GALVESTON — Memories are becoming books for some Galveston residents.
The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Texas Medical Branch offers life-story groups in which facilitators teach 12 to 15 participants how to write their memories in story form.
Each group meets every other week for eight sessions. Each participant shares a
story he or she has written each week and receives feedback.
“A major part of the experience is the sharing and community,” said Michelle Sierpina, a facilitator and the founding director of the institute. “People bring stories that they often haven’t shared with someone else.”
While the group used to be structured as a class with writing assignments and activities, it has grown too large.
“We don’t do that anymore because now the groups are large enough to where we don’t have that time,” Sierpina said. “Sometimes we do writing workshops, and I bring people in from the outside.”
The structure now consists of a “trigger exercise” and sharing stories completed outside of class.
“At the beginning of the groups, I do still hand out a trigger, which is really just a wide open prompt,” Sierpina said. “Most people don’t use them, but maybe six months from now they can’t get inspired and they go back through all the trigger handouts and one spawns a story.”
Longtime participant Joal Donovan enjoys writing her memories and sharing them with the group.
“It’s really become a family,” she said. “I think what happens in this class is that we all take a look at our lives and people who have lived a lot of their life can look back and see the highs and lows.
“It makes you feel good about your life — that you have these stories to tell.”
Donovan believes that, in a way, the meetings serve as a type of occupational therapy. She said the groups “make living deeper and better” and help her recover memories.
“It’s unfortunate because I’m not a person that has a good memory so I’ve lost a lot of things from my life,” she said. “This helps to bring back memories. Sometimes I hear other people’s memories that click something in my head that I had a similar experience and totally lost.”
While some keep their written stories for their families, others publish autobiographies.
Sierpina said 19 books have been published since the creation of the class in 1998.
“I’m writing my own biography,” Michael Conwell of League City said. “I’ve been working on it for three years and have edited it and am in the rewrite stage. I’m expecting to keep it somewhat private and give it to my family.”
Others, such as facilitator and participant Alison Barker, use the group to reflect on their lives.
“You’ll find people’s reasons for doing this change over the years,” she said. “First, I did it to reflect as I retired from teaching in the school districts. I wanted to reflect on life because I lived and taught on three continents.
“Later on, I wrote about my husband being terminally ill — so I wrote about things that had to deal with that to give the family a story.”
Whether it’s for publication, to pass along to family or simply share with others, the life-story group has created a community.
“It builds a community not just of writers but of people whose stories inspire each other,” Barker said. “Particularly there is a sense of community and belonging that partly comes because of confidentiality, but also knowing the deep parts of peoples’ lives. It’s fascinating and encouraging.”