Meet Robin Edgar
Tell us about your growing-up years. Clearly your mother was a very important person in your life.
My mother was a career woman and worked as a pattern maker for dress designers before she married when she was 35, which was old for her generation.
When I was very young, she had to work in her bridal shop to support us, but from the time I was three years old, she worked at home as a seamstress so she could be there for me and my sister, who was 14 months older. I used to love to entertain her customers as I practiced piano or read them my stories.
When did you become interested in writing?
I can remember being scolded for not going outside to play when I was around eight years old because I loved to sit at my desk all day and write books and stories.
Did you dream of being a writer as a child or young person? Or did you come to it as an adult?
I dreamed of becoming an actress as a child. Inspired by Shirley Temple and Loretta Young as well as Carol Burnett, I became a theatre major and joined a production company, working as a professional actress and mime for over 30 years. I always wrote on the side, though, and would say, "If I were not acting I would be writing." I actually use the acting technique of sense memory to help people connect to significant memories in my workshops. Your senses are tied to your emotions and it is scientifically proven that the stress from emotions trigger the biological process the brain requires to consolidate long-term memories.
In your book, In My Mother's Kitchen, you offer your own reminiscences as a part of your approach to help people who are coping with loss. Did writing this book change your feelings about your life and your family?
Although I had been interviewing seniors about their memories for newspaper articles for many years, I never thought to do it myself until I was asked to teach a class on writing your life story for the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. I realized that I could not teach my students to do something I had never personally done, so I wrote about my life. This was five years after my mother had passed away, and as memories about my mother poured onto the page, I rejoiced about the time we had together and the sadness of her absence was assuaged. The reminiscence process helps you to recognize and to be thankful for the individuals and events that shaped your life. Seeing events through adult eyes also helps you to understand and forgive.
What role do you see for storytelling in today's literate and technology-driven society?
Before there was a written language, oral societies used storytelling to explain and preserve their cultural history. Songs, chants and fables used rhyme and movement to act out and preserve the memories of ancestors as they explained the world that was both seen and unseen. The repetition of these stories created an affirming affect on individuals and helped to establish their value system.
In today's literate society we still need this powerful connection. Part of my art and work is to foster this creative spirit in others, which is why I focus my writing around and teaching on reminiscence. As individuals recall and record the stories about individuals and incidents that shaped their lives, they can celebrate the similarities and differences across generational, socio-economic, and ethnic lines.
Not all memories are about happy times. Some recount painful experiences or times without harmony. Celebrating the laughter and the lessons are what bring comfort and affirm one's own culture and belief system. As a writer, whether I am working on a story for publication or an entry in my journal, I draw upon this healing power of reminiscence to tell the story.
When I put together the syllabus for a writing course that I taught at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, I used written accounts of memories about my mother, whom I lost to cancer, as examples. The stories identified and celebrated the wonderful qualities that made my mother who she was and also defined how her life affected me as an individual. This process and its outcome is what my new work is all about.
Our society today tries to tell us that our stories are not important; that other people's stories that are printed in books are more valuable. I am on a quest to get people to recognize that everyone has a story to tell and that their stories are essential ingredients in their family recipes.
On your website you discuss the "healing power of reminiscence." (This is also the name of your workshops.) How do you perceive the role of memory in healing?
I liken it to what happens to Jimmy Stewart in the Frank Capra Movie "It's a Wonderful Life." Looking back on significant memories, you find that lemons turned to lemonade, or that you did make a difference in your loved ones' lives. You can also find a way to forgive through finding the laughter or the lesson in unhappy memories. It softens hardened hearts and helps to resolve unresolved differences. It also helps with long-term bereavement.
You mention the importance of celebration and laughter. Life writers often focus on the traumas and unhappy times of their lives. You encourage people to recount the happy times as well. Please expand your comments on the importance of using happy memories as a means of healing.
Finding the laughter is not just about remembering the happy times. It can also mean looking back on hard times or awkward moments, like the time you got caught using the family car, or an embarrassing moment, and laughing at them. The example I use in my workshops is about the time I walked through the entire airport with the back of my dress tucked into my underwear! It was not funny at the time, but it always gets a good laugh now. Many people in my bereavement workshop for hospice find that recalling funny stories about their lost loved one is the key that finally unlocks their grief so they can move on.
Ritual plays an important role in your workshop. Explain what you mean by "ritual." Does ritual play a role in your personal life?
A ritual is the repetition of a meaningful act, which brings a sense of calm, comfort, or celebration. It is very personal and can be as simple as walking down a certain street or stopping to smell the flowers or eating a double cheeseburger. Rituals come as naturally to us as breathing, but we have somehow lost permission to practice them or recognize their importance. Once I wrote the stories about my mother for my book, I realized that I had many rituals to celebrate my mother, like: cooking her recipes for special occasions or simply when I missed her; or repeating sayings that she had; or playing the cloud game.
In your book you tell how you plan to hand down the memory and methods of your mother's mandel bread to your own children. What are other traditions you plan to pass along?
Birthday dinners, playing Scrabble together, looking through photo albums, watching favorite movies.
Describe what we might expect if we were to attend a "Healing Power of Reminiscence" workshop.
My workshops are very hands on and interactive. I demonstrate reminiscence techniques using your senses and then get everyone to follow their noses to a smell that takes them back to a place and time in the past. Once they are there, they describe where they are, what they are doing, who they are with, how they are feeling, etc. It is in the telling of the story that the significance emerges. Then everyone "interviews" each other to learn the details that add color to the black and white words on the page.