I have nothing to talk about,” or “I’m not a writer” are the common refrains instructor Cindy Beer-Fouhy hears when new people enter her creative-writing workshop, Life Stories Writing Workshop for 50-plus, at the Mount Kisco Senior Center. But after these reticent fledglings are emboldened by stories from their peers in Mount Kisco’s diverse yet tight-knit community, they end up unlocking poignant memories of hardship and joy.
“Sometimes people don’t realize how courageous and strong they’ve been in their lives until they reflect and write about it,” observes Beer-Fouhy, an ArtsWestchester teaching artist and instructor at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, where Beer-Fouhy oversees a similar program. “I feel like I just give permission slips to let their stories out and create an environment they feel safe and empowered in.”
Beer-Fouhy starts the first session with a funny or lighthearted prompt, perhaps a story about their best friend or mother’s kitchen. Students pen a few lines, to see which topic moves them, then write on it for 10 minutes. After that, Beer-Fouhy says, all hands go up to share.
“No matter what I’m writing about, I’m there — there with my mother, there with my brother, there in ballet class. And it’s marvelous!” says 93-year-old student Yvonne Orr. “I’m supposed to be sitting in a rocking chair, remembering the past. But that’s not me.”
Inspired by her mother’s journals, Beer-Fouhy first developed her workshop in 2011 and piloted it at senior living facilities in Peekskill and Yorktown. Liz Dieter, MKSC’s recreation supervisor for senior citizens, since 2005, brought Life Stories to Mount Kisco last year via a grant from Lifetime Arts. “It’s a great gift to our seniors and to their families,” says Dieter. “Cindy breaks down writing into such a nonthreatening entity.”
Classmate Lisa Gorn concurs. “I always liked to write, but it was difficult sometimes to put my thoughts on paper,” says Gorn. “Cindy’s class made me realize that I have to keep my hand moving on the paper and try to be specific — don’t overthink.”
“Now that I’m in this class, listening to these wonderful writers, I’m pushing myself,” adds May Soohoo. “I’m excited about my potential, excited that there may be something still in here that I can share.”
With the freedom of a nonjudgmental environment, seniors can share their stories with a world that often isn’t listening. “Writing breaks down the walls of isolation seniors feel sometimes and helps them reconnect with their community,” says Beer-Fouhy. “You don’t know what’ll happen when you open a door for someone.”