Autobiographical writing is good therapy


By Brian Goslow


Lucia Knoles, an English professor at Assumption College, was facing an adult child’s worst nightmare — a beloved parent’s voice telling them their life had lost its spark.

“My father was this really bright guy who spent his whole life running a trucking company,” Knoles said, “and he started calling me every morning at 8 o’clock and he’d say, ‘It’s Dad. I have no purpose. I have no meaning.’ ”

Both of Knoles’ parents, who had lived in the greater Pittsburgh area, had been in the midst of steep health decline when she moved them to Eisenberg Assisted Living Residence.

One morning, while awaiting her father’s call, Knoles put together a list of 10 things they could do together. “I said, ‘Pick one and we could do a project,’ ” she said.

One of those suggestions was to start an autobiography and life writing group at Eisenberg, whose programs she was familiar with due to having been a long-time care ombudsman at the facility.

“He had started writing a bit of his life story earlier in his retirement and really enjoyed it,” Knoles said. So we put up posters, sent out announcements, and said we’re going to have this class.”

The end result surprised her and taught her — and those involved with the program — an important life lesson.

“I expected people to tell kind of funny or interesting stories about the old Model-T; I found something entirely different,” Knoles said. “I found out that people who live in places like assisted living residences live in an environment of enforced intimacy without necessarily knowing each other very well. By writing and sharing their life stories, they got to know one and other on a whole different level and became close to each other. They began to develop a community.

“As people get older they’re dealing with a number of losses or new problems, illnesses, new ways of living … by writing about those things, people could express it.”

The participants self-published a book of their writings, and read their work at a public reading attended by their friends, family and members of the Eisenberg staff. The exercise allowed those in attendance to begin seeing the residents as people with a life’s worth of experiences rather than identifying them with the health difficulties they were now facing. “By having stories that they could pass on to their loved ones, they felt that they had something to give — they felt that they had a purpose,” Knoles said.

Some of the comments from group members afterward captured the program’s accomplishment: “There was a woman who was 100 who said, ‘I used to think I was a cast-off; now I know I’m a writer,’ ” Knoles said. “Another person said, ‘They thought we were just a bunch of old people. Now they know we’re smart.’

“It was a sense that they could keep learning and keep accomplishing that was really important to them — It was an area where they could show growth instead of decline,” said Knoles, who is now creating a model program for writers’ groups that could be used at facilities and organizations that work with seniors.

It would be hard to have a tougher two years than Suzanne Falter endured. The California resident went through a divorce, loss of her home, mother and career. What hit the hardest was the loss of her best friend, her 22-year-old daughter, Teal, to a mysterious cardiac arrest.

While she had been in Teal’s hospital room, she knew the collective experiences of the past two years would serve as a “transformational experience” to guide her into a new way of helping people.

The day after Teal died, Falter started writing. “I just knew I had to write my feelings about what was happening in order to say what I needed to say,” she said. “Putting it down on the page is so therapeutic, it was so cathartic and it helped me understand what was happening to me.”

As the number of essays she wrote grew to 50, she decided to share them on Facebook. As people discovered them, they commented with heartfelt responses. “Like many writers, I think I’m alone all the time and nobody’s even reading my work when in fact, people are,” Falter said. “So, when people start to say ‘this moves me’ and so and so happened to them, I really relate. I saw the depth of sharing that’s happening around the writing and realized there’s a larger purpose — you’re not alone.”

Not only did people respond to Falter’s writings, they shared them with others. Her first Facebook entry — on why women cry — went viral, eventually being read by 130,000 people. “I posted it because I woke up in the middle of the night crying thinking about crying and why women cry.”

The response convinced Falter to utilize her collection of entries as the foundation of a book on her experiences. She said that Surrendering to Joy: A Year of Love, Letting Go and Forgiveness (Love & Happiness Publishing) was surprisingly easy to write. While she found the deepest entries were “emotionally intense,” especially the one on cleaning out her daughter’s closet after her death, she also found the process invaluable. “It was a very difficult experience but somehow, writing about it was a delight because I knew the powerful experience that I had had and I knew I really had something to say about this.

Her advice to others in confronting hard times through the written word? “My experience with unfinished business is that it will stay unfinished till you confront it,” Falter said. My stuck space in my writing is usually about an emotional place that was not resolvable at that moment. I needed to put it aside for a few days and then go back and reopen it and take it from there. Eventually, when you’re ready, you can begin to release what’s there — but not till it’s ready. You have your internal guiding systems that’s really showing each step of the way and you have to trust it.”

And the most important thing to remember?

In her book, Falter writes, “We get fascinated by our own story. And it stops us. Our story is certainly noteworthy, and full of intriguing turns and twists. But it is only what happened once to us. Today is, indeed, a different day.”

Linda Jones McCarthy, 61, of Worcester, had been creating rhymes since she was four, and writing since the age of 10; she’s written 300 songs, released two CDs, a children’s book and most recently, The Heart Remembers, a collection of poetry and prose.

The ability to write has never failed her. “The closest I’ve come to writer’s block was having to switch to writing lyrics and music and if I get stuck there, back to prose,” McCarthy said. “It’s always the written word.

“I started writing poetry as a four-year-old at my grandparents. I’d hop around in the backseat and my grand mom would play a rhyming game with me. She’d teach me the cadence. So I grew up with rhyme in my brain.”

You’ve most likely read her work — In the early 1980s, she was a freelancer for American Greeting Cards, working for its Those Characters from Cleveland division where she wrote rhymed couplets for its Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake and Ziggy products.

McCarthy invested $7,000 of her own money to print her first children’s book, Spider in the Shower, for which she used the name, Lillie Jones. “I started writing for children 10 or 12 years ago,” McCarthy said. “I’ve read it in elementary schools and libraries in Massachusetts and Connecticut.”

While her writing has put smiles on the faces of children, families and coffeehouse concertgoers, it’s also helped McCarthy through the tough times in her life.

“Well, yes. I’ve been divorced twice,” she said. “First, there were all of the love poems when we were falling in love. And then there were all of the missing you poems when they took jobs away from home. Then there were the wonderful break up poems and heartache poems and tomorrow is another day … those kind of poems.”

Despite the challenges life has sometimes thrown her, McCarthy said she’s never written out of bitterness or anger; instead a lot of her compositions come from melancholy and sadness. “When I look back, some songwriter once said, it broke my heart but it made a pretty song,” said McCarthy, who’s proud of the fact that she remains friends with both her ex-husbands. “Paying bills and working overtime, life got in the way.”

David Williams, 61, of Worcester, was in his office six years ago at Wheaton College, where he was an English professor, when he suddenly passed out. “My boss found me, I managed to get home and that was the end of all the teaching and everything I was doing,” he said.

Williams had suffered a stroke and has no recollection of the six months that followed. Gradually, some of his memory returned. “The way things settled out, I have access to my long-term memory but my short-term memory is not good,” he said. “I can remember things that happened 40 years ago but I don’t know what happened yesterday.”

A year after his stroke, someone suggested Williams try writing an autobiography that he could give to his daughter, who was interested in her family history. “I told her plenty of stories over the years but I never would have thought of writing an autobiography,” he said. “Once I got into it, it worked out OK. Sometimes it’s an effort, but it’s coming along.”

Before his stroke, Williams was known for his storytelling skills and his ability to impart that knowledge to his students. “People were always impressed at my memory for detail so it’s kind of ironic that I should have memory problems as a result of the stroke,” he said.

When he can’t remember something or he’s not sure about certain details, he’ll ask friends to help him confirm or remind him. When they do, he’s able to clearly confirm what they’re telling him. “Then I can say, ‘oh yes, I know that is true,’ ” Williams said.

He’s currently exploring his first years of adulthood in his autobiographical writing. “I can look back and appreciate what was going on and see the value in it,” Williams said. “Even though a lot of things were difficult, here were so many fortunate things in terms of friendship, in terms of emotional support. I was learning about life and about how the world works — and I guess that’s what happens a lot in your 20s.”

Williams recently returned to doing what he loves best — teaching as a volunteer tutor in basic literacy at a local adult learning center twice a week.