What is Guided Autobiography? How do I teach it?

Guided Autobiography” is where it all began for me–one book that got me started on leading reminiscence writing workshops. The year was 2004. I’d just heard about Guided Autobiography from the first personal historian I met–shout-out to Anita Hecht–who recommended the book when I spoke of wanting to find a memoir writers group. That Spring of 2004 I got a copy (now battered and dog-eared).

I couldn’t find a memoir writers’ group to join, so I put up flyers on bulletin boards around town asking people to join me in a group using the Guided Autobiography method. Soon I had ten people, one a preacher who offered his church as a meeting place. We were off and running on the 10-week curriculum. I read from the book and we did what Dr. Birren told us to do. I had a 21-year-old creative writing major and a 94-year-old fundamentalist preacher in that group–and the other eight people were unique in their own ways too. The way we bore witness to each others’ experience, without judgment, convinced me that this was something I wanted to make a permanent part of my life.

Dr. Birren’s Guided Autobiography became the foundation on which I overlaid my own gradually expanding knowledge as I created my series of “Remember to Write” workshops, such as “Start Writing Your Memoir,” “Write Your Family History,” “Flash Memoir,”  and others. I sit here in Spring 2019, fifteen years later, amazed at what these groups have brought into my life.

So, what is Guided Autobiography?

Dr. James Birren (who died in 2016) spent 40 years researching and developing a method for helping people document their life stories–but more, he wanted a method that helped them find new meaning in life and to put life events into perspective (his words).

The core of his method is a series of writing prompts and a class format in which there is instructor-led discussion, followed by participants reading and sharing their writing. The  prompts take participants through a sequence of themes that are common enough that just about anyone would have experience with them–family history, the role of money, history of one’s life work, health and body, development of sexual identity, ideas about death, spiritual life and values, and goals and aspirations for the future. Because of their universality, the themes work across cultural, economic, racial, and gender circumstances.

The wisdom and magic of Birren’s method is the gentle way those prompts lead from things you’d share with a relative stranger to things you might not discuss with your best friend. An intimacy grows over the course of the class. It’s not uncommon for an ongoing group to form after a ten-week workshop. No one emerges from the ten weeks of reflection without a changed perspective on life. (Strong statement, that–and I stand behind it, having experienced it myself and witnessed it in others.)

How do I teach it?

At some point I noticed that Birren’s teaching material includes barely a mention of how to write well. This is a curriculum based on writing to find out what you know, not learning to write. And that’s okay. Over my years leading workshops, students have asked for writing craft instruction and I’ve given it. I gradually came to realize that I know some things–but could know a lot more–and that led to my Big MFA Adventure (now ONE ASSIGNMENT from completion).

And at some point, I noticed I’d gotten pretty far from Birren’s curriculum, and I started offering pure Guided Autobiography workshops again.

As my time opens up after completion of the MFA, I am looking forward to getting back in the classroom (virtual or in-person–the method can work in an online class or an in-person one (but not a blend of the two). And I’m looking forward to teaching in many flavors, from straight-up Guided Autobiography to my own craft- and -reminiscence-driven curriculum.

Want to join me? Give me a holler at 608-347-7329 or sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com!



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I have a Madison workshop starting in April: “Remember to Write! Memories to Memoir”

“In a community meeting room, participants in a reminiscence-writing workshop are gathered around a table. As we shift from discussing writing technique to sharing our stories, I witness again the power of writing in small groups. I see my participants gaining satisfying skill at a craft, discovering joy and perspective as they explore the meaning of their life experiences. I observe friendships forming, often at a stage in life when we lose more friends than we make.”

those words are excerpted from a grant proposal I wrote ten years ago. The application was successful; in fact a reviewer said, “That’s the first time I cried while reading a grant application.”

I’d been teaching small writing groups for five years by then–it all began in summer 2004 when I wanted to join a reminiscence writing group and, unable to find one, found ten people who’d join me around the table with James Birren’s Telling the Stories of Life through Guided Autobiography as our curriculum.

Over the years I’ve evolved my curriculum but always kept in mind that the people in my classroom are “outsider artists” of a kind–not striving for literary perfection or a career as a writer, just intent on bearing witness to a life of choices and chances.*

Here’s what has stayed constant: In my writing workshops we explore different aspects of the writing craft. For each class meeting participants write a few true pages about their life experiences. Each class meeting includes time to share what’s been written. Rough first drafts, but boy do they move the heart!

Sarah teaching at the Westside Senior Center, 2012

In April I’ll start a new workshop, at a new venue for me–the Arts + Literature Laboratory on Madison’s East Side. We’ll meet for five Tuesday evenings, April 17 through May 14, from 6:30-8:30 pm, at 2021 Winnebago Street. You’ll find information about the workshop and registration here–


*Do some of us go on to achieve success, however we define that? Absolutely! I received this note from student Jackie Langetiegrecently–

“every time you send me one of these notes, it brings up the memory of you and the wonderful Memoir class at the Verona Senior Center and our  1:1 meeting later. You were of great help with my manuscript and I went on to complete it and publish it as Filling the Cracks with Gold, available on Amazon” (print and ebook).

I’m proud of Jackie and all my students who have fulfilled their intentions. And I’m eager to meet you in my classroom in April!

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Happy International Women’s Day!

Eight years ago I blogged here about my personal connection to International Women’s Day. What started as a Socialist political event has evolved into a celebration for women’s economic, political, and social achievements–in Europe, anyway. USA–not so much. Let’s change that!

I invite you to enjoy this book trailer for What She Said, a compilation of women’s stories about their “aha!” moments published by A Fund for Women in 2013. Every time I watch it, tears come to my eyes. The book is out of print, but the sentiment? Indomitable!




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It’s that time again: “Throw me somethin’, Mister!”

Mardi Gras was yesterday and it’s time to “Throw me somethin’, Mister,” in the parlance of the crowds to the krewes. Today the call is going out from True Stories Well Told  and it’s not plastic trinket “throws” I seek, but your stories, true and well told.

That’s a writing technique called “borrowed interest” and I’m not ashamed to stoop to it to fill the digital pages of this blog. I publish writing prompts, book reviews, and stories from my own life, but my favorite content is YOUR stories.

Here are the guidelines. Now throw me somethin’, Mr.,  Ms., whoever you are! Send your stories to sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com.

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Dazed and Out of Place

By Suzy Beal

This is the seventh episode of a memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas circa 1961. Click here to read the earlier episodes.


I met a young German boy, Joachim, who came to the Quay every day to work on his suntan and swim.  He spoke Italian and German so we had no way to communicate except smiling and gesturing.  Although he was older than I, he seemed interested in knowing me.  If I was the first to arrive, he always put his towel next to mine.  He smiled and I, ready to move on to a new relationship, smiled back.

One evening, a group of us including Hank and Carl walked to town to see a movie.  In the center of the town’s plaza, benches lined the square.  They faced a wall, and I realized the wall was the screen.   Joachim and I sat next to each other.  I noticed Hank had seated himself next to a girl with whom I’d been visiting on the Quay.  The smell of roasted pipas coming from the vendor’s stands filled the warm night air.  The vendors roasted these sunflower seeds on small hot burners in their carts. They put them in a paper cone and salted them before handing them to the buyer.  Everyone popped them into their mouths eating the seed and spitting out the shells that fell everywhere.  The projector started with a rattle, a whirring sound, and the wall came to life.  Here in Spain in an outdoor theater set up helter-skelter, we sat on hard wooden benches, the actors on a stucco wall saying things I can’t understand.  Sitting next to a German boy with whom I couldn’t speak, I felt dazed and out of place, but I still enjoyed the differences.

After the movie we walked to the café for cokes, then walked home in the darkness. Upon arrival at our villa, Joachim maneuvered us to a secluded spot to say goodnight.  The next thing I knew his tongue was in my mouth!  What was this guy doing?  John kissed me twice, but both times it was only a peck on the lips. This was something entirely different. At first, I didn’t like it.  How long would this go on? How could I make it stop?  This must be what everyone back home talked about — French kissing!  It wasn’t all bad, but just as I was getting the hang of it, he pulled away.  He gave me a hug and set off into the darkness.  I never saw him again, but he left me with an experience I thought might come in handy later.  I wouldn’t be so clumsy if the opportunity arose again.  He wrote once, but in German.  I kept it, hoping to find someone to translate it for me.

Notes to Harbor Light

(The editor of our high school newspaper had asked me to write to him about our travel experiences.)

This island reminds me of Harry Bellefonte’s song “Island in the sun where people have toiled since time begun.”  This song is about Jamaica, but it is Mallorca, too. Time seems to stand still here.  Everyone who has a car is driving a Model T or Model A from the ’30s and ’40s.  No one has television.  There are no phones, washing machines, or dryers in the homes.  Our maid washes the laundry by hand for our entire family of nine including our bed sheets.   Everyone seems happy, though, and they have fiestas for almost no reason at all. Fireworks flash from across the bay in the night sky.  We watch them from our terrace wondering what they are celebrating.


The family settled in to our daily routine.  Mom, Jan, and I purchased our food in the local markets.  We learned hard lessons discovering the difference between pounds and kilos, having to eat green beans for days because we purchased too many.  Mom tackled the gas stove and took over cooking the evening meals.   We shopped at the carniceria (butchers) to buy our meat.  The meat hung on hooks.  Half a cow, lamb, or goat just hanging there frightened me, but Mom hardened herself to order by pointing to the animal part she wanted, leg of lamb or breast of chicken.  She soon learned to say carne picada (hamburger).  The first night she made hamburgers, my little brothers screamed with delight.

There were difficult times adjusting.  Tommy and Hank quarreled, having to share a room, and soon the quarrels broke out into real fist fights.   Dad spent most of his time in Puerto Pollensa and Mom found it hard dealing with these fighting boys and keeping them apart.  My parents sent Tommy to Palma for a course with the Berlitz language school.  He lived in a pension in Palma for six weeks and spent his days learning Spanish.  Mom and Dad wanted someone in the family to speak enough Spanish be able to communicate. At the shipyard where Dad was planning to build our sailing boat, they only spoke Spanish.  He needed someone to translate.

Carl on the “sailfish” – photo by Jan

Dad came home from Palma one day with a “Sailfish” for us to use in the bay.  It was a sailing boat without sides so if we made a mistake sailing, we slid off into the water.  It had one big sail and a rudder and centerboard.  Dad wanted us to learn the basic elements of sailing from this little boat.  At thirteen feet long and three feet wide, it only held two people.  If we tipped over, we had to hold on to the side, standing on the centerboard.  We needed to slowly, ever so slowly, let the water drain out of the sail.  Then we tipped it upright.  If we rushed it, the weight of the water in the sail might break the mast.

It didn’t take us long to learn how to keep it upright.  Carl was the first one to become an expert at handling the little boat. He spent his days on the sailfish while the rest of us sunbathed and swam from the Quay.  One day I noticed Carl wasn’t sailing alone, but had a young girl with him.  She was French and only spoke a few words in English and Carl no French at all.  Her name was Martine.  Each one of us found ways to make friends and sweethearts.

Jan came with Hank and me to the Quay occasionally, but usually stayed near the villa or trekked into the hills with Conrad searching for adventure, which he found one afternoon at home.

“Help, Mommy,” he ran out on the terrace where we were sitting with his hand dripping blood and an awl sticking out of the middle of his palm. He’d been drilling a piece of wood, making a model boat, when the awl slipped.  Dad jumped up and carefully pulled the awl from his hand.  “We need to take him to the doctor to see if he needs stitches,” Mom stammered. “I won’t be able to understand the doctor, but I guess if we take the awl, we can make him understand what happened.”  Conrad got a tetanus shot and came home with a bandaged hand, the hero for the day.

 On the afternoons when Dad was home, he met the local men at the café on the waterfront.   He had a way about him that made others eager to know him.  It didn’t hurt that he was always happy and willing to buy the drinks.  He didn’t speak much Spanish, but Dad adapted well to making himself understood.  He occasionally drove the van filled with these men to Palma for a day of eating and attending the bullfights.  I realized, for the first time, how much of a man’s world my dad lived in and how he enjoyed it.  Mom stayed at the villa on these afternoons keeping an eye on the younger ones and watching the world go by from the terrace with her binoculars.

One day, Dad announced that these local men wanted to take our whole family out to the Island of Dragonera, near Puerto Andraitx.  They wanted to make paella on the beach for us.


© 2019 Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com.  Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.

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Sarah’s Big MFA Adventure: Home Stretch!

This morning I’m staring down a deadline for Chapter 9 of my book, working title The Soulful History of Glory Foods. This is the last chapter I’ll write under the guidance of a mentor in my Big MFA Adventure through the University of King’s College in Halifax. Next month I’ll do a rewrite of my book proposal, and then–I’m hatched into the world, a fledgling Serious Author of Creative Nonfiction!

But there’s one more step in the Big Adventure: graduation! Or, what they call Encaenia at this 230-year-old school. I am planning to return to Halifax to accept my diploma in person (for the first time in my checkered educational career. It’s now or never.)

Sadly, the tradition of parading with a bagpiper before the ceremony has been discontinued this year. My bad luck!


I am going to share this experience with a small group of friends/writers on a

Nova Scotia Writing Retreat!

I may have one or two spots open, so read on and see if this writing (or not) retreat sounds like the adventure for you.

May 20-25

For May 20-23 we’ll be based at Windhorse Farm, a bit more than an hour south of Halifax, just down the road from the world-famous Peggy’s Cove. Read more about Nova Scotia south shore tourism here.

May 23-25 we’ll move to University of King’s College, our base for exploring Halifax.

Of course, you’re welcome to watch me don a robe and get my diploma, but no pressure–if I were in Halifax for a couple of days I wouldn’t want to waste an afternoon in an auditorium.

What about the Writing part?

Some of us want solo writing time, some want to workshop a piece of memoir or family history, and some just want to relax and be tourists. I’ll orchestrate the experience you’re looking for. Personally, I think it’s an excellent opportunity to practice travel writing, opening your senses to the contrasts between our country stay and bustling Halifax.

The details:

  • $700 for lodging and transportation. Price includes most meals while at Windhorse Retreat, breakfasts while in Halifax.
  • Deposit $350 due March 15, balance due May 15.
  • You’ll make your own travel arrangements to Halifax. Please arrive in Halifax in time for noon departure for Windhorse Retreat on May 20. (For those of us in the midwest, that likely means arriving on the 19th.)

Confirm your reservation with me now! 608-347-7329 or sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com

To get you dreaming….

The Wentzell Farmhouse where we’ll stay while at the Windhorse Retreat:

View from the porch:

University of King’s College, our base for exploring Halifax:

I love that the shrubbery includes an apostrophe.

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Flash Memoir: Finishing Your Work

Three months ago I began a series of “writing workshop” posts here on Flash Memoir. Today that series comes to an end with my thoughts on the revision that gives your essay its final form.

If you’ve followed this post series, I hope you’ve been producing new writing, rough drafts that now await your red editor’s pen. If so, I hope these suggestions help you find where to prune and shape these pieces so that, like topiary, they take on a pleasing form while remaining small, true to the Flash genre.

In your first revision pass, pay specific attention to your beginnings and endings.

A great beginning will have something about it that hooks your readers. It will surprise, puzzle, or shock in some way that creates tension. It will compel readers to root for you through the rest of the story. In a Flash Memoir, you have to accomplish that in just a sentence or two.

A great ending will resolve the tension introduced in the opening for a nice mini-version of the “bookends” technique that connects the ending back to the beginning. It will maintain the pace of the story’s beginning and middle. It will leave the reader wanting more.

Something in your first few sentences will make a promise that is delivered on in at the end. Think about how, in “Balloons Are for Kids,” a sentence that begins the second paragraph is mirrored at the end.

“I boarded my city bus for home, thinking about the balloon’s fate….”

“I don’t know how long the balloon lasted. I never saw the girl again, but I’ve thought of her often….”

Really think about the moment where your story begins and ends. Every fairy tale starts with “Once upon a time.” Somehow that story has settled on where it begins. Not two weeks before, not a half hour before. Sometimes it takes a lot of revising to find the right place to start a story from. Flash Memoir will always have a real sense of starting just as the action of the story gets going, and ending as soon as the action ends.

First drafts often begin unintentionally with “throat-clearing,” a warm-up of your writing mind. How much of what is in your first paragraph is essential to the reader’s understanding of the action? If you delete it, is the story stronger?

Likewise, many essays can be improved by removing musing at the end, trusting the reader to do that musing instead. Does your story end still grounded in object writing? Try lopping off anything you’ve written after the final concrete and observable action. Internal action, as in “Balloons Are for Kids” where Kay wonders if the child remembers her, is acceptable as action in this sense.

For more thoughts on revising your work, see this post: “More on revising your work: Jean Krieg and Sarah White talk writing craft.”

And that concludes the “Flash Memoir” series. Post your comments here, and review the four posts any time you’d like to work on writing short, powerful, reminiscence essays!

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