This morning, my “Upcoming Workshops” email went out to the mailing list I’ve compiled over the years from people who have attended my workshops and talks. I thought I’d share that info here, as well.
Everything I have on the calendar for this Winter-Spring 2023 is scheduled for in-person, in Madison, where I live. I love that I’m back in the room with people, doing what I love–sharing my passion for reminiscence writing and helping others get started.
But it feels a little funny not to have something to offer my farther-flung followers and those who prefer online to in-person for whatever reason! If there’s an offering you’d particularly like to see in an online format, let’s talk. I’m open to ideas, especially for April and beyond.
Now, here goes.
“Every Story Counts”
Talk and Book Celebration at Barnes & Noble West Towne
Get tips on how to start writing and stay motivated as you write memorable autobiographical stories from the heart. My featured guests are Madison writers Joshua Feyen and Cam French, who will read their essays featured in Homeward! Personal Stories on the Search for Belonging, the second anthology published by the Birren Center for Guided Autobiography. A time for Q&A will follow.
When: January 15, 2-3:30 pm Where: Barnes & Noble Bookstore West, 7433 Mineral Point Road Fee: Free, no RSVP needed.
Guided Autobiography I
Offered through Madison College, 10 weeks starting January 25th
You have a wealth of memories and stories. It’s time to capture them in writing.
By using the Guided Autobiography method developed by Dr. James Birren, 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.
When: This 10-week workshop meets Wednesday mornings, 9:30-11:30 a.m., from 1/25 through 4/5 (no class on 3/15–Spring Break!) Where: Truax-Protective Services Building Fee: $205 To register: Click here for a registration form; enter class #63414. Or call 608.258.2301, Option 2.
Start Writing Your Life Story
Offered through Pinney Library Branch, 6 weeks starting February 7th
The stories of our lives connect generations and communities. Whether you want to share your own life experiences or pass on your family’s stories, this workshop will help you get started and stay motivated.
When: This 6-week workshop meets Tuesday mornings, 9:30-11:30 a.m. from 2/7 through 3/14. Where: Pinney Library, 516 Cottage Grove Road, Community Room A Fee: Free Registration opens on January 9. Click here to register.
Offered through Madison College, 8 weeks starting March 21st
Explore the possibilities of writing for fun and publication by practicing specific writing skills.
When: This 8-week workshop meets Tuesday mornings, 9:30-11:30 a.m. Central, from 3/21/23 through 5/9/23. Where: Truax-Protective Services Building Fee: $165 To register: Click here for a registration form; enter class #63468. Or call 608.258.2301, Option 2.
Hope to see you at an event or workshop soon! And if you are part of a group that’s looking for speakers, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’ve been a reader of this blog for a while, you know how passionate I am about motivating people to write about their lives.
The benefits are many: Individuals gain a satisfying skill, explore the meaning of their life experiences, and make new social connections. Families appreciate the tangible legacy of their loved one’s life stories. Our community benefits from sharing these stories that make local history come alive, and bring older people’s examples and life lessons to new generations.
As 2023 gets underway, I’m reconfirming my commitment to reminiscence writing. I want to create a city-wide reminiscence writing program – in fact I already have. But to make it sustainable, I need to add new venues and teacher training, and I want to partner with a backbone organization–a group to sponsor the program. I’m in talks with several organizations that might fill that role. I am applying for grants to underwrite some aspects of my work. And I’m putting it out there to the universe: This I will do.
Maybe you’re ready to get started. Many of the stories published here were first drafted in my reminiscence writing workshops. Maybe it’s time for you to take a workshop with me (or come back for a refresher). Here’s a link to my schedule for January-April 2023. These workshops are located in Madison, Wisconsin, but I’m open to scheduling an online course if you know a venue that would sponsor it, or a group of people who’d like to come together to write in a small group.
Maybe you are part of a group that might like to hear me talk about the benefits of reminiscence writing. My “Remember to Write!” presentation explores how life story writing creates a priceless legacy and a valuable opportunity to find connection, creativity, and meaning. I offer my opinion that pursuing writing in small groups with a trained facilitator is the most satisfying way to approach the task. I draw on my experiences teaching reminiscence writing in person and online since 2004. If you know of a group that’s looking for speakers, shoot me an email at email@example.com
Let’s make 2023 the Year of the Reminiscence Writer.
Vernon Mauritson, nicknamed Mort, wasted no time in recruiting me when I transferred from a one-room country school and entered seventh grade in the town of Sunburst, Montana in 1946. He made band sound like a great opportunity. He had decided that it would be perfect for me to play the clarinet. I didn’t even know what a clarinet was. He handed me an old metal clarinet, a book of beginner’s lessons, and gave private and group lessons.. My family suffered while I practiced a couple hours every night but they never told me to quit. Pop called the clarinet my squawk box.
Even though I was only nine years old, I was designated “first chair” of the band the very next year, which is a little like the concertmaster in an orchestra. Mort got sheet music for me to play solos in state competitions and during band concerts. He knew he could count on me to practice hard and play well.
I think Mr. Mauritson knew how important these achievements were to my emotional state. I was almost three years younger than my classmates and he gave me a way to rise above my role of a country hick or ugly duckling. Soon Mort spoke privately to Pop and amazingly persuaded him to loosen his stingy wallet and buy one of the very best clarinets for me. That made a difference because it had a better tone.
Band concerts were a big deal in our rural community because there were few other entertainments. Our band received many awards in competitions but we really shined as a marching band. We performed fancy formations at half time of every basketball game. That was big entertainment for small towns and people packed the bleachers.
Because of the excellence of our band, we were invited to be the honor band at the Portland, Oregon Rose Festival in June, 1952. This Festival is not as large as the one in Pasadena, but there were many floats and bands and the five-mile parade was watched by millions.
It was amazing that my Sunburst, Montana high school with a total enrollment of 150 students had 120 of them participating in the Portland Rose Festival. The town of Sunburst had a population of only one thousand.
We had a lot of extra band practices before and after school, causing me to miss the school bus. Mom arranged for me to board in town when necessary with a family who were devout members of the small Assembly of God church. This led to a serendipitous mind-opening experience. The family went to church on some weeknights and it would have been inappropriate for me to refuse to go with them. The services were interactive, with people waving their hands and continually calling out phrases such as “Amen,” “Tell it, brother,” and “Praise the Lord.” There were times when someone would “swoon” or begin to speak in tongues. That excited everybody as a sign that Jesus was really truly present with us. At my Lutheran church, nobody even said Amen unless it was written as part of a prayer. I hadn’t known there were different ways for people to worship.
Getting ready for the Portland Rose festival, our little town did many activities to raise money to purchase uniforms and pay expenses for the trip. In addition to standard band uniforms, they also acquired Western uniforms of custom-made 10-gallon cowboy hats and plaid Western-style shirts that we wore with new dark blue jeans. Portland may be further west on a map but Montana was always considered a more western place. The people in Portland liked it best when we wore our Western attire.
Mort recruited as drum major a tall and handsome former student, Raymond Gallup, who had recently returned from serving two years with the Marine Corps in Korea where he was wounded twice. He and Mort put us through boot camp. At the five-mile parade, there were first-aid stations to treat those participants who dropped out because of foot injuries, fatigue, heatstroke, or other reasons. We were very proud that not a single one of us dropped out of the parade for any reason.
The Drum Major and Mort developed a series of whistles and baton movements to communicate what we were to do — which songs to play and which formations to perform. We could be marching down a street in standard parade formation and suddenly startle the onlookers by splitting apart with each row going in a different direction, some marching toward the spectators on the sidewalk, before doing an about-face and returning to formation.
In addition to leading the parade, we gave several other performances in Portland. Most unusual was the day we went downtown in our Western-style uniforms and marched single file in heavy afternoon traffic, weaving between cars and never missing a note or a step. There were a lot of cars honking their horns and I’m not sure whether that was like applause or telling us to get the H_ out of their way. I’m pretty sure it was positive because I never heard anybody holler a negative remark.
Mr. Mauritson was not required or expected to work so hard in making the band excellent, but his hard work resulted in proud memories for the entire community. Being part of a group, such as an athletic team, debate club, or performing group, has been proven to have a positive effect on intellectual and emotional development of young people. Plato said that he would teach children physics and philosophy but that the arts, such as music, are the key to learning.
I am not exaggerating when I say that I think my experience with the band saved me from suicidal thoughts that probably occur, even briefly, to most teenagers. All members of the band made a commitment to be the best they could. Achievement does wonders for self-confidence.
I have special appreciation for my favorite teacher, Mr. Vernon Mauritson, because of all that he did to help me develop self confidence. The entire band and community developed a sense of pride. Mort was an exceptional teacher.
Violet grew up on a farm in Montana just 8 miles from the Canadian border and about 70 miles east of Glacier Park. After getting a degree in nursing at Montana State University in Bozeman, she literally picked Madison, Wisconsin off the map as the first place she was going “on my trip around the world.” Delayed by marriage, 3 children and administrative positions in facilities including University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics, trips to many different countries came later. For the last 20 years before retiring,Violet ran her own nurse consulting business. In retirement she enjoys travel, dance, and blues, often in combination. She has recently published a biography of her grandmother titled The Unknown Life of Anna Lozing.
What memories come up for you in the velvety darkness of this season? I welcome stories that connect us across generations and cultures, expanding our respect and empathy through the simple power of story. Submit them to True Stories Well Told.
Maisie is anxious. Maisie is old. She has confused her days and nights. Well, being a cat, she is probably right on schedule, so it’s really my days and nights she has mixed up
I’ve never been a particularly good sleeper, but still, I remember going to bed and at the very least lying there for several hours, uninterrupted, sleeping at least some of the time, other times mulling over my problems or being annoyed by the seams in my pajamas, or the loose baffle banging in one of the heating vents, but always from the depths of my comfy quilt.
Recently, however, my lovable legacy cat has decided she requires company, my company, about 18 hours a night. She starts reminding me of this shortly after supper. As I sit down with the crossword and some background noise on the TV, she leaps nimbly onto the coffee table, stands directly in front of me, and stares intently. If I don’t respond in a timely manner, which, apparently to a cat is immediately, she begins to claw gently at the knee of my jeans while making adorable, piteous baby cat noises. Of course, this earns her a treat. It’s very darling at 8pm but becomes less and less so by 9 or 10. Eventually, after multiple sessions of petting by every available family member, she curls up on the couch and we head for bed. Blessed repose.
Suddenly, a noise jolts me awake and ray of bright light pierces my eyeball. I’ve been sleeping pretty hard and think perhaps I actually slept through the night for once. I check the clock. It’s barely 2am. The sound I heard is Maisie the cat, who has managed to open the bedroom door by sticking her paw under the jamb and butting hard with her head. She prances in vocalizing plaintively, “I’m lonely” in cat-speak.
Because I’m a sucker, I get up, grab an old overshirt and head out to the living room. It would appear that’s all she really wanted. Her plan for me is to sit in the big old cat-clawed leather chair, turn on the television, and wait for her to settle down. She paces back and forth on the wide chair arm for some time, apparently to make sure I am not planning to sneak back to bed. (I was, but it didn’t work out the first time. She gave me 25 minutes before bursting back through the door).
It’s now 2:30 and I’m aimlessly flipping channels to see if there is anything on that isn’t “Paid Programming.” I’ve already obsessively watched the endlessly upsetting news stories on CNN and MSNBC, the Food network has signed off, and tennis is a re-play of an earlier match.
I decide to try one more channel check and stumble upon an old episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. It’s the one where he is explaining how worrisome it might be when a new baby arrives. He sings a snappy song, and I am transported back to happier times when my kids were little and sat raptly in front of the new color TV waiting for Mr. Rogers to slip on his tennies, zip up his sweater, and get to work running the trolley or touring the crayon factory. So happily reminiscent. I feel my jaw starting to unclench. Maisie senses my tension ebbing, and has begun to purr in her most gentle “I’m here for you” manner.
This getting up at 2:30 scenario has repeated itself for several nights. I’ve seen a number of Mr. Rogers episodes, and hummed along to such top 40 hits as “Its very, very, very hard to wait”, “Everybody’s fancy, everybody’s fine” and my personal favorite, “I’m angry”. But as long as I can sing (very softly) along with Mr. Rogers, and conjure up those distant happy memories, I am willing to make the sacrifice for Maisie. In fact, if she slept through the night, I’d be awake fretting. Instead she’s helped me find an unexpected little oasis in this horribly stressful and strife-filled world we’re experiencing right now.
Maybe Maisie isn’t lonely at all. Being inscrutable as cats are rumored to be, perhaps she’s just trying to help me through my funk. Or, could be, she finds Fred Rogers at 2:30am compelling and just needs me to get up and turn on the TV.
Faith has been writing to amuse her family since she was old enough to print letters to her grandparents. Now retired, she has the opportunity to share some personal stories, and in the process, discover more about herself. Faith and her husband live with an elderly cat in Madison, Wisconsin. They are the parents of two great sons and a loving daughter-in-law.
I remember, as a 5-year old, walking two blocks to kindergarten and sitting on the classroom floor with all the other kids. The teacher began calling our names for attendance, and pronounced an unfamiliar name while looking at me. The last name was correct, but who was this Elvora? I soon realized it was supposed to be me, although since I had been born, I was called Joan. When I came home and asked, I learned that Joan is my middle name. I felt like two people – one at home and one at school, until my parents got on board and began calling me Elvora, too – especially when I misbehaved. I got used to it, but never liked that strange name that none of my friends had ever heard either. And often my father called me “Sparkie”, which I understood as a nickname and liked.
I am not sure how my parents forgot to tell me the name on my birth certificate, but we were a rather unusual family. My father made the name up and originally used it for my mother when she was appearing on stage as Madam Elvora, the astounding memory expert.
After I was born, Mother switched to Madam Alva, because my dad wanted to extend the name Elvora into the future through me. And, besides, Alva was closer to her real given name, Alvina, a name she never used either. She said a baby seemed more like a Joan to her than an Elvora, but now that I was in school, I was old enough to use my real first name.
Names figured into this family of performers at many levels. My sister and I did an acrobatic act in our early years and were called The Bergorettes. This, of course, was our dad’s invention again.
But Bergor was also a changed name. When we were born, my sister and I had the last name of Goldenberger. This seemed too long for stage use by a magician and escape artist, so my father just divided it in two and then changed the second e to an o to make it different from all other Bergers. Of course, he didn’t think to make the change legally until I was in kindergarten, so my older sister had a similar challenge in hearing an unfamiliar last name spoken by both her kindergarten and first grade teachers. Her first name, Monona, was the same as the name of the lake two blocks from the school. But, unlike me, she liked her name. It had a nice sound, it represented a beautiful lake nearby, and at that time it was unique among her peers.
I might mention parenthetically that my mother also made name changes for herself. She began life as Alvina Wilhelmina Hedvich Topel, and when she married my father added Goldenberger to the list, making it sound almost like a full sentence. She later changed it to Alvina Wilma Bergor. The Wilma got lost in just a “W”, with no one really knowing what that stood for, and everyone called her “Al” or “Alva”.
By the time I got to High School, a neighbor boy started called me Ellie and it stuck with all friends and family, except my Aunt Olivia, my Dad’s sister, who refused to call me by a nickname. But then, she was an opera singer who had changed her name from Olive Goldenberger to Olivia Monona, and who didn’t seem to mind at all when her nieces called her Aunt Nona, also a nickname. Anyway, I liked my new nickname. It felt more like me.
When I married, I thought about how to do this name thing. First, I began hyphenating and was Ellie Bergor-Jacobi. But that seemed too long, and I didn’t really identify with Bergor. After all, it wasn’t my birthname. So I tried to drop it. But Aunt Nona asked me specifically to keep Bergor in my legal name, since it was one-of-a-kind. Because I had defied her with the common use of Ellie, I agreed, and legally became Elvora Bergor Jacobi. This was not quite pleasing to me either because it meant dropping “Joan”, which had good memories. At first I tried to keep Joan, too, but four names seemed just too long.
I am not about to make any legal changes at this stage of life. It is probably enough that I have trained friends, family and even doctors, dentists and my Credit Union to refer to me as “Ellie”. A few friends know my secret real first name, but, bless them, do not use it.
My family immigrated to the U.S.A. in the 1960s when I was in high school. It was during that first year that my mother established her lucrative custom design and dressmaking business. On the shelf above her sewing machine, flanked by threads in more colors than I could name, sat her four-by-six-inch hinged wooden box. Painted in gold-tones, it resembled an antique book. The cover was decorated with Renaissance-style images of rosy-cheeked cherubs floating among pillowy clouds and the entire box, front and back plus interior, had been painted with multiple layers of varnish. The crackled effect imparted to the box an antique appearance. An ornate brass clasp held the “book” closed but it was the interior message that had drawn my mother’s attention, compelling her to buy it. That message reflected and defined her philosophy of life.
One week after I graduated from university in 1973, Mom booked the two of us on a five-day Caribbean cruise departing from Miami — her graduation present to me. In reality, it fulfilled her dream of a mother-daughter bonding adventure.
What was our first stop? We disembarked the S.S. Emerald Seas at the Port of Nassau. The moment our feet touched “terra firma” we were thrilled to realize our ship had docked at a pier where the regional food and craft bazaar was located. Brightly colored canopies, on either side of the pier, stretched as far we could see. Vendors hawked local foods, native handicrafts, souvenirs, and clothing. The air was thick with exotic scents emanating from foods roasting in makeshift outdoor kitchens. Enticed, we were ready to be daring.
We strolled and chattered away. But my attention riveted upon stalls lining the pier’s opposite side — stall after stall of embroidered blouses, billowy skirts, and straw purses hung from bamboo poles. I turned to my right and said, “Mom, let’s go check those stalls. The clothes look amazing!” One second she was next to me on my right — then suddenly nowhere to be seen. Bordering on panic, I froze in place and scanned the pier. Then I spotted her at a stall across the way. She was impossible to miss, dressed in her favorite chartreuse, puffy-sleeved blouse. I rushed over just in time to witness my petite mother involved in an intense negotiating session with the stall’s proprietor. He was an older, wiry yet incredibly muscular native— a man for whom bargaining seemed to provide as much pleasure as did closing the sale.
“How much do you want for this?” Mom asked, holding up the ornate box.
“I ask seven dollars, American.”
“You’re joking, for sure! Five dollars and remember, it’s American.”
“No, no! Not enough. This I have worked for many hours to make,” he said.
“Alright, five-fifty?” she countered.
“If you will say to me five-seventy-five, I will say to you yes!”
“Deal!” Exclaimed Mom. The vendor wrapped his handiwork in layers of newspaper and tied it with a length of fuchsia-colored knitting wool. The two smiled widely at their respective successes.
Before World War II, Mom had been a couture designer in Romania, that is until she, her younger sister, and their two closest friends were confined to Bucharest’s Nazi-established ghetto. But it was her highly-sought-after skills that kept the four young women alive and fed. In dawn’s dim light, Mom ventured out to collect sewing work from non-Jewish women. Her blonde hair and small stature evaded attention while her earnings bought essential supplies that she smuggled into the ghetto for them to share. Those same skills saved their lives after they were imprisoned in Ravensbruck and Dachau concentration camps. They were kept among the living, put to work sewing. Miraculously, all four women survived to establish new lives.
The week before my wedding in 1983, Mom’s cancer took a turn from which we knew she’d never recover. I sat next to her on her bed. Suddenly, she interrupted our conversation. “Wait, you must wait just one second!” She moved a frail hand under her pillow and fished something out from under it. “You take this and always, always try to live by its message.” She took my hand in hers and pressed that box into it.
Opening the clasp, I read the ornate cursive opposite the angelic-looking shepherd-boy, an arm around his lamb.
Marlene holds a Ph.D., from University of Chicago. A research sociologist by training, she writes creative non-fiction by preference. Currently, she is completing her book entitled, Ask Mr. Hitler: A Memoir Told In Short Story. She is coauthor of The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, and author of When Digital Isn’t Real: Fact-Finding Off-Line for Serious Writers. Her essays and stories have been published widely in anthologies, journals, and online. (www.marlenesamuels.com)
In 1990 I was employed as executive personal assistant to Barry Hirsch, an entertainment attorney and power broker to the rich and famous. The same talented folk who populate the headlines of newspapers and tabloids alike. This type of position might offer the occasional glamorous screening or entre to a private event. Most of the time, though, it entails demanding work and a plethora of very unglamorous responsibilities—event planning, managing schedules, travel arrangements and other roles that in my case included family members. Discreet behavior in all endeavors was Rule #1.
On this early Saturday evening, I’d been waiting for Jack Valenti outside the Orion building on Century Park East. He was to pick up an envelope Barry had left for him in his office. Barry’s manner had appeared edgy when he mentioned the envelope and he made certain I was clear as to the time and place for the pick-up. The building was on lockdown for the weekend, as was Barry’s office. I felt odd standing alone on the mostly deserted Century Park East Boulevard.
Century City was originally the private ranch of early cowboy star, Tom Mix. That was before William Fox of Fox Film Corporation bought the land and built a movie studio that eventually became 20th Century Fox. In the late 1950s, when the studio suffered several financial reversals plus the staggering and ruinous costs of producing “Cleopatra,” the studio sold off the backlot to developers who built the “city within a city.” Century City is a bustling beehive during the week and a tomb on the weekend, eerily silent against the backdrop of looming skyscrapers.
Jack Valenti made his appearance around 6:00 p.m. when his sleek, black limousine glided up to the curb. A very dapper-looking fellow with alert and beaming brown eyes, he was immaculately dressed in a navy blue pin-striped suit. His hand shot out welcoming mine, a strong and self-assured handshake, one used to power.
Valenti had one of those great smiles you never forget—as if you are the most important person in his universe. Napoleonic in stature—what some might even call diminutive—he owned a large and charismatic personality, a very keen eye, an intuitive mind all imbued with a high nimble energy. Charming and affable, he was also all business. Someone once praised Valenti for his morals and his social skills; one described him as “smiley” and “able to charm the horns off a Billy goat.” I saw all that and more in the face studying mine. The cunning that had brought him so far in politics and the shark-infested waters of the entertainment business was also apparent.
Jack Valenti had been a successful Texas businessman before joining Vice President Lyndon Johnson in the White House as a media consultant. After three years in Washington, he was named head of the Motion Picture Association, where he served as Hollywood’s chief lobbyist from 1966 to 2004. Valenti became the distinguished public face of the movie and television production industry. He devised the film-rating system, restructured the Hays Act, and was one of its strongest advocates. His tanned face was a fixture at the annual Academy Awards broadcast.
As the elevator climbed to the 18th floor, he and I chatted amiably though minimally. I reflected on how close I stood to history and my mind’s eye couldn’t help revisiting that famous photograph taken on Air Force One. The iconic one that captured all the sorrow and solemnity of those first unbelievably terrible hours in Dallas on November 22, 1963. The event that shook our nation to its core.
Standing in the background, Jack Valenti (one of only twenty-six people on Air Force One) stands just to the right of Lady Bird Johnson. His dark eyes wide with shock and disbelief as he absorbs this monumental moment in U.S. history. That moment when Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office as the 36th President of the United States. A stunned and sorrow-filled Jacqueline Kennedy stands on Johnson’s left, a bleeding rose in her blood-spattered pink Chanel suit.
Secrets are routine business in entertainment and politics. Nevertheless, by then, I knew there were no real secrets in either enterprise; that more often than not someone else is always on another extension listening to those “private” conversations. I also knew this because during my employment with Barry, I was the one on the other end of the extension listening to deals being made, film stars’ complaints about contracts or broken hearts, studio heads, money changing hands, and occasionally a career-ruining secret was disclosed for which the tabloids paid large sums of cash to traitorous informants.
The same applies to the envelope meant for only Jack Valenti’s eyes. He gave a jaunty wave as the limousine drew away from the curb outside the Orion building. Meanwhile, Jack Valenti held the power in his hands to someone’s future within that manila envelope.
Cam began her creative life in early childhood and now works primarily in oil or acrylic mediums every day. As a painter she’s participated in group shows and one-woman exhibits. She is a past member of The Madison Watercolor Society and The Madison Art Guild. She is also writing a memoir. Cam and her husband, Jim, live in the Dane County area in a 136 year old brick farmhouse. Both enjoy working in their large garden.
Books are like babies, as far as my experience goes (which includes birthing a few books of my own and midwifing quite a few others, but no babies).
How so? The publishing process takes about 9 months in most cases, and people look with amazement and joy upon the result. Nothing in our culture comes close to holding the cultural cache of producing a human being–with the exception of a book. That’s why I’m excited to welcome Homeward: Personal Stories on the Search for Belonging to the Guided Autobiography family.
Onward! consisted of short essays written by Guided Autobiography instructors. With Homeward, the Birren Center opened the call for submissions to students of GAB instructors as well. I forwarded the announcement to everyone who has taken a Guided Autobiography workshop with me over the years. I’m pleased that two of my students, Josh Feyen and Cam French, had stories accepted for inclusion. We will celebrate their success at my First Person salons on December 5th/6th, and with a talk at Barnes & Noble West Towne on January 15th at 2pm.
These anthologies, compiled from essays written in response to prompts, demonstrate the power of personal stories to entertain, impart wisdom, and connect people across generations and cultures. Onward is a collection of personal stories about life-changing moments. (I am grateful to have had an essay included.) Homeward offers unique insights on the universal search for belonging.
The books are published independently by the Birren Center for Autobiographical Writing, through which the authors are certified to teach their classes. “Our instructors are really incredible people,” said Birren Center Director Cheryl Svensson. “They come from all over the world, all walks of life, and they have the most amazing stories—as do their students.”
Sales from the anthologies directly benefit the Birren Center to help them start and support Guided Autobiography (“GAB”) classes in communities around the world. “The purpose of GAB is to help people see that memoir writing isn’t reserved for the rich and the famous,” Svensson said. “It isn’t just for people who are good writers. The act of writing down the story of your life belongs to every person, because every person has a story and every story counts.”
This unique writing methodology, in which trained instructors use themed prompts, short writing assignments, and small supportive groups, unlocks insights that help us better understand our past experiences and make wiser decisions for the future. I know of nothing more useful than a compass when one is headed into the unknown. Your writing in a GAB workshop becomes that compass.
My next Guided Autobiography workshop starts January 25 in Madison: this is an in-person workshop.
When: This 10-week workshop meets Wednesday mornings, 9:30-11:30 a.m. Central, from 1/25/23 through 4/5/2023 (no class on 3/15–Spring Break!)
Where: Truax-Protective Services Room 220
To register: Click here for a registration form; enter class #63414. Or call 608.258.2301, Option 2.
And hey. In the meantime, get a copy of Homeward, Onward, or both, and curl up with some true personal stories that will stimulate your own reminiscences and restore your faith in the human spirit.
In November, 1976 my parents purchased a 140-acre farm with pastures, woods and cropland situated on top of the rolling hills of Southwest Wisconsin’s driftless region. The day after the closing and unloading everything into house, my mom, my two brothers and I, and my aunt and two cousins sat in my relative’s Volkswagen camper van, cradling mugs of hot pea soup in our hands. It was windy with grey skies and flecks of icy snow blowing in the air. Despite the weather, my dad and my uncle eagerly tore apart an old farm building, heaping the rotten walls and roofing onto a huge burn pile. Removing the collapsed building made room for a low-slung shed to keep the family’s new pig operation shaded in the summer, and warm on days like this. It was the first of many demolitions and constructions over the next 42 years. Eventually my brothers and I would help with these projects, but on this chilly day, I was just five years old, and my brothers three and a half. Our job was to stay warm in the van.
While listening to “Free To Be You And Me,” I stared out the van windows at the land around us. From our vantage point in the driveway I looked south, where I watched our neighbor gather the last of his corn before snowfall made his fields inaccessible. We would eventually meet the bachelor farmer Ray and his parents, borrow tools and implements and marvel, enviously, at his heated garage.
I looked east, down into the hollow where a four-acre hobby farm was tucked below our own. My grandparents would eventually buy it and retire there for just a few years until my grandfather died, after which my grandmother returned to her roots in Milwaukee and more company than living alone in the country had provided.
I looked north, toward our new but very old house and the hill that rose gently behind it to the highest point on our farm. We would eventually tear down rotted parts, insulate it and build two additions. But for now, the north wind drafted through the thin walls. There were just two windows on the north side of the house, and after moving in, I frequently found frost on the inside of the hall window, confirming that it really was that cold in my bedroom at night.
And finally I looked west, a 15-mile uninterrupted view across distant hills and valleys. As the sun set below the far-off horizon, I saw for the first time a string of twinkling lights that I didn’t know it at the time, but were the streetlights of the village where my mom would eventually find work as a teacher in an adjacent school district.
One of the reasons I could see our neighbors and the distant horizons in all four directions was that the farmyard was treeless. There were four dead elms along the road, oddly topped about 10 feet from the ground. My father explained they were American Elm trees, killed by a little bug that came from somewhere named Dutch.
The following spring, we tore down the tall stumps and planted trees around the house. We started with rows of white pine and cedar to the north to protect the house from winter’s arctic wind. We planted a single row of cedars along to the west to provide privacy and a sound barrier from the adjacent road. My mom enjoyed the view to the south, so we added a few low shrubs so the sun could shine on the house. We planted a fast-growing poplar tree to the east to shade the only flat stretch of yard on our hilltop homestead. Over the course of 42 years, we planted 150 trees around the house, and more than 10,000 pine, oak, walnut, ash, and black cherry in rows between farm fields. But that was all to come, for now, I returned to my pea soup and thought back to what we had just left behind and wondered what was ahead.
I have a few fond memories of Waukesha, Wisconsin where my parents had beautifully restored a farmhouse on a couple acres of suburban land. We played with the neighbor boys under a huge tree where my dad strung up a swing. There was plenty of room for my mom’s gardening interest. It was an easy drive to my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, who were sprinkled throughout the Milwaukee area. My dad taught high school shop, and once my brothers and I started school, my mom could have returned to her own teaching career. But our family took a much different path.
In the 1970s, the back-to-the-land movement was in full swing, and young adults, often with children in tow, moved to rural parts of our country to make a living and raise a family. While this urban-to-rural movement occurred across the United States in the late 1960s through the 1980s, there were some pockets where this activity was particularly noticeable; northern Missouri, parts of rural Oregon, and the southwest corner of Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s Driftless region offered hilly but affordable farmland for those who wanted to raise animals or truck farm, and the deep valleys and long country driveways for those who sought privacy.
Many sought to escape the Viet Nam war, either dodging it or the repercussions of having been part of it. Others wanted to avoid urban violence, crime, and as my mother often cited as her reason for moving, “drugs in the city.” Yet this corner of Wisconsin was close enough to Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago where many of our soon-to-be friends could return to visit friends and family they left behind.
So, with a few copies of Mother Earth News and the Whole Earth Catalog in hand, my parents seized upon their dream to raise my brothers and I in a rural setting. After the early sunset dwindled and flashlight batteries died of exhaustion or from the cold, my dad and uncle called it a day. My brothers and I bid farewell to our relatives and they returned three hours east to their home in Milwaukee. And we started the long process of turning this house into a home, this farm into a source of income, and this corner of Wisconsin into somewhere to grow up and become a local.
Josh Feyen was raised on a farm in southwest Wisconsin, went to college in Milwaukee, lived abroad for four years on three continents, and now finds himself with stories to tell. In the middle of 2021, Josh set about writing 50 short memoir stories in his 50th year. Sharing this story with truestorieswelltold.com is an unexpected surprise; the main focus of Josh’s 50 in 50 writing journey is to share what he’s learned with his four teenage nieces and nephew. Josh lives in Madison, Wisconsin.