Paula Stahel of South Tampa has taught the “Pages of My Life” course at the Life Enrichment Center in Carrollwood for the past decade.
Last December, she helped publish an anthology of 31 stories by 18 writers who, over the years, have taken the eight-session course. That anthology is now a required text for students at USF’s School of Aging Studies.
“The people who have taken the class have ranged in age from their mid-30s to early 90s, and from such a vast range of backgrounds,” Stahel said. “Yet what every one of them has shared expresses the universal that connects us all regardless of age, education, experience or financial circumstance. As those stories are shared in the class readings, it’s wonderful how the stories trigger memories and stories in the others, and to watch friendships blossom between the people in the class as a result.”
The class meets two hours each week. The next session meets on Fridays from Jan. 17 through March 7 from 10 a.m. to noon.
She said most of the participants want to record their memories for grandchildren or other relatives. Getting people to tap into the reservoir of memories and inspiring material takes some skill.
“My method is a bit sneaky, I guess you could say, in that I start things off with easy memories, and slowly lead the writers into deeper introspection,” she said.
Stahel, the owner of Breath & Shadows Productions, says she taught herself to read and print letters before the age of 4.
“What really got me interested in being a writer was ‘Superman,’ with George Reeves, on television,” she said. “And there was Lois Lane: a writer – a woman writer – for a newspaper!” She was also inspired by reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books.
As a child, surrounded by women who worked in what she calls “pink-collar jobs,” Strahel was amazed to realize women could become writers and not just “June Cleaver” housewives.
“From the very earliest I could not absorb enough autobiography, memoir and history — I wanted to know and puzzle out how other people handled/did things in order to puzzle out how I should handle/do things or not,” Strahel said. “Bad examples and failures provide just as good lessons, maybe better, as success stories do – which is something I point out to the people who come to my classes.”
Stahel lives in the SoHo district. She moved to the Hyde Park area from Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1980.
She considers the Life Enrichment Center, 9704 N. Boulevard, Tampa, to be a second home for her.
“People have no clue what a gem this place is,” she said. “As the saying goes, good things come in small packages. There’s an exceptional sense of community that develops in the people who come for classes and those who teach there. The instructors are really top-notch and have ways of helping people blossom in ways they didn’t know they had — yet also push them to grow in their skills.”
Cathy Varon, who lives in the Forest Hills area near Carrollwood, said she took the Pages of My Life class with Stahel in 2011. Some of Varon’s stories are included in the anthology.
“She’s fabulous,” Varon said. “She helped me so much with my writing and getting my story together.”
Varon said Stahel gives students writing prompts such as “I remember the day that …”
“You write that and continue writing without stopping,” Varon said. “You don’t worry about grammar or punctuation. You don’t lift your pen from the paper – whatever comes out. Sometimes it takes you to places you did not know you were going.”
Varon, a baby boomer, said she decided to take the class after uncovering old family documents that revealed she had cousins living in Spain. She wanted to record her adventures traveling in Spain to meet relatives.