Making Your Life Story Their Business

“You have a life story to tell and we’ll make it read like a novel.”
Kara Westerman, above, and her business partner, Katy Gurley, have partnered to help people tell their life stories. Kara Westerman

   At Kara Westerman’s memoir-writing workshop at the East Hampton Library in June there was a woman working on the life story of her sister, a famous film star; a published novelist recapturing memories of her childhood as an Army brat, and a visual artist creating a “transmedia” book. A whopping 30 memoirist wannabes signed up, 22 more than the maximum allowed.
    Jane Martin, the artist, said that she received support and constructive criticism both from the teacher and the group when she read excerpts from her book, an online production about relationships, featuring prose, poetry, still images, and video. While reading from it, she felt vulnerable. “I’ve had solo museum shows where I’ve had no problem discussing my art,” she said, however in sharing such personal reflections “I felt nervous because I don’t consider myself a writer, per se.”
    Her apprehension was unfounded. Reading in class “is like baring your soul to some,” said Ms. Westerman. Of Ms. Martin’s reading: “We were all dumbfounded at how powerful it was.”
    Ms. Westerman, who lives in Springs, has joined forces with Katy Gurley, a journalist, to form a small company called Gurley and Westerman Memoirs, based in East Hampton and St. Louis, where Ms. Gurley moved after spending childhood summers and several adult years in East Hampton. Ms. Gurley’s father, Martin Quigley, was a writer.
    Fittingly, the duo met in the ’90s in a writing group taught by the recently deceased Vito Sisti at Ashawagh Hall in Springs. While Ms. Westerman teaches in East Hampton and Ms. Gurley plies her trade as a journalist in St. Louis, the pair also work together to develop manuscripts for clients who want their life stories told, but would rather someone else do the work.
    Their slogan: “You have a life story to tell and we’ll make it read like a novel.” Ms. Gurley has spent 35 years as a journalist, covering topics including police and courtroom news, high-tech, and celebrities. She spent the ’90s in East Hampton doing freelance writing and editing for such clients as Bank Street College in New York City. Ms. Westerman, who hails from the world of fiction, has published short stories and is at work on a novel. She has a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and completed an Edward Albee Foundation fiction residency fellowship in 2009.
    “The combination of us makes a good team,” said Ms. Westerman. “She’s Midwestern and practical. I’m Irish. The Irish know how to tell stories.”
    The duo is working with two private clients for whom they are actually writing their books. One is a very successful 40-something businessman from California who originally just wanted to tell his story for his own self-awareness and for the edification of his family. Through interviews with his friends, family, and colleagues Westerman and Gurley “are weaving all the narratives into a coherent story that’s gripping,” said Ms. Westerman. A merchandise licensee at “the top of his game,” according to Ms. Westerman, he is now considering finding a publisher, something that Gurley and Westerman Memoirs can help him with. “He’s now thinking that other people may be interested in his story.”
    The other client is in St Louis. A former university team coach, he wanted a record of that time. “The first kid in the family to go to college, he’s full of stories of ’30s and ’40s Americana,” said Ms. Westerman.
    “I do the interviews and transcribe them,” said Ms. Gurley. “Then we write the narratives — a straight description of events, very close to newspaper writing. We treat it like an expanded feature story, bringing in quotes from other people.” Ms. Westerman, she said, “might expand it a little and make it more colorful.” Then the manuscript goes back to Ms. Gurley who does the editing. “There are always two pairs of eyes on the copy.”
    They are in the process of adding video biographies to their offerings in St. Louis, and eventually in East Hampton. “You’re telling your story live, then we interview the people in your life. We’re playing with it now to see how it works.” Their first one is of Ms. Gurley’s father.
    Ms. Westerman is also talking to the Amagansett Library about recording oral histories in the fall and is teaching another memoir workshop at the East Hampton Library.