By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
GUILDERLAND — Literary critics who have been predicting the death of the memoir for many years now haven’t met Vicki Schacter or visited the packed workshops of the Memoir Project at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy.
After taking a writing workshop from Marion Roach Smith at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy several years ago, Schacter, 75, recently published her memoir, “Lessons from My Father and the Dalai Lama.”
It focuses on a defining moment in Schacter’s life in 1960 in which she worked for nearly a year as a volunteer nurse in a refugee camp for Tibetan children in Dharamsala in northern India, alongside the Dalai Lama, his mother and sister. Both he and Schacter were in their mid-20s at the time.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, took refuge in India with his family after the start of the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959. “I had lunch with the Dalai Lama, saw him often and found him very calm and wise,” Schacter recalled. “The Tibetans were such lovely, positive people and my time with them deeply influenced my life.”
Schacter is among hundreds of Capital Region memoirists in the making, ranging from high school students who are aspiring writers to widowed women in their 90s, driven to put down on paper their life stories for grandchildren and great-grandchildren. These budding scribes fill several classes covering all aspects of the genre under the Memoir Project, which began this fall as a broad curriculum.
“Marion had this germ of an idea to expand our offerings on memoir writing and it’s really taken off,” said Amy Williams, president of the Arts Center.
Memoir has become a cottage industry in the Collar City. Many of Smith’s 500 students over the past 10 years have gone on to self-publish their memoirs through the Troy Book Makers, a niche printing operation that helps neophyte writers produce their writing as a bound book.
“It seems that everybody has a story in them and they want to tell it and get it out,” said Susan Novotny, an owner of Troy Book Makers and a longtime independent bookseller who owns Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza and Market Block Books in Troy.
In the past two years, the print-on-demand operation has completed a couple hundred titles, ranging from 10 copies of a family cookbook to Judy Barnes’ collection of essays, “Good to be Here: A Book of Moments,” which has gone into multiple printings and sold more than 2,000 copies. The cost to the author can range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars, or from $3 to $12 per copy, depending on color photos, paper quality and additional charges such as a cover design.
“Even though the market for these books is often only the author’s own backyard, most people are happy with that because it’s the only way to get their books into print,” Novotny said. The recession and changing reading habits have conspired to make 2008 one of her worst for sales in 33 years as a bookseller.
A declining market for printed books has done nothing to discourage people from writing memoir, said Smith, author of three books and wife of Times Union Editor Rex Smith. The waiting list to get into her class at the Arts Center is more than a year long.
“Life is made up of small moments and learning to write a memoir involves accessing the emotional truth that illuminates universal themes in your own story,” Smith said.
“They’ve been saying memoir is dead for 20 years but the good ones are still getting published and it’s still the most beautiful form we’ve got in nonfiction.”