Putting your life into words is topic of writers S.F. talk

Up to that point, Rainer was raised Catholic, which was her mother's religion.

"My mother was also Polish," she said, "but she never talked about that. There were no stories told in our family. It was a blank-slate identity."

Ironically, or perhaps as a result, Rainer has devoted herself to teaching people how to write their own memoirs.

An instructor in the masters of professional writing program at the University of Southern California, Rainer will be speaking at 7 p.m. Sunday at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

She'll be addressing the topic of "Finding the Individual Myth in Memoir."

In addition to writing two books, "The New Diary" and last year's "Your Life as Story: Writing the New Autobiography," Rainer is the director of the center of autobiographic studies at UCLA.

Guiding others through their histories has helped her fill in her own fragmented past. "My father had broken off from his family, and we had a very L.A. existence," she said. "I felt deprived by not hearing family stories growing up, which would have given meaning and continuity to my life."

A number of her students and private clients are Jewish, which Rainer appreciates.

"It's like they're writing for me, too."

Rainer's appearance at Emanu-El comes at an opportune time for the synagogue. The congregation is currently starting its own oral history project.

The project, which will incorporate video as well as audio and written documentation, is to be part of the institution's 150th anniversary celebration, which begins during the High Holy Days in 1999.

"We have a rich history and we want to share it with the present and future generations so they can understand where we have come from and what we can be in the future," said Terri Forman, director of development for Emanu-El.

While Forman said the synagogue's history and its impact on the community is well-documented in its own records, "We want to hear it through people's experiences. It's more human than a textbook.

"We need to work now to preserve the stories of this generation. For young people, it could show how each person makes a difference."

A five-person oral history committee composed of congregants will work with the synagogue's museum committee to identify illustrious and/or long-term members.

"My vision for this is that it will be like a [television] miniseries," said Forman. "It can be entertaining as well as informative."

Rainer's approach to teaching memoir writing emphasizes dramatic structure. She devotes a chapter in "Your Life as Story" to explaining the "nine essential story elements," including crisis, climax and realization.

"All good stories are about struggle," she said.

Other chapters include, "Portraying Yourself: You Are Your Hero," "How to Write What You Dare Not Say" and "Emotional, Legal, and Ethical Concerns."

She compares the "new autobiography" movement to "new journalism," which emerged in the 1960s and was popularized by Tom Wolfe and others. "Writers are using novelists' tools, like character development, to tell stories," she said.

Examples of the new autobiography style, according to Rainer, include "This Boy's Life" by Tobias Wolff and "The Liars' Club" by Mary Karr. In her book, she calls "Maus: A Survivor's Tale," by Art Spiegelman, "perhaps the most original form of new autobiography to date.

"A comic strip in which Jews are mice and Nazis are cats, it is at the same time a memoir of Spiegelman's relationship with his father, and a saga of the father's escape from the Nazis," she writes in her book.

While the new autobiography may be a hot literary trend, Rainer said the importance of writing a memoir goes much deeper than trying to land a publishing deal.

"It allows people to find meaning and value in their lives."