Turning 60 Is Easier with Bruce Springsteen by My Side

I was driving down I-81 outside Hershey, Pennsylvania well after midnight, with the rain falling steadily, and I was asking myself why I had done it.

Why had I driven up four hours from Charlottesville, Virginia on a Wednesday afternoon in May just so I could stand in line for three hours in a parking lot, then stand five hours longer in a cramped space amid beer-drinking people in a beaten down stadium next to a chocolate park, in the rain, to watch Bruce Springsteen? Why had I even chosen to attend another Springsteen concert just a few weeks after I had seen him closer to home in Virginia Beach, and less than two years after I had been to not one, not two, but three Springsteen shows a couple of months apart during the 2012 Wrecking Ball tour?

Why, as I am about to turn 60 years old, have I suddenly become a late-in-life Springsteen admirer, follower, some would say junkie, a person who peruses a fan message board where anyone who has been to less than 50, 80, even 150 or more Bruce concerts is considered out of sync with the most important matters in the world?

It’s not like I never who Bruce Springsteen was. After all, I was a student at Boston University in the early 1970s when Jon Landau wrote his famous column in The Real Paper about seeing rock and roll future in the face of Bruce Springsteen after watching his first Bruce show. As a journalism student, I read every issue of the weekly Real Paper, so I’m sure I must have at last glanced at the article. I vaguely knew the name Springsteen as a supposed up-and-comer in rock music, and I probably heard him interviewed on WBCN because I listened to Boston’s alternative rock station faithfully.

But I didn’t need Bruce then.

I loved rock music, but I was a ‘60s purist. Raised during the British Invasion and the influx of popular American rock acts in the mid-to-late ‘60s, I still gravitated toward the performers I had embraced as a teenager. When I managed to scrape together a few bucks to attend a rock concert in the early to mid-‘70s in Boston, I was investing in the Kinks playing “Preservation,” their version of the rock opera form spawned by The Who and “Tommy.” Or seeing back-to-back Neil Young shows, because Neil had begun as a ‘60s rocker with Buffalo Springfield. Or having a night of “nostalgia” watching Bob Dylan and Joan Baez sing Blowin in the Wind together during Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review tour. Or catching Van Morrison singing Brown Eyed Girl for the millionth time.

I carried the belief that ‘60s rock was then and always would be the benchmark of all music. I didn’t need or want any new name to push aside the Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Moody Blues, Dylan or any of them. I needed to hold onto that connection to my coming-of-age experiences, when rock seemed to name the world for what it was, give you the strength to take it on, or stir you toward a vision, however hazy or wacky, of something more, something better. So as Bruce was slowly becoming a bit of a new cult figure along much of the Northeast, I paid little attention.

Flash forward five years. I was living in Bruce territory, working as a sports reporter in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I certainly knew about Bruce then. How could I not? My preferred rock station in Philly would cue up a Bruce tune about every third song they would play. And between songs they would play a promo with Bruce singing, “Growin’ up…in Philadelphia!” I did enjoy Born to Run and Thunder Road and Jungleland and some of the others that would come up more often in a rotation than the latest Top 40 hit on the AM dial. Those days Bruce was popping up in music venues of all shapes and sizes all over the Philly-Jersey area, even during his hiatus in recording due to his contract dispute. I never saw him. Wasn’t even tempted.

I still didn’t need Bruce then.

With rock, I still clung to those ‘60s artists, and I didn’t even listen to rock so much anymore anyway. I liked folk music, whether the ‘60s stalwarts like Joni Mitchell or even the more contemporary folkies. I remember being so enraptured with Phoebe Snow that I would later name my white cat Phoebe. I even allowed some space for classical music. Life was busy, my going-out budget only allowed for Tuesday $1 matinee movies, and, truth be told, I didn’t want to identify myself as a Jersey-Philly person anyway. I was a New Englander in my bones, in my head, and in my heart. And back then you had to breathe Jersey-Philly life to align with Bruce.

Oh, I did give in and buy my first Springsteen album: The River. I absolutely loved the title song, and I certainly enjoyed and appreciated Independence Day, Jackson Cage, Hungry Heart, and a few others. But half the other songs I just couldn’t get into. Then he had those songs about cars and characters who obsessed about them. Yuck! Who sang songs glorifying cars? And in the days of LP’s, it was a real aggravation to keep maneuvering the needle around the duds. I was definitely not drawn to pay money for another Springsteen album. I mean, did The Beatles ever put out an album in which there was even one song that failed to maintain a high level?

By 1981 I had moved out of Bruce Territory and into the edge of the Bible Belt: Charlotte, North Carolina. People in Charlotte listened to country music, and no one ever spoke of Bruce Springsteen. Until, that is, Born in the USA exploded on the scene and the resultant Bruce Mania swept out from the Jersey shore to the whole damn USA. I wrote about ACC basketball for The Charlotte Observer in those days, and I remember our newspaper tracking the Bruce hype when he stormed into our state. There was a full article about the local gym that Bruce took over the morning before one of his Carolina shows. Geez!

Okay, so I did give in. On a whim, because I had a night off between games involving the likes of Michael Jordan, I paid $20 to a scalper for a ticket to witness this Springsteen madness in Greensboro. It was a bit like my album experience: half the songs were great, half of them sucked. And with his silly outfit and the way he stormed on, off, and around the stage, he was so showy, so…pretentious.

I didn’t need any more of Bruce.

In the ‘80s, as I crossed from my 20s to my 30s, I was spending my music money on Mozart and Tchaikovsky. The only rock music act that I had seen once and would pay to see again was The Moody Blues, who had reunited and were adding more hits to bolster their Nights in White Satin heritage.
So Bruce and the E Street Band got bigger and bigger until they blew apart for awhile. I didn’t mourn the breakup or follow what Bruce did solo. I was oblivious. I moved around the country, including a stopover in the San Francisco area just long enough for the ’89 Bay Bridge earthquake, and my musical tastes and needs kept evolving. By 1996, when I was writing my first book, a huge step after only writing things that could be read in one five-minute sitting, I chose as my musical background to write by the sounds of Gregorian chant. When I was hanging out in New Age-like enclaves like the Omega Institute in New York, you didn’t come across many Springsteen fans.

Live marched along. As Bruce says, we lose ourselves in work to do and bills to pay. On the car radio, I would surf between the classical and classic rock, and then I’d punch in my George Winston tapes.
I definitely didn’t need Bruce then.

I got older, wrote a whole bunch of books that help people tell their life stories as author and ghostwriter, got married a second time, and adopted a son from another country. With music, I got the most excited in watching the anticipated rise of a local Charlottesville folk singer named Terri Allard in Charlottesville. My wife and I would travel all over to see Terri—all over a 25-mile radius anyway. Not exactly like Bruce fans scanning the globe for concerts. I barely even knew that Bruce was still recording new music and still playing live shows until I saw a listing for his Charlottesville gig in 2009. Out of curiosity, I bought tickets. It turned out to be only a few nights after the death of E Street Band member Danny Federici. Trained as a therapist, I thought Bruce seemed sad, though he still bounced around the stage and did his water-slicked slide. He also looked older. For that matter, so did I.

Something else stuck with me that night. We were seated in one of the arena’s upper sections and even had binoculars to zero in on the stage. And I saw all those people standing on the floor, so close to the stage. “Wow, how neat it must be to watch a concert from up there?” I thought, but then brushed the idea aside as something I would never be able to afford. And anyway, those tickets must have been only for VIPS. No way regular people could get in there.

So I still didn’t need Bruce…but I did decide that I would keep a light on for news of what he was up to anyway.

And then Clarence Clemmons passed away and Bruce wasn’t sure if there could even be an E Street Band again and something touched me somehow. When I heard that he had recorded a new CD, Wrecking Ball, I went right out and got it, the same way all those Bruce followers must have been doing for these last 30 years and a couple of dozen albums. I played it once. I was impressed. I played it again. I was awestruck. First, his voice was still strong, clear, and powerful. I figured he had lost it a little by now. Second, many of his themes resonated with me. Third, every song—well except maybe one or two clunkers—were of the same very high quality.

I played that CD, at high decibels, over and over in my car. I had not done that for rock music for…too many years to track.

I kept the light on brighter. I tuned into the Backstreets fan group and learned all about “the pit” and how it was actually quite possible to buy tickets for the standing space near the stage, and how to do it. I learned all about wristbands and lotteries and TicketMaster and BTX ticket sellers offering extra Bruce tickets without a mark-up in price. I vowed to have my first pit experience, and on Labor Day night in 2012 in Philadelphia, I was standing five persons back from Steve Van Zandt in Citizens Bank Park. By then I had learned many other Bruce songs from all those years when I didn’t even know he was singing, and I would have sung along in full voice…if I had any voice left. Unfortunately, I lost it all the night before: singing every word of almost every Bruce song while standing in the stadium for the first of two back-to-back Bruce shows, a back-to-back I had vowed to be there for.

I guess I was beginning to need Bruce.

So today I read Bruce concert reviews, buy live DVD’s, and rush to check out the video clips from the latest shows on YouTube. I bought the High Hopes CD not because it was supposed to be good but because it was his latest. I wear a Bruce tour T-shirt my wife bought for me. I took my 12 year old son to his first rock concert, which had to be a Bruce show. I’ve ventured into the pit again, and I lament that Bruce is apparently taking a prolonged break from live shows. I’m still bashful about identifying myself as a Bruce fan, a Bruce convert, a Bruce diehard, or whatever. But it is what I am.

Why? I’ve searched for clues. I think it has something to do with turning 60. When I watch and listen to Bruce, I see a model of maintaining passion, commitment, and dedication in what we do, where our gifts lie, and giving it everything we’ve got and more, even now. I need that kind of modeling as I continue to crank out books as a ghostwriter and the process of writing life stories is just a little…different for me now. I want to pour the best of myself and my abilities to writing the life stories of men and women of all ages and backgrounds, and other purpose-driven books, and I want to keep doing it for as long as I can. But I need reassurance sometimes that I can still do it. As I watch Bruce, I think about how maybe we’re getting older but we’re still going, still doing our best to be who we are at our core for “as many lives as they give us,” as Bruce said recently.

I’m a close follower of Bruce today also because I marvel at his uncanny, wonderful blend of intensity and easefulness. He exudes passion when he sings and plays, and yet his smile and grace in relating to his audience embody an acceptance of who he is, who we are, and how it all fits together in some kind of community. Even when he prances around the stage, crowd surfs, makes faces, waves for his audience to sing along or raise their hands, I don’t see a showy performer over-doing it now. I feel and sense intimacy, and though it is certainly somewhat crafted, it is also real.

I think I’m also drawn to Bruce now because I appreciate his way of capturing a sense of holding onto a spirit of fullness of life in all you do, think, feel, and believe. To me, fullness of life is a core spiritual foundation.

It’s also got something to do with Bruce having been born two weeks after my older brother, from whom I’ve been mostly estranged during our adult years. I don’t know Bruce, but when he stands up there not far from me on that stage, I see something of a big brother figure. And though he has not yet reached out to me for book coaching help on his memoir that he has begun but apparently can’t complete, I can at least say I shook his sweaty hand as he walked the catwalk while singing Tenth Avenue Freeze-out in Charlottesville.

Just being in the pit is certainly part of the draw. It’s quite an experience to be watching these shows so close that I’m waiting for Bruce to ask me to go refill his water bucket where he dunks his head when gets over-heated. More than that, I feel privileged. As I have come to appreciate the full body of his musical work, and watch him pour out his energy into what he has created for three full hours without hardly stopping to catch his breath, I feel like I am watching a Rembrandt-caliber artist up close and personal. Heck, I can even stomach an occasional car song: Cadillac Ranch is definitely okay, though I still cringe at Ramrod.

So I can freely admit that in some respect, I really do need Bruce in my life. Today. And tomorrow. All those years when he was around and I didn’t need him, hardly even paid attention to him, and now it’s changed. Life is like that. Relationships shift and evolve. Passions and desires take new forms. Old needs fade away and new ones sneak up on us, like spirits in the night.

Toward Bruce I feel a special kind of gratitude for…still being there, still doing what he does so beautifully, so gracefully, so passionately…for still being Bruce. “If I fall behind, wait for me,” he writes in one of his songs. So Bruce, as I turn 60 I just want to say this:

Thank you for waiting for me—not me personally, but for the collective pool of those of us who didn’t start out as fans 40-plus years ago but for some reason or other wanted and needed to come along much, much later. I fell behind in Boston, in Philly, and beyond, but I’m catching up now. Thanks for continuing to write, record, and play music with depth, meaning, energy, and fun. Thanks for continuing to perform at such an incredibly high level.

And thanks for instilling in me a strong curiosity, or desire, or, yeah, a need to watch and listen for where you’re going to go to from here.

Facebook “If you grew up in my town” Groups Are a Gold Mine of Stories for Anyone Writing Their Autobiography

I tend to be a bit slow to pick up on social media trends. Just a few weeks ago I caught on to the existence of a Facebook group, “If You Grew Up in Shrewsbury You Remember…” https://www.facebook.com/groups/160659847342279/
That’s my hometown: Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. I have not lived there since I went off to college at age 18, but the community still has a prominent place in my memory banks. And as soon as I began exploring the posts, I understood that this was going to be a major boon to my efforts in capturing my childhood as part of writing my life story.

I found that a story lie waiting for me to discover behind half the posts and the photos that went with them. I remember the amusement park at White City, and the black-and-white family photos of my older brother and sisters taking me there in my stroller. I remember the shopping center that took over that same space on the shores of Lake Quinsigamond in the early 1960s. My first bike got stolen outside the entrance to Bradlees department store there, and at the other end of the plaza I saw “Mary Poppins” when it opened the White City movie theater. A year later, when Marry Poppins finally flew out of town, I watched “The Sound of Music” there. As a child, I assumed that Julie Andrews was the only movie actress around.

A photo of Maironis Park triggered memories of how my Lithuanian grandmother was a member of the organization behind it, which enabled us to use the tiny swimming area behind the meeting space. A photo of the Edgemere Diner revealed a childhood friend’s mother and the reminder of how that diner served as my marker when riding my bike: I could finally turn off busy and loud Route 20, with all the trailer-trucks, onto the quiet neighborhood street that led to the park.

Looking at the Howard Johnson’s photo reminded me of what a treat it was for our family with five kids to go there for an ice cream or, as an even bigger splurge, a plate of fried clams. The photo of St. Anne’s church kindled memories of playing for the church basketball team. After missing a few easy layups the first game, a very tall priest fired 50 passes in a row to me under the basket to get it straight the next day at practice. For our Catholic confirmation, we practiced our solemn march into the church to the music of “Bolero.” I had to smile years later when “Bolero” was used in a very “different” context in the popular movie “10.”

Posts about my high school touched upon a memory that had just surfaced for me a few days earlier. During our junior class presentation of “Our Town,” the girl playing the female lead cracked her ribs running into the seats during the exit with her boyfriend/husband at the end of Act II. After several hushed and confusing moments, our director announced that although the actress did have an understudy, he wanted the injured girl to have a chance to play the final scene. Act III was performed about two months later.

Between jotting down notes for my next story to write, I did a quick check to see if this group was a unique entity on Facebook. Silly me! Of course there already had been dozens of “If you grew up…” groups.

Do you have one for your town? If not, do you feel called to launch one? If you are writing your life story in a memoir or autobiography, I bet you’re going to find a gold mine of stories within the posts and photos that pop up there. Happy hunting!

- Kevin Quirk helps women and men from any and all towns across the U.S. and beyond to write their life story in his role as autobiography ghostwriter, personal historian, book coach, and life-writing teacher. He is the author “Your Life Is a Book And It’s Time to Write It! An A-to-Z Guide to Help Anyone Write Their Life Story.”

A March Snowfall in Virginia Stirs Memories of a Blizzard and a Howling Dog Named Gus for Autobiography Ghostwriter Kevin Quirk

It’s snowing again in my home near Charlottesville, Virginia, and I can’t help feeling cheated. As a native New Englander, I have long since come to anticipate and rely on stealing a month or more of spring. Come March 1st, when my family and friends back in New England keep grumbling about the winter that will never go away, I’m changing into sweatshirts and light jackets and watching the trees and flowers come to life.

Not this year. Just a couple of weeks after this wild winter of 2014 had dumped 15 inches of snow on us, we’re getting another substantial snowfall. We might get 6 or 8 inches before it’s done with us tonight, and the temperatures are fast plummeting to zero.

Who stole my spring?

Ah, but there’s a good side to being force-fed this reminder of “real” winter. It’s brought back many enduring memories of snowstorms of the past. The one I am reminded of today must have delivered at least two feet of snow on our home area of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, about 40 miles west of Boston. Usually life goes marching on when it snows in Massachusetts, but this storm had brought the march to a screeching halt. No one was going anywhere for a couple of days, and our long dirt driveway must have ranked low on the list of our regular snow plow man. We were not dug out for days, and the snow bankings from the previous storm and resultant plow just got higher and higher.

It was the snow bank closest to my bedroom window that became the sight of the image frozen in my mind. Our dog Gus, part beagle and part cocker spaniel, was a rugged outdoor pet that huddled in his doghouse on the porch in bad weather – but only for a few hours. Then he’d take off – in those days before leash laws – and we know where he would most often be heading. He had a doggie girlfriend, a part German shepherd lass, more than a mile away. We would often see them frolicking on her front yard, and yes, we did notice some pups who looked a fair bit like Gus around there as well.

In the aftermath of this blast of snow, with our driveway unplowed, even Gus was snowbound. He was yearning to be with his love, but living in the reality of being a dog beholding to the elements. To show his displeasure, he climbed to the top of that snow bank and just began howling. Like a wolf, he completely emptied his lungs, over and over again, pausing only to gaze down the unplowed driveway hoping to see it miraculously cleared, or raise his nose to pick up the scent of the arriving snowplow. And it went on and on for hours, well into the night.

Poor Gus.

Since I’m working on writing my memoirs these days, I’m going to be sure to find a place for this story. Are you caught in the tight grip of this nasty winter? Has it stirred some memories of winters past for you? If you are committed to writing your life story, write them down now, while you can still hear the howling reminders of yesterday.

- Kevin Quirk has been helping ordinary women and men write their life stories for almost 20 years in his role as autobiography ghostwriter, book coach, editor, and writing teacher. He is the author of “Life Is a Book – And It’s Time to Write It! An A-to-Z Guide to Help Anyone Write Their Life Stories.”

Study Reveals That Children and Adolescents Benefit from Hearing the Life Stories of Their Older Relatives

As a personal historian and ghostwriter of memoirs and autobiographies for 18 years, I have consistently noticed the joy and appreciation of family members who read and hear the life stories of their parent or grandparent. Now, an Emory University study confirms that there are indeed emotional and psychological benefits for children and adolescents who are able to learn about how their older relatives have lived:

http://shared.web.emory.edu/emory/news/releases/2010/03/children-benefit-if-they-know-about-their-relatives-study-finds.html#.UqcsvvRDs3c

The study concluded that teens who knew more stories about their extended family exhibited a greater degree of emotional well-being and had a stronger sense of self-identity. I believe these same kinds of benefits extend to the adult children of men and women who take the time and effort to sit down and chronicle their life stories with the help of a personal historian or autobiography ghostwriter. Often these family members are simply surprised to uncover so much of what they never knew.

I recall a 93 year old client whose five adult children, most in their 60s, told me how much they had learned about their mom from the autobiography that I wrote for her. Oh, they knew about the parts of her life that included them in the picture, but there were details about her childhood that were surprising, revealing, and affirming of just how far their mother had come in her life.

The 50-something son of a current client similarly mentioned to me that when he read his father’s life story that I have been working on with him since last summer, he found out things about his father that had never been shared before. And he was enjoying the discovery.

Sharing stories about their past for children and grandchildren is often the primary motivation for clients who come to me to interview them and write their life story in a memoir or autobiography. It’s also what frequently drives the students who attend my classes on “Writing Your Life Story.” They tell me that their family has been after them for years to sit down and write their stories, both those that are already well know within the family ranks and those that have not made it to the dinner table. Knowing that their younger family members are waiting to hear something meaningful, and personal, pushes many seniors in a positive way to dig deeper into their memory banks and bring forward the engaging stories that others are waiting to hear and read.

An article in the December 9 issue of the Washington Post explored the growing trend of seniors hearing the call to document their stories, and how they often call upon personal historians and autobiography ghostwriters like us. These seniors understand the benefits they can extend to their family, and the gift that endures much longer than a typical physical possession. Those of us whoo offer our services through the Association of Personal Historians, know the joys and rewards that come from this sacred act as well. That’s a major reason why we do what we do.

- Kevin Quirk has been helping women and men of all ages and backgrounds tell their most meaningful stories in his role as personal historian and ghostwriter of memoirs and autobiographies. 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.”

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.