From New Choices, March 1992, pp. 70-72

Writing the Story of Your Life


How to gain fresh insight into life's triumphs and tragedies by creating your spiritual autobiography

"It's amazing how much comes back." says 63-year-old Bill Benson, who started keeping a journal and tak¬ing spiritual autobiography classes several years ago. "The more you do it, the more you remember."

Of course, ever since human beings began to talk, stories passed down from one generation to the next have been the primary means of communi¬cating our individual and collective history. From early cave dwellers hud¬dled around the campfire to tales told on Grandma's knee, storytelling has taught us who we are and where we come from. But since the advent of television and the scattering of fami¬lies to all corners of the globe, story¬telling just isn't what it used to be. Precious evenings spent around the kitchen table spinning yarns and trad¬ing tales of the "old days" have be¬come endangered pastimes. Fortu¬nately, this trend shows some signs of reversing.

According to psychologist James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., telling your story may actually be beneficial to your health. In studies conducted at Southern Methodist University in Dal¬las, Texas. Pennebaker and his associ-ates have found that writing about traumatic experiences or other impor¬tant issues in your life can boost im¬mune function and lower your blood pressure and heart rate—and it can continue to have a positive influence on your health for several months.

Explains Pennebaker in Opening Up: The Healing Power of Confiding in Others (Morrow), "In translating experience into language, people begin to organize and structure the seemingly infinite facets of over¬whelming events. Once organized, the events are often smaller and easier to deal with. Particularly important is that writing moves us to a resolution."

Dan Wakefield. author of the best-selling novels Starting Over and Going All the Way, also believes in the power of the pen on the blank page. After publishing an account of his return to religious faith after more than a quarter of a century (Returning, Penguin Books), Wakefield was so moved by the experience of telling his story that he became convinced it was important to help others tell their sto¬ries. Today, in workshops throughout the United States, he gently guides participants as they put their remem¬brances down on paper.

"There have been so many times when autobiographical writing helped me see people and events in my life in a completely different light," he says. "Important insights and changes occur when you look at the past through the lens of adult experience."

Though the 58-year-old Wakefield calls his workshop "Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography," he's quick to point out that "spiritual" is intended in the broadest sense of the word. "No one has to have had a mystical or even so-called religious experience." he ex-plains. "People could write lots of dif¬ferent kinds of autobiographies— about their economic, romantic or professional life. A spiritual autobiog¬raphy connects all of these and comes from the deepest pan of yourself—the pan that tries to make sense of your life in the most complete and mean¬ingful way possible."

Individuals of all ages are drawn to Wakefield's course for many different reasons. "This is the second half of my life, and there are so many things I want to put down for my children," says Brenda, 52, at a weekend work-shop sponsored by the Episcopal Church in Dobbs Ferry, New York, that drew people of all denominations. Thelma, 60, is grateful to be pan of a group of people searching for answers to some of life's big questions. "In church everybody sits alone in a pew," she says, adding, "I'm very inhibited, but I feel there's something inside of me that really needs to get out." And Angela Maffeo, 54, who took the workshop three years ago, notes that she gained valuable new understand¬ing about her life that had eluded her, despite her tendency to be reflective, until she began putting her story down on paper.

The course includes a series of drawing and writing exercises based on childhood, adolescent and other pivotal experiences, and students wind up writing a "spiritual autobiography." Though some people touch on diffi¬cult or painful memories, many others evoke brighter moments in their life's journey. Bottom line: An atmosphere of joyful self-discovery and commu¬nity seems to prevail. Says Wakefield, "The sharing of this kind of experi¬ence brings us closer together and re-veals our common humanity."

At a recent weekend workshop, par-ticipants described some of the turning points that set their lives spinning in unpredictable ways. Pam, a 75-year-old, recalled how her house looked when it suddenly burst into flames one Easter long ago. Lois remembered the moment she decided to take her ailing mother into her home instead of plac-ing her in a nursing home: "Because Mother didn't want to leave her house, I had to trick her into coming over for my son's birthday," she wrote. "She stayed for five years."

And Rick, a middle-aged father who had shrugged off his parents' protectiveness when he was growing up, described the rush of compassion he felt for them the moment his own son was born.

Perhaps the best news about the course is that anyone can do it—in your own living room, if you wish— without an outside group leader or a special setting. The entire step-by-step process is laid out in Wakefield's new book. The Story of Your Life (see "7 Steps to Get You Started"). Previous writing experience is not required.

Wakefield suggests that book clubs, religious congregations and other ready-made groups offer the perfect forum in which to tackle spiritual au-tobiography. And though it may be tempting to try the exercises on your own, Wakefield urges would-be auto-biographers to go through the process with at least one other person—be it spouse, child or friend. He stresses that reading the pieces aloud—which is encouraged but never mandatory— is a vital pan of the program. "People make fresh discoveries when they read their pieces to a group of sympathetic listeners." And, he adds, "the reading has a way of opening people up and giving them confidence."

The ground rules include treating all material as strictly confidential and an ironclad ban on literary criticism— or criticism of any kind. The point is simply to let people tell the stories that, one way or another, must be told.

Indeed, it may be that author Joan Didion understood intuitively what Wakefield has discovered and what researchers are beginning to quantify in the laboratory when she said, "We tell stories in order to live."


The following exercises are taken from Dan Wakefield's book The Story of Your Life: Writing a Spiritual Autobiography (Beacon Press). You'll need paper for writing and drawing; crayons, markers, pens and pencils; a quiet room; one or more friends, relatives or acquaintances. Hold seven weekly sessions, enabling you to work on one step per week.

STEP 1: Holding the image of childhood as a treasure house of memories, take 20 minutes to draw a picture of your favorite room in the house you grew up in. (Don't worry about being an artist.) Include as many objects and/or people as you can remember. When the time is up, choose a partner and take 10 minutes apiece to explain your drawings.

STEP 2: Take 30 minutes to write about your room and how you felt in it, or about a pivotal person or experience from your childhood. Don't worry about style; simply concentrate on the subject. When everyone is finished, the pieces should be read aloud to the group.

STEP 3: Draw a picture of the way you saw yourself as an adolescent. Follow the same procedure of drawing and then sharing outlined in Step 1.

STEP 4: Draw a picture of a friend, mentor or guide whom you'd like to write about, someone who helped you at a sensitive time in your life and enabled you to move on. Share your drawing with a partner.

STEP 5: Now take 30 minutes to write about your friend or mentor, and describe how he or she helped you on your way. Read your piece aloud to the group.

STEP 6: Drawing a "road map' of your life is good preparation for writing your auto-biography. Using a large piece of pa¬per, begin to map the experiences and changes, turning points, triumphs and crashes, dark nights and mountain peaks you've traversed to become the person you are. Include important external events and interior experience. This exercise should take 30 to 45 minutes; share it with a partner when you're finished.

STEP 7: Using your "road map" as an out-line or point of departure, you're now ready to write the story of your life's journey. Suggested length is 8 to 10 pages. This exercise should be done at home and read aloud to your partner or group. Many people who go through this process continue writing a "spiritual journal," keeping track of important inner and outer travels and discoveries.


BARBARA GRAHAM is a journalist and playwright who lives in New York.