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‘Writing Club’ Helps Residents Distill Their Autobiographies

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We all have a story. The challenge is to tell it in a way that is meaningful to us. And if it becomes a treasured tale for future generations, then we have truly made our mark on history.

For Village Shalom residents who may have always wanted to document their life stories but didn’t know where to begin, a new “writing club” now gives them the framework in which to take up the challenge. Led by Rabbi Mark Levin, founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Torah, the group does not actually require any particular writing skill. It simply relies on attendees’ willingness to recall the experiences, memories and anecdotes that color their lives.

Participants in Village Shalom’s autobiographical “writing club” include (from left) Judy Perlman, group facilitator Rabbi Mark Levin, Marjorie Novorr, Janet Baird, Barbara Brown, Helen Brooks and Patricia Vomhof.

“We all want to tell and share our stories. It’s a human characteristic,” Rabbi Levin said. “Telling the events of our lives helps us to make sense of them. We want to pass our story along to our children. We do it for others as well as for ourselves.”

Rabbi Levin has wanted to introduce a program like this since he started volunteering at Village Shalom last September. The project came to fruition with the assistance of the Programs Department, which researched and purchased pre-printed workbooks that guide participants in their writing and thought process. The group settled on the “Life Story Guide” published by LifeBio.com. The book poses relevant questions and provides space for writing, attaching photos and including other memorabilia to illustrate elements of the author’s autobiography.

A program like this is “especially important for individuals who are in the later years of their lives,” Rabbi Levin said. “It focuses on those who simply want to tell their story -- but it’s not always obvious to us what the story is.” In this particular writing group, he noted, “we get an opportunity to put together our story the way we want to tell it. Our kids will have a different version of our story than we do.”

The group began its every-other-week meetings earlier this year with just a handful of participants, but has grown to about 10 or so. “Attendance is fluid,” Rabbi Levin remarked.

So is the discussion. In fact, the meetings are more about conversation than actual writing. The sessions provide an opportunity to share thoughts and memories that participants might later wish to commit to paper on their own time. In the process, participants find a social outlet that offers a chance to laugh about life’s comic situations or to offer empathy when an uncomfortable memory surfaces for someone.

“Today we’re talking about our fathers,” Rabbi Levin suggested at the start of one meeting. Helen Brooks was the first to share an anecdote:

“My maiden name was Horowitz. It so happened I was fond of the famous pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who was no relation to us at all. I found out he was going to be playing with the Kansas City Philharmonic, and I wanted to see him perform. So my father called up and said, ‘This is Mr. Horowitz. I’d like six tickets for this evening.’ No one asked if he was THE Mr. Horowitz! We got seats in the front row for that night’s performance – they were the best seats I’ve ever had.”

The ensuing round of laughter opened the way for others to share their stories. Some were joyful memories of loving fathers who worked hard to provide for their families; others were more unsettling recollections of difficult relationships and challenging childhoods.

But everyone was equally unabashed in sharing glimpses into their personal past.

Rabbi Levin noted that it is important in a group such as this to have guidance by someone with “a little bit of training.” He is well suited to the task not only as a rabbi, but as one with background in Clinical Pastoral Education. “You need to know what kinds of things need to be followed up on. Someone may have shared too much personal, sensitive information.”

Ultimately, though, sharing such deep recollections can offer a glimpse into what we all have in common – and what constitutes our life story.