By Sarah White
In 2004, I was deep into pivoting my work (and life) from being a freelance business writer toward personal history work. I tried out several methods for helping people capture, preserve, and share their life stories. Oral history-style interviewing was one method, where my clients reminisced and I did the work of writing in their words and preparing what we wrote for distribution to family and friends. The other method I tried was Guided Autobiography—small-group workshops using a curriculum developed by pioneering gerontologist Dr. James Birren.
Fifteen years later, I blogged here about how offering my first Guided Autobiography workshop (we call it “GAB”) led to developing my own Remember to Write curriculum, with more focus on writing craft, and how eventually I felt pulled back toward Birren’s approach.
In 2020 I brought the idea of teaching GAB to Madison College. I completed my first GAB workshop for the college. A small group met using Webex for ten weeks of writing prompts on different themes common to life experience. In weekly 2-hour sessions, participants read and shared their writing. There was some instructor-led discussion, but the beating heart of GAB is the stories—hearing others’ truths and bearing witness to your own.
The magic of GAB is that you will do more than start writing down your memories—you will gain insights into how the events of your life have contributed to the person you are today—and may become tomorrow. Research has shown that this workshop method decreases anxiety and isolation, and increases self-esteem and social connection. Who couldn’t use a little of that as we face down our third year of COVID19?
I have a new GAB workshop starting next Wednesday through Madison College. A few seats are available. Find more information and how to register on the Madison College website here.
In 2015 I learned that there was a community of Guided Autobiography Instructors and a certifying body—the Birren Center for Autobiographical Studies. I have found a collegial home among the GAB Instructors, and have given back to it by offering marketing workshops for GAB Instructors, drawing on my past career in marketing.
Now that community has something to celebrate: the first collection of reminiscence essays written BY GAB Instructors, Onward! True Life Stories of Challenges, Choices, & Change. “The book started as a challenge posed to our global community of memoir teachers–‘Tell us about a crossroads moment in your life,'” wrote editor Emma Fulenwider in her Introduction. “As you read these true stories of challenges, choices, and change, you will learn something about yourself, about humankind, and ways of being in our world,” wrote Cheryl Svensson, Director of the Birren Institute in her Foreword.