Journal writing courses help uncover memories

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By Brian Goslow
Lorraine Clifford has always been interested in her family history, even when much of it wasn’t quite clear.

After meeting some relatives on her mother’s side in her hometown of Watertown, she traveled to Newfoundland to see where her mother’s parents came from. “I really wanted to go back and see the place where my grandparents had grown up and met and where my grandfather had built a house for his wife,” said Clifford, 70, who committed her memories of the trip to paper when she returned home.

However, a bigger part of her family tree was about to reveal itself as she delved into her genealogical roots. “I recently found out — within the last year — that my father had a half-sister, who is 86 years old, living in Minneapolis,” Clifford said.

The discovery occurred through a combination of researching Arlington town records and the help of a woman Clifford met on Facebook in a group dedicated to Crowell (her father’s surname by birth). “She conducted a Google search and found a matching name, address and telephone number,” said Clifford, referring to the woman she met on Facebook. “She said, ‘Lorraine, if you haven’t tried this, call it and good luck.’ ”

Clifford called the number in Minneapolis and introduced herself to her aunt for the first time, explaining how, through her research, she had untangled a family history that included divorces, adoptions, name changes and in her aunt’s case, a reversion to using her maiden name’s first initial.

“I contacted her daughter and told her that I really would love to come out there and visit with my aunt,” Clifford said. They ended up spending a long weekend together where they just talked and talked about past family life. “She could answer some of my questions and I could answer some of hers, but we didn’t have all the answers. But that was OK, because we had found each other.”

Clifford put some of her recollections of the visit into words during a “Writing and Reminiscence” Writing Workshop at the Watertown Senior Center. She hopes to use that writing, and that from her trip to Newfoundland, as the starting point for a larger life story to be given to her children.

Jennifer Quinlan, who previously ran a memoir-writing group at the Perkins School for the Blind’s now-closed Elder Learning Center, hosted the Watertown workshop.

“I was lucky to get started with a group of about four women who had some sort of visual impairment,” Quinlan said. “They were either born blind or developed macular degeneration, or something like that, when they were in their 50s or 60s, so they had that in common. But they were also interested in writing about their life.”

Quinlan learned how to make her writing group participants feel comfortable discussing events from their lives that they had perhaps never previously revealed. At Perkins, and now at the Watertown Senior Center, Quinlan asks her class to keep what’s discussed among themselves.

She recently completed her first six-month workshop at the Watertown Senior Center, where the participants were 60 and older. “They wanted to pass their knowledge — and/or wisdom — on to their family,” she said. “Maybe sometimes just explain something that was confusing, or seems confusing, maybe explain to their children why we (their parents) got divorced … Some of them are nervous about it, but it’s something they want to share.”

Believing “if you can talk, you can write,” to get participants on the right track, Quinlan asks them to write a short piece about their life.

“For one particular person who thought she couldn’t write, I suggested that she imagine she was writing a letter to someone,” Quinlan said. “So she wrote letters to her father. I think that helped her find her voice and to realize that she could write. Once people share their first story, and experience the reaction that they get from the group, they realize they do have something to say that strikes a chord with others.”

Exploring the past can have health benefits.

“Writing is indeed cathartic, which is why therapists frequently give clients writing assignments,” said Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., (aka “Dr. Romance”), a psychotherapist and author of The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty.

“Whether hand-written, in a beautiful blank book, scribbled on scraps of paper or saved on your computer, a journal is one of the best ways to examine and sort out your feelings. Writing can help you figure out what’s important to you and where you want to go next in your life,” Tessina said.

While many set out to document their past do so with the intention of leaving something behind for future generations, many times they find it reveals things in their life they never considered before or, by taking a fresh look on them, they reverse painful memories.

“Writing about your history — and expressing your feelings about it — can heal old wounds,” Tessina said. “It can focus, support and enhance your life and help you understand more about yourself and others in your history. It’s a great way to trap important memories and elusive moments and keep them forever.”

Writing a memoir may also afford the opportunity to take another look at relationships which may lead to making repairs or saying what you never said but wanted to,” said Erica Curtis, a marriage and family therapist based in Santa Monica, Calif. “Even if you are not able to actually speak to those people, creating a fantasy scenario in writing where you make reparations can be a healing experience.

“There are of course the additional benefits of leaving behind a legacy for family members and friends through not only the passing down of history but of wisdom as well.

“This has been identified as a key developmental task of adults who are in their later life,” Curtis continued. “Throughout the recalling and recounting, there may be the opportunity to experience deep emotions, sometime feelings that were previously repressed because it was not safe or functional to experience them at the time of the event. Having such a cathartic experience can also bring a sense of resolution and closure.”

Nikki Zapol, 68, of Cambridge, said the biggest benefit she’s received from taking the “Memories, Stories and Reflections: Ongoing Project in Life Story Writing” course at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education has been the documentation on paper of memorable life moments that she hadn’t thought about for years. Without that, there would be no record of those events.

Kendall Dudley, 70, of Belmont, owner of Lifeworks and program chair for the Life Signing/Finding Network for professionals over 50, has taught the class for the past 17 years. He’s developed a way of getting extraordinary memories out of his students, not only through the exploration of the big moments in their lives, but those split-second sensations which have remained in the back of their psyche ever since.

“Kendall has encouraged us to break out of the usual mold of writing one sentence after the other, one paragraph after the other, in traditional ways,” Zapol said. “He has us ‘free write’ — take off from phrases, images, smells. This has led me to remember things I might not otherwise remember, but also to really enjoy keeping a journal, which includes primitive drawings, colors, words written big and small, sideways.”

Another non-traditional exercise Dudley has his students undertake is writing their autobiography using “the Twitter version of writing,” he said. He acknowledges the challenge this creates. “How could you possibly write your life story in 35 words and really cover every aspect of it — your 14 marriages and your 37 children and all those somehow get covered in those 35 words? What this does is, it activates our memory which starts sorting data.”

Once the words start popping out onto paper, it’s time to consider why they came out at this point in time — and whether they have more to contribute to the years to come than those gone by.

“This is the other part of looking at life-story writing,” Dudley said. “It’s not just about recording the past and making sense of the past but exploring what is its significance for the future. How can my life be more meaningful by understanding more about the past?”

Zapol found this process has led her to stories, vignettes and impressions from her life that she hadn’t previously considered part of her tale. “I’ve found that if I don’t get hung up on whole sentences and polished writing, which is what we had to do in school, I come up with pieces that make me feel good because they are true and that I am even surprised to read afterwards because they feel right. I’m seeing how the stories of my life shape the person I am now.”

She’s become close with some of her classmates, especially after a small group of them joined Dudley for a travel, cultural and writing excursion to Morocco. “We know some things about the way we view the world, our families, ourselves and others — we’ve gotten a glimpse into each other’s souls,” Zapol said.

For more information on upcoming Writing and Reminiscence Writing Workshops, contact Jennifer Quinlan at jsquinlan@gmail.com; Kendall Dudley, kendalldudley.com; for details on the next “Memories, Stories, and Reflections: An Ongoing Project in Life Story Writing” course at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, which begins on April 9, visit www.ccae.org/catalog/detail.php?id=565243.