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Autobiography classes help people over 50 share memories and explore emotions

  • Written by Briana Gerdeman, Staff Writer

Second HalfCourtesy Photo. Students share and discuss stories they’ve written for a Guided Autobiography Workshop taught by Joanne Horn (far left) at Bastyr University in 2011. Horn teaches classes at community colleges and retirement communities that help people capture their memories and cope with changes as they get older. Even ordinary lives hold fascinating stories. Joanne Horn’s job is to bring out those stories.

Horn, the founder of Second Half Connections and a longtime Woodinville resident, teaches classes and workshops that help people come to terms with aging, build new relationships after age 50 and record their memories for themselves and their families.

"My interest is in helping people realize the value of the second half of your life," she said. "There’s a lot of mythology or propaganda or whatever that you sort of hit 40 or 50 and decline, but that’s far from the truth."

Her premier class is the Guided Autobiography Workshop, developed by a professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California. The class isn’t about how to write, Horn said, but rather about connecting with yourself and your life.

In class, participants explore major themes of life, such as family, health and body, the role of money and branching points that changed their lives. At home, they write at least two pages about the topic. Then, at the next class, they share as much as they want. Horn coaches participants on how to give "supportive positive feedback" rather than criticism.

The class lasts eight to 10 weeks. Horn has taught it at community colleges, retirement communities, churches and the University of Washington Retirement Association.

"All kinds of people have taken this class," Horn said: machinists, truck drivers, teachers, doctors, lawyers, mothers and nuns. "It’s a class that can accommodate people who’ve had experience writing but also [people who] have had no experience writing."

The class has been so popular that Horn now offers a sequel, Crafting Our Stories, which focuses more on how to write. Horn teaches students how to organize their writing, how to write scenes and dialogue and how to draw readers in with the first sentence.

Horn’s background makes her qualified to help people cope with emotions as well as to coach them in creativity. She has a degree in English literature from the University of Michigan and also studied art history and drawing.

Before she started Second Half Connections, she had a conflict resolution firm in which she worked with businesses and families.

In the classes she teaches, not only do participants end up with autobiographical writings they can share with loved ones, but the process of exploring their memories and writing about them can also be therapeutic, Horn said. She remembers one woman who wrote her of mother dying in childbirth when the author was 6 years old.

"As she wrote about it, she realized that this sense of abandonment was something that had been with her for her whole life," Horn said. "And here she is, 70, coming to terms with that, realizing the impact of this on her life."

Another man in his 80s "told story after story of what was really a very abusive childhood," Horn recalled. Writing about those experiences helped him acknowledge and accept his past rather than hiding from it.

Other stories have historical value as well as personal value. Horn remembers a 99-year-old woman who wrote detailed recollections of her entire family catching chickenpox and being quarantined when she was a child, and of driving across the country in a Ford Model T.

Perhaps the strongest testament to Horn’s classes is that students from almost every class she’s taught continue to get together to share their writing, including 10 of 15 participants in her first class at Shoreline Community College in 2010.

Sally Terpilowski, who has taken both of Horn’s classes, is one of those students who continues to meet with classmates. Although she had written journals throughout her life, she didn’t feel like she had a story worthy of an autobiography. In Horn’s class, she ended up writing about her dad dying suddenly when she was 12.

"Of course that day will always stay in my mind, but I never sat down and wrote about it. To put on paper how I remember it, the shock and loneliness, was very healing," she said. She remembered details like the snow outside and her dad waving to a neighbor as he came home.

Although her children knew that her dad had died when she was young, reading the story to them helped them realize how traumatic it was for her, Terpilowski said.

Horn said her classes bring people together by making people realize that everyone has stories of joy, hardship and life-changing experiences.

"You don’t have to be an extraordinary character to have an extraordinary story," Horn said.

For more information, see secondhalfconnections.org.

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