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Memories into Memoirs: A Senior Writing Program

By Joyce Voss, Community Services Manager, Arlington Heights Memorial Library

Every year since 1995 a memoir writing class has been offered at the Arlington Heights (Illinois) Senior Center.  It is part of the library’s outreach programming.

For many seniors, reflecting back on their lives, reliving special moments, and coming to terms with other aspects of life, are exercises that excite them.  They tell their stories, and their families keep urging them to write about their life experiences.  Providing them with a structure in which to do that writing, is a winning program idea.

How it is done is not as hard as it first appears.  There is a never ending supply of how to books and websites to give you ideas. Here is a sample of what has been done by library staff at the local senior center.

The class meets once a week for eight weeks.  Weekly assignments are shared with others in the class and comments are solicited.  There are in-class exercises that sharpen the memory “cells.” By the end of the program, each person will write at least eight remembrances.    These eight articles, coming from different parts of life, will be like quilting blocks or puzzle pieces.  Along with the writing, a discussion will occur about a life outline into which the individual writings can be coded.

As the weeks pass, there is the joyful discovery that many people, places or events are shared by two or more participants.  Everyone is amazed at the discovered common ground.

At the first class, it is determined what is meant by “memoir.”  It is personal memory.  The memories, many will discover, are not the way a sister or brother remembers an incident.  Lots of laughter is shared as class members relate how their siblings have disagreed with what they remember.  Making it clear that each participant has ownership of his/her memories is very important.  It is the personal memory that is to be explored Memories to Memoirs.

To loosen things up at the initial meeting, an icebreaker is used.  A favorite is the one to two minute presentation by each member, using a topic drawn from a bag.  Some of the topics are: What was your first job?  Who was your first best friend and how did you meet?  Tell us about your first and/or middle name?  Tell one vivid memory of the WWII years.  After all have spoken, a list of all the questions used is distributed.  Selection of one of the questions to be answered in writing becomes the assignment for the next class.

A printed set of guidelines which include listening, confidentiality, not being judgmental, willingness to share, etc. is distributed and discussed at the first meeting.
In the course of the eight weeks it can be referred to when needed as a document to which all had agreed.

In the second class, a routine is begun that continues through the course. That is each person in turn reads what s/he has been written for that day.  The willingness to share is a requirement of the class.

The readings take up the first half (or more) of the class, and then a new topic is tackled, like the importance of place.  Place is like a picture frame in which a remembered event comes to life.  During class a floor plan of the house one grew up in is drawn.  A discussion ensues covering first thoughts on remembering the home where early years were spent.  For an assignment each is asked to write about a remembrance generated by the discussion and the drawing of that house.
On another day, an in-class assignment is a list of phrases referring to life events before each person was ten years old.  A sample list done by the facilitator is provided to help get the assignment started.  Some of the list items read: my father’s singing, climbing trees, chicken coop and the rabbits, the garden, the bread man and milk delivery.  After each has her/his own list, the assignment is to enlarge on one of the phrases.

In succeeding weeks, topics could include kitchen memories, fragrances, dangerous topics, money, and important people.  In any given year, some of the topics remain and others are replaced.  This keeps up the interest of those members repeating the class and that of the facilitator.  More than one remembrance can be written on many of the topics.  So, even if a person is repeating the class, s/he will be writing something new.

By week six attention now turns to thinking about how the pieces can be woven into a larger story. A master plan for that larger story, in the form of an outline, is worked on during class time and beyond.  A sample plan developed by the facilitator is shared. Most opt to do a chronological outline, but that is a personal choice.  Once the outline is laid out, always with the notion that it can be tweaked, a writer’s individual pieces can be coded to fit into that outline.  Some participants pursue the longer memoir in the months beyond the class meetings.  Incorporating genealogy information and pictures with the writing is a choice some make.  Several have their efforts put into book form.  Others are just as happy to collect the pieces and share them with their families as they write them.

Writings are not collected and corrected by the facilitator. That would be too time-consuming for staff.  After sharing a piece of writing, comments are made by the group on what worked, what seemed confusing and/or suggesting an addition.

To provide a sense of “when” in the writing is encouraged.  This helps the reader more fully appreciate the story.  Ways to accomplish this is by stating the writer’s age at the time of the recollection, mentioning the year, or referring to some famous event that happened.  During several of the classes books of decades, Reminisce Magazine, and other articles are shared.  Music, fashions, modes of transportation, cost of consumer goods of different time periods are but a few of the topics investigated.  Sharing these resources is a big help to the writers as they look for ways to place their stories.

For some this writing class is only a starting point. Others have already been jotting down their remembrances, but Memories to Memoirs gives a structure which is helpful. Several of the writers have taken this class two and three times because they say it gives them motivation to put pen to paper.  In these past fourteen years, two Memoirs Alumni groups have formed and regularly meet to listen and to encourage. Several new members are added each year. Occasionally this facilitator visits but these two groups operate independently.

A number of library staff across the country will confirm that memoirs or remembrance programs are a big hit with the over 55 clientele.  It can take many forms, so give it a try.

--Joyce Voss is the Community Services Manager at Arlington Heights Memorial Library.