OAKLAND -- There's a lot of sharing and learning taking place at the North Oakland Village memoir writing class where a group of seniors have enrolled to "just write about their lives."
Under the instruction of Brenda Richardson, they're learning to examine events from their past, practice self-reflection, consider the concept of conflict and come away with the tools they need to record their stories in such a way that readers will want to continue turning the pages.
Richardson, a published author for the past 20 years, was herself working on a book on how to write memoirs, "You Should Write a Book," (St. Martin's Griffin, $15), when she decided to offer a class on the same topic.
"I realized that there was a wonderful opportunity for people to use memoirs for self-discovery," she said. "The class seemed a natural outgrowth of that."
Meeting every two weeks from Sept. 11 to Dec. 11, the 90-minute class follows Richardson's syllabus, with homework assignments that prepare students for each meeting. The first class focused on discussing reasons class members had for wanting to write their life stories and comparing an autobiography with a memoir.
"In an autobiography, you write about your entire life but in a memoir you're talking about a particular phase, focusing in and looking at what happened," Richardson said.
Barbara Hazzard recently retired as executive director of Hesed Community in Oakland -- which she began 30 years ago -- and from almost 50 years as a Catholic sister.
"I had quite an interesting life, so I wanted to write a memoir," Hazzard said. Though she now knows the difference between memoir and autobiography, she's not sure which one she wants to use.
"My focus really covers my life since I was in the eighth grade, so I think it's going to be a combination of the two," she said.
Another class member, Margie Bowman, now in her mid-80s, feels the time has come to record her family's rich, happy life together. Because her family is at present going through some serious, life-threatening health issues, she's chosen to write about an event that happened during happier times, when Bowman was instrumental in creating Huckleberry Botanic Preserve in the Oakland hills.
"It's very productive for my emotions to take Brenda's class and take something I did 40 years ago that was a very happy, rewarding time," Bowman said.
With an eye toward keeping memoirs interesting, Richardson stresses the need for conflict, how students handled it and what they learned from it, identifying conflict as an opportunity to look back on one's life. In Bowman's memoir, her experiences working with the park district to prevent a favorite family trail from being bulldozed and preserved as a park helped make her more politicized and changed the lives of her family.
To write a more nuanced story, Richardson stresses placing events in their historical context and has students use mapping to explore deeper memories.
"I want them to be able to identify major events in their lives and tap into the emotional power of those memories," she said. "Writing a memoir is one of the greatest acts of self-love; you're saying that what happened to me is important."
Bowman and Hazard are grateful to North Oakland Village for offering the free course and to Richardson for her thoughtful, professional instruction.
"Brenda has presented a beautifully organized course and provides online or printed examples of memoir writing that are so enlightening," Bowman said.
Aside from writing skills the class has offered a rare glimpse into the lives of an interesting, diverse group. "I really appreciate when they share about themselves because it helps me to clarify what I want to do," Hazzard said. "Gathering together with these people, getting to know them a bit through what they share, the questions they ask and what they've done in the past, it's a wonderful experience."
North Oakland Village supports quality living for seniors in their own homes by providing services and activities. The village is located at 5116 Broadway in the Rockridge Shopping Center. For more information, call 510-547-8500 or visit www.northoaklandvillage.org.