Seniors learn from writing life stories Pastime helps them find meaning, value and fulfillment

December 25, 1997|By Carolyn Melago | Carolyn Melago,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

For several seconds, the room in Catonsville Senior Center is motionless. A woman -- one of the growing number of elderly people writing their life stories in classes across the nation -- clutches a handwritten short story she just read aloud.

The bashful author, Annette Lit-win, 75, awaits reaction to her tale of a troubled apparition that taunted her family during the Great Depression.

Then the listeners erupt in discussion.

"Did that really happen?" asks one man, a little shocked at the eerie story that captivated the class.

"Would a 10-year-old act the way you did?" questions one woman.

"What was the title again?" asks the instructor.

The idea behind classes like this is to get the elderly to write their life stories, sparking long-forgotten memories, pushing their minds to remain vibrant and active.

"People will say, 'I haven't done anything. My life is uneventful,' " says Denis Ledoux, creator of the Maine-based "Making Memories into Memoirs" organization that holds workshops nationwide on life-story writing. "But each of us has done a hero's journey."

The benefits of writing that story, aging experts say, are emotional and physical.

"The life review process helps a person find meaning, value and fulfillment," says Augustine DiGiovanna, a biology professor at Salisbury State University and author of a book on aging. "It gives the person a sense of self-worth and of value to others."

Senior centers in Howard, Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties hold weekly creative and memoir writing classes, often led by English teachers or professional writers.

National and regional contests reward seniors who record their stories.

Publishers are recognizing the selling power of the extraordinary tales of ordinary citizens, such as the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series and an autobiography by a 98-year-old Kansas grandmother that sold for $1 million.

But most seniors have much simpler goals for their writing -- dabbling in a new hobby or recording for their ancestors the struggles they have weathered.

"People nearing the end of their lives want to set up a monument in a city park to themselves," says Ledoux. "They want to celebrate their lives."

Frances Sharp, a former high school English teacher who instructs a small writing group at Western Howard Senior Center, agrees that memoir writing can be fulfilling for both authors and their audiences.

"I think we lose a lot when memories aren't written or taped," Sharp says. "I tell them to just get it down on paper. Just get it down and get it out."

Sharp's weekly classes, like those in Harford County Senior Center in Bel Air and South County Senior Center in Edgewater, are part structured English course, part brainstorming session. In strict school teacher fashion, she hands out lists of writing pitfalls -- euphemisms, cliches, 50-cent words -- and weekly assignments such as writing in dialect and trying the third person.

But mostly she tries to revive her students' memories with yellowed comic strips, year-you-were-born birthday cards, even a crumbled fragment of the Berlin Wall.

To spark these dormant memories and get creative juices flowing, Ledoux suggests authors carry notebooks to list all fleeting recollections, important or inconsequential.

Elise Chisolm, former Evening Sun columnist who is instructor of the Catonsville group, gives her students a "patchwork quilt" guide to writing memoirs. Chronological memories are the pieces of the quilt -- high school dances, first dates, embarrassing moments, all connecting to form a life story.

Chisolm's students have detailed the life-altering and the humorous: world travels, careers in dancing and business, deaths of spouses and children, and even the memories of a pair of red lounging pajamas that helped one woman steal her future husband from her roommate.

Remembering such minute details from decades ago can be rewarding emotionally and biologically. DiGiovanna from Salisbury State says recollection and experimentation fine-tune senior citizens' brains, creating new connections between neurons and reusing older connections.

"We're critical of each other's work, but we're not nasty," Sharp says of the round table critiquing sessions the group holds for longer writing projects, such as one man's 530-page handwritten autobiography about serving in World War II. "Unless you get criticism, you don't grow."

Rose Soverno, 74, from the Catonsville group, said writing was her therapy after her husband died in June 1990. "When I was sad, I'd just write letters to him."

Chisolm says that death and the ailments that accompany old age often monopolize class time.

"Sometimes in here we are a therapy group," she says. "We have cried in here. Mostly we laugh, but sometimes we cry."

Pub Date: 12/25/97

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