One Man's Quest to Help Others Discover Life's Literary Gold

By Chatham, Jim | Aging Today, March/April 2012 | Go to article overview

One Man's Quest to Help Others Discover Life's Literary Gold


Chatham, Jim, Aging Today


I often hear people say, "There are some really good stories from my life that I ought to write." But few of those people take action. As an addicted story writer myself, I created a writing seminar, called Turning Your Life into Literature, to motivate those people.

Turning Your Life into Literature is a six-week personal story-writing seminar that meets two hours per week, with 8 to 12 participants. Under clearly specified guidelines, they write stories from their lives and then bring them in to the seminar to share. People have called the process everything from "invigorating" to "binding" to "nearly magical."

"It's like dry bones rising! I come to life all over again!" says one 92-year-old man about his writing experience.

Seminar participants set the purpose, learn and practice the guidelines and establish a group ethos. For those so inclined, the seminar can be extended to a monthly or semi-monthly writing group (four extended groups are currently meeting). By now, more than 90 people have participated in the program, which charges a sliding-scale tuition- really a contribution-of between $10 and $100. The money goes to Habitat for Humanity, Manna Food Bank or other human-help organizations. So far, around $5,000 has been raised.

Motivation and the Art of Attention

The seminar's purpose is to motivate us to write, not to improve our writing. Many of us write well already. It's not to compete- that's deadly. It's not to publish-that's just guaranteed frustration.

"Most activities for people my age ask me to sit and watch something. This activity asks me to reach deep into myself, use my best talents, and create something good. I love it!" says one 87-year-old writer. We set a story length guideline of 750 words. Some good stories are too long for this; most are not. The guideline demands focus, economy of language and clarity. As one writer said, "I'm no longer tempted to write all over the universe."

We use several techniques for recalling and formulating stories- activities designed to awaken ideas. The best idea source, however, is listening to other people read. That's when cues jump out. But the seminar's most crucial lesson is that although good writing is important, good listening is more important. We discuss and practice the delicate, countercultural art of paying close attention. …

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