Telling the Stories of Your Life

  • “I never realized before writing these two pages, the real reason why my mother could not continue to send me to college.”
  • “I’ve had three husbands—but only one marriage.”
  • “At this point in my life, I now see that the best way to move forward is to look back in this way, to re-activate my greatest strengths and passions.”

These three insights from recent participants in our Life Review workshops, exemplify

some of the perceptions people gain from exploring, reflecting on, and sharing their stories with others.

Everybody’s Doing It

Of course, memoir and storytelling are immensely popular genres these days. In New York, for example, you can go together with a loved one to Story Corps booths at several places around Manhattan and interview each other to create a bit of biography. On National Public Radio, the project known as The Moth features people telling stories from their lives to wildly appreciative audiences. On the literary front, of course, memoirists ranging from Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes) to Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) are among regulars on the bestseller lists.

But you don’t need to be an “author” to enjoy writing your own autobiography. It works best for many people to do it with “a little help from their friends”, new friends who have convened for the specific purpose of doing this rewarding work together.

Autobiographers at Work

Picture six people sitting around a table, participating in the eighth session of a 10-session course. They’re enjoying special cookies baked by one member—this isn’t a classroom. They’ve gotten to know each other during the past several weeks, through sharing two- to three-page recollections of significant incidents and “passages” in their lives, using the well-tested methodology delineated in Telling the Stories of Life Through Guided Autobiography Groups by James Birren and Kathryn Cochran.

Today, each has brought in a photo of themselves at an earlier stage of life, appropriate to the theme they’ve written about. We kick off the session by sharing how it felt to think and write about the week’s theme: Your Body, Yourself.

The heart of every session is devoted to attendees sharing their memories. Because each person’s contribution focuses on a basic dimension of life common to all, everyone can relate to each of the experiences.

Some make us laugh, as when we each share an example of the worst advice we’ve ever received. Occasionally, a story brings a tear to our eyes, as we empathize with an experience we can all imagine being in.

The responses to each participant are warm and supportive—this is not a writing class where the object is to improve skills as an author. Rather, we appreciate each others’ experiences, and by doing so, gain an even clearer understanding of our own lives from the advantage of an adult’s perspective.

Tools for Understanding

After the readings and discussion, we introduce an exercise or share an apt lesson from the rich literature on life review. For example, in one exercise, the “Ups and Downs of Your Life,” we graph our entire life, to chart how happy or unhappy, focused or unsure we remember feeling at each age from early childhood to the present. Or we play with two triangles that express how the relationship between our ideal, social, and actual selves has developed and changed over the years. Or we look at a model of the “typical” life course, like Erik Erikson’s model of life stages or that of Gail Sheehy’s passages, to discuss how our lives compare or diverge.

Each session addresses one major theme that focuses on the key points in our lives, including “branching points,” family, life callings, sexual identity, health, spirituality, and our futures.

How-to Guides

There are other Life Review methodologies that are differently organized, such as Structured Life Review in which individuals, guided by a sympathetic and knowledgeable “listener,” work their way through their lives in chronological order. Others use literary and mythological archetypes deriving from the work of Carl Jung, such as the Mystery School work of Jean Houston. Some notable writers like Dan Wakefield (The Story of Your Life: Writing a Spiritual Autobiography) and Tristine Rainer (Your Life as Story) have shared their experiences in autobiography and in teaching the craft.

Interested in learning more about how you might participate in such a workshop—or perhaps learn how to conduct one yourself? The best source is Cheryl Svensson at Guided Autobiography. You can become an instructor in 10 live, interactive online sessions—all you need at your end are a computer, webcam, headset, and Internet connection. It’s a wonderful experience in itself, and it includes ongoing support after completion to guide you as you develop, promote, and launch your first classes.

Ron Gross (SocratesWay.com), a contributing writer, is the author of The Lifelong Learner, The New Old, and Socrates Way. Sue Salko (SueSalko.com), LMSW, is a speaker, coach, and activist for seniors. They are based on Long Island, New York.

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