In guided autobiography, or GAB, a trained instructor (me!) uses exercises and questions to spark creativity, self-awareness, and memories. Each week we tackle a different theme touching on common experiences like major turning points, family, health, work, even death.
The sessions last roughly 2 hours and, although the number of sessions can be adapted according to need, will typically run from 6 to 8 weeks. Between sessions, you write two pages (1000 words) about a strong memory of your experience of the week’s theme. Next week you bring your story to class and share it aloud with others in a small group–no more than six people, and the same group every week. As this small group of GAB participants attest, you share only what you are comfortable sharing.
Your writing will improve, but GAB is not a typical creative writing class, and no writing experience is necessary. Our focus is content, on the experiences being shared and on getting to the heart of the story.
Being part of a small group is key. Shared memories spark more memories. We learn we are all survivors and gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of things that have happened in our lives. There are opportunities for growth, friendship, validation and learning.
Because GAB is based on the premise that learning from the things that have shaped your life is essential to moving forward, it can be a powerful tool for those leaving behind something familiar and unsure which direction to pursue next.
Like the tagline says, “it’s about writing, but so much more.”
A Typical Workshop
In the first hour, the instructor leads the class in a discussion of the week’s theme, plus a few fun and easy exercises to stimulate memories and creativity. Activities that involve drawing, mind-mapping, life graphs and “show and tell,” and are designed to support writing craft, memories and a greater understanding of self. Each theme comes with a list of questions designed to trigger memories.
In the second hour, the class breaks into small groups of no more than six people to share what they have written about the last weeks theme. Sharing stories in a group provides validation for those reading and triggers memories for those who listen. Photographs and other memorabilia are encouraged.
WHERE DID GUIDED AUTOBIOGRAPHY COME FROM?
The guided autobiography method was first developed in the 1970s at the University of Southern California (USC) by Dr. Jim Birren, one of the founders and key scholars in the field of gerontology. Grounded in life review and reminiscence, GAB emerged in educational and research activities to explore issues shaping adult development. But Birren believed strongly in the power of this approach not only for its obvious legacy benefits, but also for the therapeutic effects witnessed in several studies. Over the years it has evolved into a dynamic, flexible format used in lifelong learning, in counseling and psychotherapy and, for recording legacy life stories.
Although originally designed with an older adult population in mind, the approach is now used across all adult groups and for a variety of needs. While most frequently used by people who want to write and/or leave a legacy of their stories, GAB is also been found to be a useful way to find meaning and direction by people experiencing a time of transition in their lives. This includes people who are retiring, stroke survivors, and people re-entering society after a period of incarceration.