Steve Boga has been helping seniors write the stories of their lives for 22 years
Guerneville writer Steve Boga has been teaching memoir writing to older adults in Sebastopol and Santa Rosa for 22 years through Santa Rosa Junior College’s Older Adult Education program. That’s more than a thousand classes in Sebastopol alone.
It’s been a long run, but according to Boga, this chapter of his life will be coming to a close at the end of this year. He retired from his Santa Rosa memoir class in June and plans to retire from his Friday afternoon Sebastopol class when the semester ends in December.
Boga got his teaching credential in 1972 from Sonoma State University, after graduating with a bachelor of arts in history from U.C. Berkeley. Although he subbed for years, teaching fulltime in a high school never really appealed to him.
Instead, after teaching himself to write by working on a never-published novel, he became a freelance writer, writing numerous non-fiction books and articles, most of them about sports and the outdoors.
His books include “Risk: An exploration into the lives of athletes on the edge,” “Camping and Backpacking with Children,” and many others, including “How to Write Your Life Stories: Memoirs that People Want to Read,” which is mandatory reading for his class.
The Sebastopol memoir class, held at the Luther Burbank Cottage, is three-hours long, but according to Boga, “It goes like a song, and it’s to easy to teach. The students are the show: they write outside of class and read in class, all voluntary.”
The class reads eight or nine 1,000- to 2,000-word life stories each week. Then they critique each piece.
Boga said he has only two rules: One person speaks at a time; and if you say you’re going to read, especially for the first time, there’s no getting out of it.
“It’s an intellectually stimulating, affable group,” he said. “So many Fridays I walked out of there thinking, ‘I have the best job in the world.’”
Boga said he loves the voluntary nature the JC’s older adult program.
“I was talking to a teacher friend of mine and I said, ‘You know, what this did for me was to eliminate all the things I didn’t like about public school: meetings, grades, parents, principals, discipline.’”
Boga calls his class, “A big tent.” People come in with all different skill levels.
“My job, I felt from the beginning, has just been to make them better storytellers,” he said.
He’s not a big believer in writing exercises. “I don’t do free writing, for example,” he said. “Nothing I’ve ever been proud of occurred in the first draft.”
He gives some writing prompts to his class, but they’re always voluntary.
“I’m a big believer in writing about forks in the road,” he said. “The phone rings, there’s a knock on the door, there’s an envelope you’re opening. Because we want to know what’s coming next: who’s on the line, who’s knocking on the door, what does the letter say…”
He also urges his students to look for the emotional core of their stories.
“We want to be moved emotionally. That’s what really captivates us. It’s not the facts and details. So I always tell people, ‘Don’t give any more facts than we need to appreciate the human story you’re telling.’”
Though he feels some fictionalization is necessary in memoir writing — especially in the creation of dialogue —he discourages people from reading straight fiction in class.
Boga said he’s learned a lot from teaching the class all these years.
“I’ve learned about their lives to begin with,” he said. “And I’ve learned to be a more patient person.”
He thinks of himself as a good critic — a skill he learned while coaching sports.
“I learned that people will listen to the critique better if you tell them some good things first,” he said.
Boga said memoir writing has several benefits for older adults.
“There’s been a lot written about the importance of brain stimulation, which often cites doing crossword puzzles but to me this is way better: conjuring up a story, working it, doing the editing and reading in front of a class. That’s way more challenging,” he said.
“It also helps you get in touch with your emotions,” he said. “It’s a way to work through things. There’s also getting in touch with family and friends, if not physically, then in terms of the writing.”
At times, it can be deeply cathartic.
“I didn’t realize there was no statute of limitations on emotion until I started doing this class,” he said. “I’ve had people start weeping telling a story that happened 50 or 60 years earlier.”
Some people show up for his class year after year. He has one student, Gay Bishop, in his current class who has been in every one of his classes for 22 years.
“Others have taken the class for eight or 10 years,” he said.
Boga has never written his own memoir, and said he’s full of admiration for those who do.
“Saying ‘Here I am,’ critique me. You’re really putting yourself out there. Such boldness,” he said. “I have undying admiration for anyone who can make that leap.”
Though Boga will no longer be teaching his memoir classes, he will continue to teach history classes through the JC and senior living locations.
Want to sign up for a class through the JC’s Older Adult series? Go to santarosa.edu.