Feet to the Fire Writers' Workshops Let Older Adults Write Their Stories

By Julie Pfitzinger

Credit: Photos Compliments of Angela Burton

Although she has been a writer and teacher for more than 20 years, Angela Burton credits her late father, Joe Kirtley, with inspiring her deep appreciation for the power of stories.

“After my dad retired at 78, he grew depressed and was kind of lost,” recalled Burton, who lives in Louisville, Ky. “He’d go down to the basement to the computer. We thought he was playing chess.”

In fact, Kirtley was writing stories, essays and poems. Some were typed. Some handwritten. And he wasn’t keeping them to himself — he was sending them to the local newspaper and his work was being published.
“It really gave my dad a different sense of purpose at the end of his life, and we were left with this marvelous treasure trove of stories,” said Burton.

Finding A New Purpose

After her father died in 2012 at age 84, Burton, now 54, started searching for her own renewed sense of purpose. She realized she wanted to create a workshop experience where older adults could come together to write — and read — their own stories.

In 2015, she launched Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshops® (FTTF), a six-week series regularly offered at assisted living and senior housing residences in and around Louisville. (Burton also holds workshops for younger writers at another location.)

In a small group setting of no more than eight people, participants meet for two hours. During that time, Burton gives them a writing prompt — a word or a phrase — and then they begin putting their life stories on paper. No computers allowed; everything is done by hand.

“Having the stories in their own handwriting is precious,” said Burton. “I tell them that as long as they can read what they’ve written, that’s fine. No one will look at their stories except them. And if they want feedback, they have to ask for it.”

‘But I’m Not a Writer’

The most common concern expressed by workshop participants, who have so far ranged in age from 70 to 98, is this: “But I’m not a writer.”

Judith Conn, 78, admitted that was her initial reaction when she enrolled in March 2016.

“I grew up in a family of storytellers, but neither of my parents wrote,” said Conn. “So, I can tell a good story, but writing them down is difficult sometimes.”

As the workshops have continued, Conn has grown to enjoy the writing process. “I have found it freeing and it is helping me to remember … I did not realize that I had parts of my growing-up years tucked away and not exactly forgotten, just not thought about for a long time.”

Conn is also keen on writing another set of stories. “Since my husband died in 2014, I am learning that I need to tell some of his stories, too. He did write, but not about himself.”

Part of the workshop experience includes an invitation to the writers to read their work to the group. “They really get affirmation from each other,” said Burton. “And some of the stories they hear from members of the group trigger their own memories.”

In addition to the writing, Patricia Hendren, 71, also appreciates the fact that being part of FTTF enables her to forge connections with fellow writers who also live in the Christian Care Communities residence in Louisville.

“You’re getting to know some of your neighbors,” said Hendren. “We can share our experiences.”

Their Story to Tell

In an interview, Dan Bauer, one of Hendren’s neighbors, read a story he wrote about visiting his grandparents’ New York home, being surrounded by familiar smells in their kitchen, but calling himself “a frightened 9-year-old boy,” facing surgery on his leg the following day. He writes about returning to their home after his hospital stay and using a chair to practice walking across the kitchen floor as his mother watched, encouraging him so he would be well enough to attend his brother George’s upcoming wedding.

In the years since she launched FTTF, Burton has heard some incredible stories, both joyful and heartbreaking. She has worked with more than 600 writers, and estimates the shared stories number in “the thousands.” By virtue of demographics, Burton said more women than men have participated in the workshops, but one of her oldest students was a 98-year old man.

“He served during WWII and had two Purple Hearts. He told me it ‘wasn’t a big deal’ and remembers tossing them on his bunk when he got them,” said Burton. “He then pointed to a scar on his face and said he’d been shot on his daughter’s third birthday. The story he wanted to write was about missing that day with her.”

Burton always offers a bit of guidance to start the group members off on their writing journeys.

“I give them permission not to remember someone’s name or a certain fact,” said Burton. “I want them to feel comfortable knowing they are telling their version of their story — and that might be different from the version their siblings or their children would tell. It’s so important for them to have their own voice.”

Mary Haynes, president and CEO of Nazareth Home in Newburg and Clifton, Ky., where Burton also facilitates Feet to the Fire Workshops, appreciates the fact that these experiences offer adults the chance to reflect in ways they may not otherwise.

“I have had the honor of being in the ‘recital readings’ and they are truly sacred times. Sometimes the stories are funny, often they have some pain, and they are always tender,” said Haynes. “The writers do support each other in interesting ways. It is an empowering process. Relationships are formed from the empowerment, and community is built.”

Making Sense of Their Lives

For some FTTF writers, the bonds they make with other writers are so essential, they’ll continue attending the sessions no matter what. “There’s a woman in one of the groups who had a stroke and she can’t write anymore,” said Burton. “But she still comes regularly because she doesn’t want to lose those connections.”

Since its inception, several group members have passed away. Burton is grateful for the comments family members have shared with her about the impact the writing workshop had on their loved ones.

“One woman told me she always called her mom on Monday nights and her mother would read the stories to her that she’d written in the workshop that day,” said Burton.

“Sometimes participants will say to me, ‘I don’t think this will be valuable to anyone.’ But what I always say is: ‘But how valuable is it to you?'” said Burton. “This process of reflecting has to do with closure in a way. We need to make sense of our lives as we age, and this gives them the chance to take their life apart in pieces.”

Spreading the Fire

Word of the success of Feet to the Fire has spread beyond Louisville.  Burton recently created a “Training the Trainer” program, complete with journals and training materials, that can be used to launch FTTF in residences across the country. More information is available here.

By Julie Pfitzinger
Julie has worked as a writer and editor for more than 20 years; most recently she was a managing editor for the community lifestyle magazine group at Tiger Oak Media in Minneapolis, where she also served as editor of Saint Paul Magazine. Julie can be reached via email at jpfitzinger@nextavenue.org    Follow her on Twitter @juliepfitzinger.

Posted on