Forget nouns and verbs, workshop asks seniors to write out their lives

Forget nouns and verbs, workshop asks seniors to write out their lives
During Tuesday’s “Writing Our Lives” workshop, leader Sandy Carpenter (far right) gives feedback to Richard Foster (at table, center) on his story about working in the cafeteria during college in the 1960s. Photo by Rachel Stine

CARLSBAD —Everybody in the “Writing Our Lives” workshop at the Carlsbad Senior Center knows that Ed Arms was born in a chicken coop. 

As Arms tells it, about 80-some-odd years ago on his family’s farm in Tennessee, his mother woke up in the middle of the night with labor pains. She was 13-years-old.

“She didn’t know she was pregnant,” Arms said. Naturally, her family had no idea either.

He said that the house didn’t have indoor plumbing, so his mother tried to convince her sister to go outside with her. After her sister “refused to have anything to do with it,” she ventured outside to the nearby chicken coop to deal with the pain. Around 2 a.m., she gave birth to a tiny baby amid the barnyard fowl.

Arms shares this story every year or so during a session of the weekly workshop.

“Writing Our Lives” is designed for local seniors to compose stories about their lives and share their writings aloud, and as a result, members share intimate details of their lives with people they would have otherwise never met outside of the group.

“People get to know each other in depth because they are being told the life story,” said Sandy Carpenter, the group’s leader. “How many friends do you have that you know about grammar school or their first love or their marriage… And yet, we know all these things about all these people. You’d be surprised about what they are willing to tell.”

Carpenter has been leading the group for the past year and a half, and has been a member of the group for over a decade. She provides writing tip worksheets each week, and offers critiques when asked as participants read their stories each week.

But the workshop, which is held every Tuesday from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Carlsbad Senior Center, is hardly a writing class.

“We don’t sit down and talk about nouns and verb,” said Carpenter. “I think it’s kind of like a club, it’s a social experience as much as anything else.”

During Tuesday’s session, the participants shared stories ranging from tales of long-lost friends and neighbors to descriptions of the increasing burdens of writing holiday cards.

Jean Craig’s story of her brother’s voyage from England to Canada in 1954 illuminated her family’s experience immigrating in the wake of World War II. She described how the third-class conditions she and her brother experienced on their separate voyages seemed luxurious compared to the rations her family had been living on.

“We were so glad to get out of England, we didn’t care,” Craig said.

In addition to getting to know the small group of 20 participants, many of the members explained that turning their memories into stories has allowed them to preserve their pasts.

“I think as you get older…you’ve got a long ways to look back. You kind of want to put it into perspective,” explained Carpenter.

“It’s more like a therapy session than instruction, and that’s the beauty of this class,” said Joe Plassmeyer, who has been part of the group since 1991.

Given that the participants range in age from 60- to over 90-years-old, many of the stories share the common threads of deaths of close friends and relatives and the experience of getting older.

“Someone dies, and (writing about them) kind of keeps them current,” said Plassmeyer.

Writing for the workshop not only helps the attendees savor their own memories, but also share their lifetime’s memories with others.

Most of the long-term participants end up turning their compiled stories into books, and share them with family and close friends.

One of the workshop’s participants, Tami, who didn’t want to give her last name, said that since joining the workshop in 2004, she has composed a 215-page book about her life and given copies to her family members.

“We all have different stories to tell, and I think it’s a gift to give them,” she said.

The workshop is open to new members, and more information can be found on the city’s website.

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