Of all the work I do as a ghostwriter of memoirs and autobiographies, editor, book coach, and teacher, there’s probably nothing that I consistently enjoy and gain more satisfaction from than teaching classes and seminars on how to write your life story. For more than a decade, I’ve been helping adults of all ages gain the confidence, enthusiasm, and determination to write the most meaningful stories of their lives. Tapping my experience in leading autobiographical writing classes, I wrote a guidebook to assist other people in the life-writing process: Your Life Is a Book – And It’s Time to Write It! An A-to-Z Guide To Help Anyone Write Their Life Story.
As the years have gone by, I have noticed that adding classes on writing your life story has emerged as a growing trend in adult education forums. I have taught both in a continuing education program at the University of Virginia and through a senior education program: OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute). Classes across the country have been sprouting up in these and other kinds of learning centers because in today’s hectic and often disconnected lifestyle, the desire to capture our life stories has never been greater. We all have a story to tell, and we sense that we all have something to offer to others in the telling.
With the launching of all these writing your life story classes, hundreds of teachers and instructors are taking on the responsibility of teaching autobiographical writing for the first timer. Many newcomers to the field have approached me for advice and feedback. I’m always happy to assist them. So for those who also may have the opportunity to begin to teach life-story writing soon, I offer a few suggested guiding points that may be helpful for you:
1. Remember that you are not teaching a craft, you’re teaching a process.
Many experienced and talented writers often assume that if they are assigned to teach a class on writing your life story, they are teaching writing. They focus on the writing philosophies, strategies, tools, and mechanics that have served them and that they believe in. They embrace a mission of helping their students become better writers.
And they miss the boat.
In my experience, the vast majority of men and women who show up for an adult education class on autobiographical writing do not come with a determination to become shining stars in the art of writing. They are there because they want to capture parts of their lives for their loved ones, or because they believe that through sharing their challenges and achievements, they have an opportunity to inform, educate, or inspire others. Or they feel called to explore their past as way to heal or gain closure, or just to better understand and appreciate our life journeys. What they need more than anything is permission to do what they want to do, along with encouragement, reassurance, and enough ideas and tools to find their own way to begin chronicling their life story in a way that will work for them.
When I teach my classes, I look at my role as one of facilitator. I am helping to create and maintain a space where people can feel comfortable about themselves doing something that’s often quite new and alien, and often intimidating, to them. Nothing excites me more than to hear my students talk of their excitement about seeing that they really can write stories of their lives and feel good about it – even if they were told they can’t write and never enjoyed the process of writing when required to engage in it.
And you know what? Each student, in his or her own way, also happens to demonstrate improvements in their writing. They find their own voice. They experiment a bit here and there. They recognize their strengths and how to build on them, while also recognizing that they don’t have to write like anyone else or meet anyone’s standards but their own. Something is set free for them, and it is beautiful to witness.
2. Help build connections among your students.
I discovered early on in teaching classes on writing your life story that students gain as much or more encouragement, support, understanding, and valued feedback from their fellow students as they do from me as their teacher. So I look for ways to build and sustain that part of the process.
On the first day of my Writing Your Life Story class, all my students get a chance to introduce themselves to the group. It’s nothing fancy or stressful. They simply tell others how long they have lived in our area, where they are from or the place they would call “home,” and one thing they would like to gain from taking this class. Connections among strangers often begin right there, generated by commonalities in where they have lived or what has drawn them to this class.
Then, I allow ample time in every class for students to orally share their stories with the class. Again, people notice more commonalities in their lived experiences and perspectives, and they often gain a greater respect or appreciation for differences. To help students feel comfortable, I make clear that the first round of sharing is simply to be heard. We in the audience listen only to honor the writer. There is no feedback, either from me or from fellow students. It opens a door to share more.
Then, when we do move on to offering peer feedback, I establish firm and clear guidelines on the nature of feedback that we commit to. I ask students to share either: 1) something in the piece of writing they just heard that stood out for them generally: vivid descriptions, an honest and sincere voice, engagement with the drama of the story, a sense of humor, a character that left an impression; 2) a particular passage, phrase, or section that left a strong impression: a key line of dialogue, the surprise ending, a transition that effectively moved us into new terrain, etc.; 3) something they personally resonated with: the sadness from loss or disappointment, the joyful and poignant memories of the simple joys of childhood from a different time in our life and culture, the satisfaction of building a career or a marriage, etc.; 4) something they might like to hear more about: a character mentioned only briefly, the author’s emotional response to a situation that seemed important or dramatic, a description of a place that pops up briefly, etc.
By steering feedback in these directions, I find that students who are reading their stories feel less intimidated and vulnerable than they would if I simply opened the door to any kind of feedback others wanted to provide. Many of us have had the experience of being “workshopped” with our writing, and while there may be some benefits for some students to what can become more judgmental or critical feedback, I have found over the course of 35 years as a student and teacher of writing classes that what more often happens is that students get stung by what they hear and wind up feeling more discouraged instead of encouraged to go on with their writing. I’ve also observed that even the most well-intentioned peer “critics” are simply passing along some combination of a bias of a certain kind of approach to writing and a jaundiced perspective on how to look at life that permeates their feedback that they think is just about “the writing.”
So I make it clear from the outset that this is not what we are here to do for one another. We are here to support and encourage each other to find our own way in going further into this process of writing one’s life story. I offer feedback within these same guidelines, and while I do look for teaching moments to add a bit more feedback than students may volunteer themselves, I make it clear that I’m just one voice and not the “expert” who is going to show everyone how it’s done.
I seldom hear any complaints about being restricted in giving feedback, and those who feel they need to offer something in the vein of “constructive criticism” manage to do so within the realm of “something I’d like to hear more of.” And it all works out fine. More important, the trust that begins to emerge empowers students to turn to one another more often for the guidance that will sustain and inspire them to go on writing.
By our last day of class, students often are so excited about gaining support from one another that they start phone and email lists to meet on their own outside of class. I still remember the day I walked into a Charlottesville coffee shop and found four students from a seminar I had taught gathered together. When I approached them, I discovered that they had been meeting on alternate Saturday mornings regularly since they met one another in my seminar…two years ago! Those are the kinds of connections I love to see.
3) Get them writing and keep them writing!
From that first day of class until the last class, I lead my students through in-class and take-home exercises every week. Most exercises in class are short-burst writing generated by what I call Story Sparks. I give them a short phrase and invite them to fill in the blank by writing whatever comes to mind for five minutes, or ten minutes, or some other contained space. Natalie Goldberg, among many others, has been teaching about the benefits of this approach to writing for decades, and as a teacher you will find your own way to present and execute it. Again, the goal is to guide them into an experience of writing easily and comfortably. Along the way, they are usually surprised at the power of what comes in the spontaneous act of writing without thinking.
When I teach my senior classes to students who usually range in age from early 60s to early 90s, I enjoy the laughs or similes when I tell them, “I’m probably the only teacher in this senior program who gives homework every week…and expects everyone to do it!” Then, when I come to class the next week and ask for a show of hands of those who actually did my assigned writing assignment, the compliance rate is at least 90 per cent. I try to offer lots of freedom to take my suggested phrases or topics wherever they need to go to arrive at writing that engages them. I urge them to stick with short writing bursts, though they can certainly give themselves permission to “re-enlist” for additional blocks of ten or fifteen minutes to reach a natural ending point.
I remind them that the goal is not to earn gold stars from superb writing (some will do so anyway) but to let the memories flow and gain greater awareness into what works for them in writing about those memories. And as they keep writing, they do indeed find their way.
4) Always make room for students who seek to write about stories and share life experiences that may appear to be very different from what everyone else is writing about.
Though we find commonality in our life stories, we are also reminded that each of our journeys is also unique. Students come with different kinds of stories to tell, and varied goals for sharing them. If you are not aware or careful as a teacher of autobiographical writing classes, you may fall into a comfortable pattern of only hearing and encouraging stories that seem to move in a certain direction or fit a certain category. It may be be that your class is mostly sharing funny stories. Or happy stories. Or stories only from childhood and adolescence, with little or no mention of the last 30, 40, or 50 years.
Your job is to notice the trends that may be taking shape, and to remind the class that it’s also totally okay for anyone who is drawn to focus on stories that go in a very different direction, or have an alternate tone or feel. You might have one or more students seeking to find room to tell the hard-edged stories of painful childhoods, or a history of abuse or addiction. Other students may want to give voice to a powerful loss, often of a spouse of 50 years or longer. Or in a class with students who seem to have mostly led conservative lives, you may have a student wanting to share wild and raunchy stories. Or your class in which political or religious views begin to come up, and seem to fall into one camp, someone from the other “side” wants to feel they can voice their story as well, not to change anyone’s minds or start an argument but simply to have their lived experience honored.
When I note a dominant trend emerging, I make a point to mention that trend, and validate it. But I also announce that “For anyone who has a story to tell that may seem like it does not fit this trend, I want to reassure you that not only is your voice allowed, it’s also needed. Because in my experience, it’s often the story that seems to go against the grain that leaves the most lasting impression on everyone.”
I have many other tips and tools that I could offer from my own lens of teaching Writing Your Life Story classes, but I’ll leave those for another time. I’d also like to offer my appreciation for anyone who does feel called to guide others in the process of writing about their lives. My wish is that teaching men and women of all ages and backgrounds may be as rewarding for you as it has been for me!
– Kevin Quirk is a Charlottesville, Virginia-based author, personal historian, ghostwriter of memoirs and autobiographies, and a teacher of Writing Your Life Story classes.