documenting family legacy

Writers' group workshop student Ronita Johnson talks with other students during Elizabeth Fishel's writing workshop in Oakland, California.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Betty Chiang has never taken a writing class in her 83 years, but that didn't stop her from publishing a memoir.

Her son jokes that the family has found it quite a stretch to think of their Chinese-born matriarch as an author. Still Chiang, whose career was in catering and food service, spent four years writing and publishing "Immigrant: A Memoir by Betty Chiang," which came off the press this summer.

Since then, she has given copies to her relatives and sold about 50 books to her friends at Channing House, the independent living home in Palo Alto, Calif., where she resides.

The softcover book has a professional look to it, including glossy cover, sturdy binding, nice paper and good reproductions of marvelous family photos dating back to the early 20th century.

Chiang is among a growing number of first-time, self-published authors in the 65-and-older age group.

AJ McDonald, a spokesman at, one of the popular websites providing do-it-yourself publishing tools, says 17 percent of the 1.1 million people who have used the site are seniors. (Of those,

6 percent have even published ebooks.)

Experts credit the growing ranks of noncommercial memoirs to a convergence of two forces. One is a powerful desire felt by many older people to impart their wisdom to a younger generation. The other is affordable access to technology that enables production of professional-looking volumes without any need for the author to jump through hoops in the publishing world — and risk getting a pile of rejection letters from houses whose primary goal is selling books, not accommodating first-time writers.

"I want the world to know my story," Chiang says. "My father's death was a rock in my heart. I want my grandkids to know what happened."

Arthur Chiang, 54, of Moss Beach, Calif., is quick to say his mom "isn't really a writer." Still, he and his girlfriend, neighbors and friends helped her with the project, serving as editors, tech consultants and writing coaches.

In the book, she details her life experiences — from her birth in Shanghai in 1928 through her country's war with Japan, her father's death in 1949 as a prisoner of war, her move to the United States and her marriage, family and career. So what if the writing is at times a bit dry or clunky?

"I learned a little more about my mother's life," Arthur Chiang says, "and now it's all together in one place. This is a solid accounting of her life to be passed down, and it gave my mother a purpose in writing it."

Elizabeth Fishel comes at self-published memoirs from a different perspective. She has been teaching journalism at the University of California-Berkeley for 20 years and also has taught memoir writing out of her Oakland, Calif., home during that same period.

Fishel says memoirs are hotter than ever, and older writers have jumped on the bandwagon, often with help from their web-savvy kids or grandkids.

Thanks to what she calls the "Oprah-fication" of our society, people feel comfortable now telling all, and the memoirs are largely replacing autobiographical novels as the vehicles.

"People are just more willing to come out emotionally than they were 30 years ago," Fishel says.

Then, add in an aging population. "Older folks go through this life review," Fishel says. "A lot of seniors are at home and are filled with memories. They reflect on turning points in their lives. And many are motivated to write it down and pass along these lessons."

The accessibility of self-publishing tools online has made all the difference, she says. The ability to upload photo graphs and design and print hard- or softcover books is relatively easy and affordable.

"You just wouldn't have seen any of this 20 years ago, because the technology wasn't there," she says.


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