Read about Andrea Beard in The Sherman Oaks Sun(Vol 3, No. 2)
“Life Stories at the Sherman Oaks Library:
Writing Group Unites Community with the World at Large”
by Leanna Chase
The porch and rocking chairs may be missing, but the stories being read are no less rich in the Sherman Oaks Branch Library community room where an ongoing Life Stories writing class meets weekly.
The stories come from Seattle to Georgia, Montana to Brooklyn, Chicago to Los Angeles, as well as from the many cultures that populate our nation. They tell of inner-city neighborhoods and heartland farms, of children and parents, of growing and parenting, of world events, personal tragedies and celebrations. All are stories based on the group of lives in that room -- each one with the uniqueness of its individual voice.
Certain humorous pieces elicit laughter, and more serious ones leave the room in a gracious silence, honoring the sadness that has been shared. All of it has tied this group of strangers together as a community. "It's been a good experience, not only in writing but in understanding people," says participant Muriel Brown.
A couple dozen adults gather around a horseshoe of tables to participate in the writing class taught by Andrea Beard. Although primarily designed for seniors, the class has stretched to include other generations which have added to the richness of the learning experience.
Offered through the Van Nuys Community Adult School, in conjunction with the support of the Sherman Oaks Library, the Life Stories class was formed as a forum for aging citizens to create a life legacy for their families. It meets on a year-round basis, allowing new students to join at any time, and is one of several Life Stories classes taught around town as part of LAUSD's Programs for Older Adults.
Each week starts with a brief in-class writing period based upon a writing prompt such as a word, a poem, or a word stem such as "1 remember when ... " Students take it from there, writing what comes to mind without editing or otherwise lifting the pencil.
Results from this exercise are then voluntarily read aloud. In the first few classes, there were few readers. A community has formed and with it comes a sense of safety, and now it is typical for the majority of the class to share their pieces. Much of the class is reserved for reading writings brought from work done outside class, either as an extension of in-class prompts or from other memoir writing, including parts of larger works in progress.
The non-judgmental atmosphere is geared to support the process of capturing life experiences. Biff Scarborough notes, "I can write by ear - without notes. I don't need to be weighed down by rules of grammar. This is how I wish English had been taught when I was in school."
Though some did some writing prior to joining the class, most had not yet established a writing practice. Over time, each has not only chronicled aspects of life, but has also experimented with poetry and other writing forms. "I've learned a lot and expect to continue to learn," remarks Perry Brown. Several have successfully submitted pieces developed in or for the class to various publications. Another has translated the writing to song and regularly performs in a Valley club.
Andrea Beard's own teaching style facilitates the richness in the storytelling. She has created an environment in which writers feel secure in opening up their lives to others. She is able to cleverly and respectfully nudge participants to go deeper or get back on track without leaving a writer with feelings of failure or defeat.
"Life writing is about being a witness to our own experience," says Beard when asked how it differs from other writing. Beard maintains that each person has a story to tell and, with attention and encouragement, they can transfer that story to the written word.