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Why I love teaching Guided Autobiography (by Lisa Smith-Youngs)

Lisa Smith-Youngs

Guest post by Lisa Smith-Youngs

I look across the table at the steely blue eyes of the 80-year-old man (from NASA) with a gorgeous, full shock of white hair and I see the little boy who grew up under the boughs of hemlocks and redwoods in the San Francisco Presidio, where he salvaged kapok vests and dynamite from Baker Beach and China Beach -- “playthings” that fell off the Navy ships bound to sea. That little boy who lost his father to lung disease at a tender age and would one day deliver papers on wet and windy Sunset district streets to help his mother pay the bills. He would go on to be a steward on the merchant marine ships and eventually find his way to aerospace projects in the dreamy Camelot of an America that can’t imagine its comeuppance is nigh.

And I know that I love him and respect him…but no more or less than the woman beside him who worked 40 years of hard labor as a waitress in a diner. And it hurts me, how she now has trouble breathing if anyone wears perfume to class because she was serving meals most her life to people who smoked hard cigarettes while they ate and drank the endless cups of coffee she poured for them before she rode the bus home to do it all over again for her unkindly husband and two boys . . . I know there should have been a girl, but she never got that babe that she wished for all her life.

I look at the row of these people whose lives I’ve been privileged to witness building a kind of scaffold on the other side of the table from me, and my mind starts waxing picturesque -- my own personal magic begins to conjure a vision. And I see the scaffold of people become a spine and I realize these tremendous, amazing, average, everyday people make up the backbone of my country. They ARE my country, and it needs no borders. The spine bends on itself, it whirls and spins and becomes the mythic melting pot of a New World, and I see the stories of their lives condense and blend into this golden elixir that fills the pot and glows with the reverence that I feel for the body of their collective experience.

And then my stories are one with their stories and we are bound to each other in a way that can never be broken, belittled or denied. And I am made more than I am . . . their stories, and mine together . . .the stories make me WHOLE. The stories make me BETTER than I once was.
---Lisa Smith-Youngs

Director at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Davis

Guided Autobiography (The Birren Center for Autobiography and Life Review)
Guided autobiography groups (James Birrens' brainchild) are structured memoir writing groups, in which participants write and read aloud two pages at a time. Lisa and I got instructor training online together (through Cheryl Svensson and Anita Reyes), and we learned that friendships may indeed be forged over the Internet.
The Examined Life with Guided Autobiography (audio, Dr. Bonnie Bernel‪l‬ on SuperPsyched with Dr. Adam Dorsay) Listen starting at minute 8 for an excellent explanation and story of how the guided autobiography approach works. Participants are asked to write a two- or three-page story in response to a writing prompt and bring it to the next meeting to read aloud. In one writing group, in response to the prompt "treasures that matter (an experience, a person, or a thing)," she describes how a participant told the story of a valued pair of old shoes that brought tears to the listeners. In an accepting group, he got supportive feedback (with an emphasis on support, no critiques and challenges, which shut some people down). The group as a whole "is its own source of energy... because it's set up as a place to be safe." You are not going to be criticized; you are going to get support. It is not group therapy, in which you are going to be challenged. Good prompts are important -- they stimulate the brain and help elicit memories and stories. 
Telling Their Life Stories, Older Adults Find Peace in Looking Back (PDF, Susan Garland, NY Times, 12-9-16)

How Do I Think I Got Here? (James E. Birren, the LII Review, Fall 2006)
Where To Go From Here ed. by James Birren and Linda M. Feldman Questions such as "Where have I been, How did I get here, Toward what am I headed ?" lead to the ultimate question: "How would you live your life if you were truly free ?"
Guided Autobiography: Stimulate Your Brain, Enhance Well-Being, Develop Community, and Create a Legacy (Cheryl M. Svensson & Bonnie L. Bernell, California Psychologist, Nov./Dec/2013, Volume 46, No. 6, pp 15-18).
A Guided Tour of the Past (Paula Span, New Old Age, The New York Times, 7-18-11)
Telling the Stories of Life Through Guided Autobiography Groups by James E. Birren and Kathryn N. Cochran
The Birren Guided Autobiography Method
Telling Your Story, hundreds of useful links to information about resources for capturing your life story or someone else's.
Books to help you get started writing your own or someone else's life story
Books to help lead life writing or reminiscence groups


Informal GAB anthologies:
Landed: Transformative Stories of Canadian Immigrant Women, ed. by Gayathri Shukla and Elena Esina
Onward!: True Life Stories of Challenges, Choices & Change ed. Emma Fulenwider

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