Writing Lifestories Workshops

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For over a decade elders in Galveston/Houston, Texas, have been meeting to share lifestory vignettes in safe, caring groups utilizing distinctive protocols.


In 1996, Kate De Medeiros, a graduate student of Dr. Thomas Cole at UTMB created Share Your Life Story Workshops.  Over the past twelve years, other protocols have emerged based on growing evidence of effectiveness and proven success when practiced in hundreds of groups.  Research continues to mount health benefits of elders experiencing creative opportunities such as lifestory groups.  Dr. Joe Verghese and his team at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York found that those 75 and older who played board games, read, or engaged in other cognitively stimulating activities, demonstrated reduced risk of dementias (Verghese, et. al. 2003). Cognitive activity across the life span was examined at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago (Wilson, et. al. 2003).  Glass’s team discovered that cognitive activities enhance survival. (Glass, et. al. 1999).
Individuals with rheumatoid arthritis and asthma, who wrote about stressful experiences, realized measurable health improvement (Smyth, et. al., 1999).  One reviewer noted, “Were the authors to have provided similar outcome evidence about a new drug, it likely would be in widespread use within a short time” (Spiegel, 1999, p. 1328).  In another study, writing about personal experiences for only 15 minutes a day for three days demonstrated improvements in both physical and mental health of study subjects (Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999).  In that study, those who used more positive-emotion words gained most benefit.  Whether writing about positive or negative experiences, there is increased well-being from participating in story writing and sharing.  There are multitudes of  formats for lifestory writing and sharing groups.  Here we present techniques that have proven effective, but many others are equally effective. 

About the workshop

UTMB’s lifstories workshops offer unique approaches to a rich tradition of life review, reminiscence, and writing groups.  No prior writing skills are required for participants to share in the adventure of writing their own life stories.  Each one brings openness to sharing ideas and improving skills through practice.  Participants practice writing from the very first hour. 

All groups share the following protocols:
·       Groups meet for eight weeks in 2-hour sessions each week under the guidance of a trained facilitator, who does not share his or her stories
·       No less than 12 and no more than 16 participate in each group
·       Each person reads a story of about five minutes in length while other members of the group listen with intention
·       Group members and facilitator comment positively on shared stories
·       Groups establish a shared, almost sacred culture of core principles: confidentiality, “One Voice,” no interruptions, participants comment on writing not writer’s feelings, nor do they question content
·        Feedback is framed in a positive rather than critical manner—grammar, punctuation, syntax, and spelling are never discussed


Shared expectations ensure group cohesiveness:

  • Confidentiality is essential.  Everyone shares writing, but each person is free to “pass” at any time.  Everyone is encouraged to participate equally, no one dominates.

  • Everyone listens with full and respectful attentiveness!

  • One person speaks at a time

  • Comments on others’ writing begin, “What I liked about this piece was…”

How Sessions Work
            At the first session, shared expectations are established with emphasis that this process is a workshop, not a class.  The facilitator is not a teacher.  The exercises suggested each week help participants build skills through practice.  There is no emphasis on grammatical minutiae.  Writing skills improve through practice, by receiving positive feedback on effective writing, and by learning from the positive feedback about writing of other participants.  Newcomers to these groups often ask for criticism of shortcomings or poor writing. 

lady "I loved hearing the stories of the others in the group.”

Based on the recurring request of participants a variety of workshops have been formed. They include:
·        Introductory Lifestory:  basic introduction, required for participation in other groups
·        Meaning among the Memories:  usually follows introductory course
·         Lifestories as Legacy:  can follow either of the two above.  Focuses on story suggestions or writing triggers reflecting life’s decades
·        That’s Another Story:  experienced group participants draw upon previously written stories for new topics
·        Advanced Lifestory:  experienced participants write and share longer, usually more complex stories
·        Share Your Life Story:  the original group format from which the others described here were derived
Currently, Pentimento Project lifestory workshops are offered in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UTMB and in other places in Texas and the Houston/Galveston area.

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For questions or comments about the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute or about this web site
email Michelle Sierpina at msierpin@utmb.edu or call 409-763-5604.
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