Monthly Archives: November 2013

Seasoned Teacher of Autobiographical Writing Classes Offers Four Key Tips for Anyone Who Wants to Teach Others How To Write Their Life Story

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.

When in Grief from the Loss of a Beloved Pet, It May Help to Write a Tribute to Your Animal

Our beloved cat Phoebe passed away Monday. Considering that Phoebe has been an indoor cat for 12 years with us, it happened pretty fast. She had been treated for thyroid problems for many years, and recently had lost some of her appetite. When we took her to the vet to find out why, we discovered that she had lost 75% of her kidney function. After two days of IV treatment, the hope was for another six months of a good quality of life at home, supported by fluid treatments we would administer. But after a day back with us, Phoebe was clearly letting us know that it was her time. She passed away peacefully after my wife and I, and our 11 year old, had said our teary goodbyes.

We haven much to grieve in this loss, but much to celebrate as well. Like all cats, Phoebe had a colorful personality, and was an integral part of our day-to-day family life. I think of her several times each day, including 20 minutes ago when I spooned myself out some yogurt. Phoebe would always get the bowl before I finished it all. Now I had to scrape the bowl clean for myself. Life will be very different now…

Since I help people write about the most meaningful stories of their lives in my role as personal historian and ghostwriter of memoirs and autobiographies, I suggested that we as a family begin to write about Phoebe. We can put our memories together as a tribute to this special pet.

We haven’t started yet, but I expect to use many of the same writing tools that I teach in my classes on Writing Your Life Story. I will start with basic writing prompts, which I call Story Sparks, to get things moving. Here are some possibilities I have in mind:

“Phoebe was the kind of cat who…”

As I go to fill in that blank, my first thought is “Phoebe was the kind of cat who would follow you around the house like a dog, and even fetch small balls and drop them back near your feet. Oh, and at dinner she would linger close to the table, ever-ready to pounce on a morsel of people food that might drop from our plates.”

“Phoebe made us laugh whenever she would…”

And my answer is “poke just her head out from under a blanket that she had crawled under or our son had draped over her.”

“Phoebe had an interesting way of…”

Here my answer is “talking to us through her persistent meowing. Part Siamese, she had a verbal response to almost anything you did, and especially whenever you spoke to her by name.”

“When people would see Phoebe for the first time, they would notice…”

The response that immediately comes to mind here is “that she had two different color eyes.”

“Phoebe’s favorite food was…”

I would complete that thought with “tuna juice. Just the act of picking up a can of tuna from the pantry would prompt her to bolt downstairs in half a second, before I even lifted the lid from the can of tuna packed in water.”

“At nighttime, Phoebe really liked to…”

No hesitation with this response: “curl up close to our son in his bed and help him get to sleep.”

I’ve got lots more to compile in writing this tribute to Phoebe. My wife and son will be joining me in this project, and I trust that it will help us both in our grief and in our celebration of the life of our cat.

Have you lost a cat, a dog, or some other pet? Might it help you to write about the life of your pet in a tribute book or some other form? Are you ready to begin?

Feel free to use the Story Sparks, or prompts, that I have introduced in this blog, substituting your pet’s name and kind of animal as needed. I bet you’ll have no trouble from there in adding new prompts of your own to cover any aspect of your pet and its special place in your lives. There’s even a guidebook on the process out now: “Write Your Pet’s Life Story in 7 Easy Steps” by Mary Anne Benedetto:
http://www.amazon.com/Write-Your-Pets-Story-Steps/dp/0989008916

Our pets matter a great deal to us. They are a vital part of the fabric of our lives. We can honor that connection by writing about them after they have passed away…or while they’re still here with us.

– Kevin Quirk helps women and men of all ages and backgrounds write the most meaningful stories of their lives, including stories about pets, in his role as memoir and autobiography ghostwriter and personal historian. Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, he is the author of “Your Life Is a Book And It’s Time to Write It: An A-to-Z Guide to Help Anyone Write Their Life Story.”

Barry Brownstein’s Book Illustrates How Writing About a Major Career Change Can Provide a Focus for Your Life Story

I just learned of a new book “Old Man on Campus: A middle-aged engineer blunders into medicine, goes back to college at 58, and becomes a physician assistant” by Barry Brownstein http://www.amazon.com/Old-Man-Campus-middle-aged-assistant/dp/1479372099#! It’s an inspirational story about finding a new passion in later life and having the nerve to pursue it. The author reveals both the hardships of returning to college and having to keep up with those half his age, and the humor he came upon along the way.

His story is a reminder that it’s never too late to make an important life change. These days, that’s an important reality to hold onto for many of us in the 40-something, 50-something, or 60-something zone who recognize that the old way of entering retirement is fast becoming obsolete. We need new passions, and the courage to follow them.

“Old Man on Campus” is also an illustration that may be useful on another front. If you have been working on your life story, you may also want to consider whether you have one major experience to focus on. Did you plunge into new and unknown territory at some point in your life? Is there a major story behind that? Did you switch careers because of a passion that ignited you and then master the practical part of it to find success and fulfillment? Did you have a few laughs along the way, or is it at least one of those “someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seems funny” times?

Remember, writing your life story can be approached in many different ways. You certainly can cover the full terrain of childhood through today. Or you can take a slice-of-life approach and focus on one major, compelling experience. Is that the direction that may be right for you?

– Kevin Quirk, personal historian and ghostwriter of memoirs and autobiographies, has been helping people of all ages and backgrounds tell the most important stories of their lives for 18 years. He is the author of “Your Life Is a Book And It’s Time To Write It.”

What Does the World Need Now? When You Write Your Life Story, Tell Us What You Believe

Do you remember that 1960s song “What the World Needs Now Is Love?” Written by Hal David, that song was performed live by more than 100 artists, with one of those melodies that tend to go round and round in your mind. I like the question “what the world needs now” so much that I frequently guide my students in responding to it during our “Writing Your Life Story” classes. If you’re writing your memoir or autobiography, try it for yourself right now.

Write down in your journal or on your computer screen the words “What the world needs now is…” and spend 10 minutes writing whatever comes to mind next. Naturally that song will pop up in your radar, and if you want to incorporate some of the message from those lyrics because it fits for you, by all means do so. You may find something personally meaningful to explore about how and why the world, and everyone it, does indeed need more love. At the same time, I encourage you to circle around to your own answer or answers to that question, no matter how different or unusual they may sound to you. After all, this is YOUR life story and those family, friends, and others who will read it really want to know what you think and feel about life around you and how it can be enhanced.

In my role as memoir and autobiography ghostwriter, I often find that my clients have not given much consideration to passing along these kinds of opinions and desires. They are busy trying to recall all the memorable and engaging stories they want to include, and they’re often wrapped up with remembering who did what when. When I suggest that they also spend a few minutes speaking to readers about their wishes for their loved ones, and a greater circle beyond them, they are initially surprised. They may briefly hesitate, not wanting to sound too “full of themselves” or to pontificate.

Then they sink into the question and recognize that they absolutely do have values, hopes, ideas, advice, and opinions that they would like to share. And that’s when the heartfelt expressions come pouring out. Their answers to “what the world needs now” are not only lively and timely, they also come wrapped in surprises for those who thought they knew the subject of this memoir or autobiography but didn’t know this side of that person they care about. They also may be touched by the expression as they find it hits home for them and what they need, or what they wish for others.

It doesn’t matter how long you have lived, or where your life has taken you. You’ve had experiences. You’ve seen the world in its beauty and in its struggles. You’ve got something to say in response to this question, and your readers want to hear it because they want to connect with you, to know you better, to hold a bigger picture of who you are. It’s another opportunity for you as the writer of your life story to inform, educate, inspire, entertain, or just reach us by what you share in your memoir or autobiography. Speaking to what the world needs now is a dynamic way for you to share your values and beliefs, your lessons learned, your insights into what you see around you.

So keep writing in response to that spark “what the world needs now…” Follow the trail wherever it may lead. After offering your ideas or opinions, you may find yourself launching into a story that illustrates your point. Tell us that story. Oh, and if you are tempted to plug your words into the melody of that popular song, or if you find yourself creating a new melody of your own, feel free to start singing!

– Memoir and autobiography ghostwriter Kevin Quirk, author of “Your Life Is a Book And It’s Time To Write It,” has been helping ordinary people tell the most meaningful stories of their lives for more than 15 years.