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La Jolla resident’s story helps memoir showcase answer the question ‘What. Just. Happened?’

La Jolla resident and musician Melissa Jordan Grey
La Jolla resident and musician Melissa Jordan Grey wrote “A Walk in the Park,” one of the winning submissions that will be staged at the upcoming “What. Just. Happened?” memoir showcase.
(Rebecca Teal Batista)

Melissa Jordan Grey wrote one of this year’s winning submissions that will be staged Thursday, Dec. 8, at La Jolla’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.

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The stories that will be brought to life at the upcoming “What. Just. Happened?” memoir showcase in La Jolla range from humorous to heartwarming, from brazen to touching.

“What. Just. Happened?” presented by the International Memoir Writers Association, will be staged at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 8, at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave. Tickets are $33.

Eight winning submissions and a 2020 fan favorite were selected from more than 200 entries for this year’s showcase. The event matches writers representing San Diego County communities such as La Jolla, Carmel Valley, Mission Valley, Ocean Beach, Poway, Scripps Ranch and University Heights with local writing coaches and then hires professional actors and directors to bring their stories to life.

La Jolla resident Melissa Jordan Grey’s story “A Walk in the Park” chronicles her time at a “charm school” when she was 13. She’s a boisterous person, she joked, so she took being sent to the school as a personal affront at the time.

“I, in my 5-foot frame, was surrounded by these 5-foot-9 Nordic beauties,” she said. “A big moment for me was when a teacher asked us all what your dream is. All the other girls wanted to be models and I said I wanted to be the best jazz saxophonist in the country. That set off the story that gets told in ‘A Walk in the Park.’”

Jordan Grey, who has released albums as a musician under the name Lissa Free, said she saw the memoir-writing process as a way to “reflect on that time of my life and create something satirical and humorous” in a way that music didn’t.

“The line between humor and pathos is microscopic, so sometimes you can evoke pathos by laughing at yourself,” she said. “In all honesty, I think situations like [charm school] enable you to learn where you are strong. You are either going to invest in your individuality or you fret over what you could never be. Today, I am comfortable and happy with the package I am in.”

Jordan Grey started writing at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 when her volunteer efforts with a local food assistance program led her to different communities on food deliveries. She got to meet different people and started carrying a notepad so she could document their stories.

“I challenged myself to create something every week and would publish them on Facebook,” she said. “I needed to feel like I was still living and growing. I got feedback from people and walked away thinking I could actually be a writer.”

Jordan Grey reached out to the showcase’s producers last year, and her story of a heavier subject, “Trial and Error,” was chosen for the 2021 event. This year, she said, “I wanted to laugh,” so she chose a lighter subject to craft into a production.

The actors cast for “A Walk in the Park” helped give the story new life, Jordan Grey said. “To see your life in words elevated with someone else’s talent helped me understand that memory better and reminded me that memory is a universal collaborative experience,” she said. “To see another person join me in sharing that experience is the most remarkable gift.”

“You are either going to invest in your individuality or you fret over what you could never be. Today, I am comfortable and happy with the package I am in.”

— Melissa Jordan Grey

In contrast to Jordan Grey’s “hu-memoir,” Ocean Beach resident Ruth Hargrove’s story “Saving Magdi” is a serious look at the U.S. immigration system.

Ruth Hargrove of Ocean Beach is one of the writers whose memoirs will be featured in a showcase Dec. 8.
Ruth Hargrove of Ocean Beach is one of the writers whose memoirs will be featured in a showcase Dec. 8.
(Pleasantly Persistent PR)

Hargrove, a former law professor and litigator, said that in recent years she has felt an “ill will blowing” in the country, with rises in anti-Semitic speech and demonstrations and an immigration system that “left kids sleeping in cages covered in foil.”

She said she started to see in such developments “acceptance of the hate that killed my family in the Holocaust.”

Specifically, Hargrove thought of her father’s cousin Magdi, who died in the Auschwitz concentration camp at age 19.

“There was this confluence of ill winds that shot me out of my life as a lawyer and I started doing pro bono legal work [for immigrants entering the country],” she said. “‘Saving Magdi’ is about my first client, who had to flee his own country and survived the most horrific things. He got here and our system at the time was to imprison him, even though he committed no crime. In the course of representing him, it was like giving a voice to Magdi and finding justice for her. It connected the threads of my past and present.”

Hargrove was inspired to turn to memoir writing after finding the International Memoir Writers Association and feeling moved by the support system within its members.

“During my years as a law professor, I always taught my students that the greatest nonviolent means of persuasion was story, so I was always captivated by story but had no training in memoir writing,” she said. “It was empowering to have a community of writers to help me tell the story to not only bring it to life but maybe change people’s minds.”

She called the other stories in the showcase “eye-opening, funny and powerful.”

This year’s showcase also will feature a presentation by Gill Sotu, poet-in-residence for the San Diego Writers Festival.

The eight winning submissions, along with 25 others deemed honorable mentions, will be published in the sixth volume of the San Diego Memoir Showcase anthology, “Shaking the Tree: Brazen. Short. Memoir” in 2024.

Learn more and see the full list of winners at sdmwa.org/memoir-showcase. ◆