Bay Area seniors who want to reflect on their lives have many options, as memoir and autobiographical writing classes abound. 

For some seniors, it’s a desire to “share some of the experiences they’ve had,” said Hyungsook Kim, who teaches a memoir writing class at the North Berkeley Senior Center. 

It’s also a way to reflect on their journey. 

Kathleen Jalalpour, a retired middle school teacher, says that by writing down memories, “You start to see the whole mosaic of your life.” (Courtesy Kathleen Jalalpour) 

“It enriches my own life today to think about where I come from,” said Kathleen Jalalpour, 72, of Menlo Park, who retired recently from teaching math to middle school students. She knew she enjoyed writing, but then got busy with other activities. So she took at course in guided autobiography at Avenidas, a senior center in Palo Alto. 

“I really needed the discipline of a class,” she said. 

Classes vary in format. Jalalpour’s class involved writing essays each week on an assigned topic. 

Kim has her students write short sentences in class on memories. Most classes invariably involve discussion of a student’s work, tips on writing, and lots of storytelling. 

Similar courses are offered throughout the Bay Area, usually costing several hundred dollars, although Kim said she is currently not charging for her class in Berkeley. 

Several fee-based classes are offered in San Francisco. The Writing Salon lists a six-session “Memoir and Personal Essays” class this summer, while a class called “Soulfood Memoir Writing” is offered for eight sessions at the Ripe Fruit School of Creative Writing. In Los Altos, the Community Center is offering Memoir Writing classes in May and June. 

Most of the introductory courses offered are from four to eight sessions, although ongoing writing groups exist for local writers who want to continue meeting with others. 

Francine Toder, a psychotherapist and writer, teaches the guided autobiography class at Avenidas. She said memoir writing is a generic term for retelling of one’s life. In contrast, a guided autobiography class “has a particular protocol, specific goals and is a therapeutic process.”  Her class involves writing 1,000 words each week.

Francine Toder teaches a guided autobiography class at Avenidas senior center in Palo Alto. (Courtesy Francine Toder)

Kim said her five students have an average age of 80. 

In a recent Berkeley class, she set a timer and had them write for five minutes on the topic of “I remember.” She is fascinated by memories they came up with, such as favorite meals or painting their first car. 

Modesto Fernandez, 70, is a student in Kim’s class. He said part of the writing process is discussing and “batting around ideas,” and the class provides that. Fernandez remembered how his father didn’t come to his Boy Scout promotion when he was 10, and he can now revisit that as an adult. 

“That’s the reason you write memoirs,” he said, “so you can process issues in your own life.” 

L-R, Hyungsook Kim and students Thoa Nguyen and Ranjini Maren share stories in a memoir writing class in North Berkeley. (Leslie Katz/Bay City News)

Kim has a background as the author of a historical novel and writing instructor. 

She is now training to be a therapist. Not surprisingly, she finds similarities in what she’s teaching. 

 “Sometimes it’s a bit like a big therapy session, not intentionally, because we talk a lot about the past,” she said. “A lot of issues come up and we discuss it in the class with other people.”

Jalalpour compared writing as a senior to making a quilt, a piece of art that pulls together various influences and experiences.

“You start to see the whole mosaic of your life,” she said.