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!



About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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2 Responses to What is Guided Autobiography? How do I teach it?

  1. Suzy Beal says:


    So many of your comments ring true. I spent 25 years helping others write their autobiographies and in that process, I learned more about myself, I think, then about my students. I loved the process as we all gained perspective on our lives.

    Suzy Beal


  2. Sarah, what a great review of Guided Autobiography. I have taught GAB classes continually for 4 years and it just keeps getting better. You captured so well what I see Dr. Birren intending to create when developing this method. Congrats on your near completion of your MFA degree.


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