Writing Our Own Stories Helps Others Write Theirs: Essay by and Interview with Joan Leof

Joan Leof’s collection of essays Matryoshka: Uncovering Your Many Selves Through Writing Personal Essays and Questions for Reflection is intended to share her personal experience essays in a way that encourages others to write from their experiences.

After reading her collection and asking Joan’s permission to reprint one of her essays for Writing It Real members, I emailed her questions I hoped she’d answer for writers of personal experience. Here are her words on writing from personal experience:

Over what span of years did you write the essays in this collection?

Half of the essays are new, written in the last three years. Five were published in the 80s-early 90s. Four are spin offs from material in the memoir I wrote from 2007-2011 (Fatal If Swallowed).

How did you use them in your own work with other writers before publication?

While I don’t share the actual essays with writers in my groups until each is originally published, I always refer to the creative process that guides me. That includes keeping a SEED LIST of ideas. This can be anything from one word, to one paragraph, a theme, issue, newspaper clipping – anything that sparks something in me as having potential. I emphasize having trust that the idea will sprout in its time and take on a life of its own. For instance, something that’s been on my SEED LIST for decades finally became an essay recently with an ending that I could never have imagined. I had to “live” the ending before I could actually complete the story. Keeping open to recycling options is also encouraged. A previous essay could be tweaked and resubmitted. Or it could be reprinted as is somewhere. A theme or description can be extracted for a new essay. 

What are your thoughts on how one person’s essays inspire others’ essays?

Be aware of what gets triggered in you when reading someone’s essay – a memory, issue or theme that resonates. Even it’s just the slightest fragment of connection to start, don’t lose it. Two essays in this collection came to be from reading someone else’s on a related theme and immediately feeling compelled to echo that. Also be aware of the writer’s style. Perhaps you want to emulate something there.

Can you speak a bit about the value of the personal essay?

It says to me that someone took pride in the value of their personal story and in the best essays, the courage to tell it authentically.  Use that example as a reminder that your authentic story has just as much value, IF you can believe that. It’s not “ego” pride, but the belief that in telling your story, it can touch something in others – a universal truth – about the humanity we all share.

Do you have some thoughts about how readers can best use the essays and reflection questions in your book to guide them in writing more about their own experiences?

I would suggest looking at the prompts first. Just quickly glance at the 10 after each essay and see if anything jumps out at you. IF it does, you may want to read that essay for further connection to the experience that prompted that question. While you might not connect with the essay if you read it first, the layers of meaning in the prompts could help you appreciate it more.

And, finally, what do you most like to tell writers about writing from personal experience?

If you keep a journal, see that as raw material for your creative writing. Don’t listen to your inner critic, but to that part of you that KNOWS you have something worth sharing. If you can hold onto that, the rest will come. You can learn craft, but it’s much harder to learn to value your experiences and life lessons and then to have the courage to share it authentically.

I agree with you whole-heartedly about which of our inner voices we must pay attention to write. Thank you for your words and for permission to reprint the following essay from your book Matryoshka: Uncovering Your Many Selves Through Writing Personal Essays and Questions for Reflection. I think many Writing It Real members will resonate strongly with the essay and, importantly, with the questions you have included after the essay to trigger essays from others.


A Dream, Like a Strad, Grows Richer with Time

by Joan Leof

 “Why is there a violin on your wall?” guests ask when they first catch sight of the gleaming, polished instrument mounted to a frame in our living room.

“It belonged to my father,” I answer.

My grandmother had a dream for her son – she wanted him to play the violin. But from the moment my father’s family came to this country from Russia at the turn of the last century, when Dad was just 5, my grandfather wanted his son to spend every free moment helping in the family’s produce store in the Old City neighborhood of Philadelphia.

The way Grandpop saw it, there was no time in his son’s life for violin playing. He woke my father at dawn every morning to help him pick up the day’s produce at the docks, and had tasks awaiting him upon return from school.

But my father shared my grandmother’s dream, and she assured him on his seventh birthday that he would get the tutelage his father had denied him. She arranged lessons at the neighbors’ house.

“You can hide your violin there,” she told him, sneaking money from the family’s produce store.

Years later, when my parents first met, Mom thought the handsome attorney-to-be who played the violin was a great catch. She played the piano and hoped their duets would create a rich bond. Unfortunately, it was not a happy marriage.

“He’s a workaholic,” Mom lamented. “She thinks she knows everything,” he’d complain.

But on rare occasions during my childhood, I saw him stand by Mom’s white baby grand while the two would play together.

“Waves of the Danube” was their favorite – Oh, how we danced on the night we were wed …”

As they became more estranged, duets dwindled. My father put his violin on the top shelf of their storage closet.

At 89, my father had to move into a nursing home. His mind was still sharp, but daily life was not stimulating. I wanted to help him find a challenge. Then I remembered …

“Dad, why don’t you play the violin again?” I suggested on one of my visits. I had recently found the instrument in a closet in his old house.

“I haven’t played it in years, and I’m sure it’s unplayable.”

I offered to find someone to refurbish it.

“I’m too old to learn everything again,” he said.

His words made me remember something I had read once about Socrates – that he had learned to play the lyre as he awaited death in prison. “It’s never too late to learn,” I told him, “or to dream.”

My mission to get my father his violin felt urgent. After several phone calls, I was able to locate someone who could fix it. The expense paled when I thought of enriching Dad’s life and honoring my grandmother’s dream.

When I placed the violin in my father’s hands, he took the instrument as if he were rediscovering an old friend. His pale cheeks brightened, and his tired eyes softened.

“I will give a concert for all my buddies here,” he said. Then he placed his chin on the black rest and began to play a Russian folk tune.

As he stood taller now, his clothes suddenly didn’t appear as rumpled and oversized. I looked at my father with a deep feeling of tenderness, imagining him readying for the concert he wanted to give. I pictured him putting on his best navy blue suit, smoothing his thick, shiny white hair, something he took great pride in.

My father did not live long enough to give that concert – he died that August – and his violin came back to me.

“I’d like my father’s violin to have a place of honor in our living room,” I told my husband.

As I picked out the burled wood frame and the mat the color of sand, the framer asked, “Do you want the violin mounted so that it can come off in case someone wants to play it?”

That would be lovely.

When friends ask about it, I hear the Russian folk tune my father played for me that day, 22 years ago. “I keep it there,” I tell them, “to remind me of the dreams my father’s family had – his legacy to me.”

Maybe someday, one of my nephew’s young daughters will want to take it down and play it. My grandmother would be pleased.

Questions – A Dream, like a strad…

  1. Musical instrument that plays a role in your family history.
  1. Vastly different views held by parents or grandparents on something that impacted you.
  1. Family secret that involves or involved you.
  1. Dream a parent had, or you, to do something with spouse that never came to fruition.
  1. Experience with parent or grandparent in nursing home.
  1. How you relate to Socrates learning to play the lyre as he awaited death in prison.
  1. Object in your home that symbolizes an important life lesson for you.
  1. Object that symbolizes your mother, father, or any loved one.
  1. Your dream deferred.
  1. “The very best you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.” Barbara Kingsolver The hope you are living inside of.


Thank you, Joan, very much for sharing your essay and for your thoughts about how sharing our work helps all of us continue writing from our own personal experience.

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Writing Our Own Stories Helps Others Write Theirs: Essay by and Interview with Joan Leof — 12 Comments

  1. Thank you Sheila, Joan, for sharing.
    One more dot has been connected for me on how to make use of resonance from another’s essay.
    I wish Joan’s book was also in e-book format. It would have been nice to read some more essays and see the questions that follow.

    Thank you once more for sharing. I have gained new insight. Maureen

      • Hi Joan, Many of the questions sparked a need to tell my story.
        I have now paid for a PDF version of your book. Do I get a link for the download sent to my email address? I believe an email on the transaction has been sent to AOL email account.
        Thanks in advance for sending me the link. Maureen

        • Maureen,

          Thrilled that the questions sparked your need to tell your story!

          I just emailed you the book and am so grateful you spoke up about wishing for an electronic version. People who buy my book are also invited to join MATRYOSHKA SECRET FACEBOOK GROUP where members share reactions to essays and questions in the book, their writing, and info about writing. Let me know if that interests you.

          I wish you all the best in getting those stories written!


          • Yes Joan, I am interested in joining the MATRYOSHKA facebook group.
            And thank you.

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