As a journalist, I explored all kinds of subjects for magazines and book publishers, but I almost never wrote about myself—until I joined a writing group called Reminiscing on Paper.
Most other members were there because their adult children wanted them to describe their lives and get the family’s history down on paper. My kids hadn’t expressed any interest in that, and I joined mainly because I was curious. I was in my 70s. What would it be like to write about my own life? And what did all those years add up to?
Reminiscing on Paper affected me in ways I would never have predicted. In fact, it meant so much to me that, when I moved to a retirement community, I started a similar group here.
That was 15 years ago. Reminiscing has 10 members right now (there’s always some turnover). We meet every two weeks, and each time, we read aloud something we’ve written about events in our lives.
We have an agreement that everything read or said in the group is confidential. (That’s why the only examples I can give here are from my own life.) Some of what we share is painful, but much of it is funny, and we laugh a lot. Over time, a sense of trust has developed that’s important to all of us. We seldom see each other except at meetings, but we know one another on a level most people achieve only with a few close friends.
After someone has read, others often respond, usually by describing something similar that happened to them. For example, when I wrote about being propositioned by a good friend’s husband (I was astonished and then indignant) and explained my possibly mistaken decision not to tell my friend about it, others weighed in with their own experiences. It opened up a conversation that went on for quite a while.
Nobody comes to the group to improve their writing—we don’t critique what’s read—but many people do become better storytellers. I think that comes with practice and also because members notice what others respond to and what they don’t. Over time, some who were convinced they had no aptitude for writing discover that isn’t true; their children and grandchildren are delighted with what they’ve produced.
Reminiscing on Paper isn’t intended to be a form of therapy, but it does sometimes provide an outlet for grief or anger. During the last, difficult months of my husband’s life, I occasionally wrote about what we were going through and read it aloud with a voice that shook. I felt better afterward.
The main thing Reminiscing offers is an opportunity to look back over our lives and figure out for ourselves why some things happened and others didn’t, to consider from a mature perspective why we did some of the things we did—and to forgive ourselves, if necessary. Back in the 1960s, psychiatrist and geriatrician Robert Butler, MD, suggested that “life review” is a natural process, part of healthy aging. Writing isn’t the only way to review your life, but it helps. Group meetings give us deadlines, along with friends who will listen to what we need to say.
For me, the meetings are a deep pleasure, and so is the writing itself. I have produced about 700 pages by now. Will my children and grandchildren really want to read all that? I certainly hope so. But the writing has changed me in some ways. For one thing, with the end in sight, I no longer daydream, creating fantasies about the future. Instead, I indulge in memories of the past.
Reminiscing has also shaped my take on what my life has been about. I feel I was incredibly lucky to be born in the 1930s in the United States to wise, supportive parents. My life had its tragedies: I lost my mother when I was 19, and my younger brother died of cancer 10 years later. I was married and then divorced when my children were very young. I remarried a lovely man, but that partnership too had its problems. I’m sure all marriages do. I’m now a widow but I’m blessed with a life I continue to enjoy.
I’ve written articles and books and loved almost every moment of my career—and I’m still working—but the meaning of my life is my three, beloved children, who grew up to be adults I’m so very proud of. In Reminiscing, I’m writing about them and writing for them as well.
Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.