakfastClub, 516-314-8989 or email vjanek@optonline.net) meets monthly. The next meeting and class about how to write a book is 6 p.m. Aug. 29 at Frank’s Steaks, 4 Jericho Tpke., Jericho.
  • National Association of Memoir Writers has resources including online workshops and events listings.
  • Check your local library for resources, groups and workshops.
— Claude Solnik

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