Tag Archives: Autobiographical Writing

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.

Memoir Ghostwriter Kevin Quirk Debunks Myths About Who Writes and Memoirs and Why

As a memoir ghostwriter and personal historian with 15 years of experience, I often smile when I hear some common misconceptions about who chooses to write a memoir, and why. These myths usually fall into two categories:

1. The only people who feel the urge to write their life story are elders who wish to reflect back over their lifespan while in their 70s, 80s or 90s.

Yes, it’s true that writing a personal history, autobiography or memoir is a natural and healthy inclination for many seniors. Personally, I think anyone who has reached that stage of life can benefit from telling their life story. But my experience tells me that it’s often just as strong a motivation for people who may be quite a bit younger. I’ve assisted clients as young as 19, and I’ve worked with dozens of men and women in the broad midlife spectrum: 40s, 50s and 60s. Something has happened to them in their lives that calls them to write about it, and they see no need to wait until they’re “old enough” to be justified in pursuing their autobiography. Often their stories are especially compelling.

2. Anyone who really wants to spend the time, energy, and money to write their life story and publish it in a book must be driven by a big ego.

Totally untrue!! Most of my clients call upon me to ghostwrite their memoir or autobiography because they sincerely wish to preserve their story for their children, grandchildren and other loved ones. Often, family members have been pestering them to do it for years, and it has taken them a long time to summon the nerve to do it. My ghostwriting clients and Writing Your Life Story students often tell me they want to stay away from the splotlight. They don’t want to be seen as “tooting my own horn” or making more of their life experiences than their stories merit. Then, when they allow themselves to dive into their memories and write their life story, they see just how rich and wondours those stories are – and how much their loved ones appreciate hearing them. Men and women who write their memoirs often touch upon many stories and experiences they had never shared with their family before, so their loved ones are especially grateful that they have taken the time and effort to capture those precious memories.

Far from being driven by ego, many of my ghostwriting clients sincerely wish to be of service to others. Many believe that writing about the challenges they overcame, or the mistakes they learned from, or the lessons taught to them by special people in their life, will encourage and inspire young people and others who will benefit from what they share. When their life story is captured in a completed memoir or autobiography, they are touched by a sense of gratitude that they could help someone. It’s not an ego boost at all.

I’m lucky. People who come to me seeking help in writing their memoir, autobiography or personal history usually exhibit the best of the human spirit. And when I work with them, I get to share a glimpse into their unique life experience and perspective. It’s often quite a wondrous ride, which I recently wrote about in a guest blog with the Association of Ghostwriters, of which I am a member. I’ll share that with you here:

http://associationofghostwriters.org/ghostwriting-memoirs-opens-doors-to-wondrous-new-worlds/

Will you be the next person to take this life-affirming, gift-giving step of writing your life story?

– Kevin Quirk is an author, ghostwriter, book coach and autobiographical writing teacher who has been helping people write their life stories for more than 15 years. The author of “Life Is a Book And It’s Time to Write It,” he is a member of the Association of Personal Historians, the Association of Ghostwriters and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

George Vaughan's Memoir "Once Told Tales" Vividly Illustrates How To Capture a Childhood in a Small Town

Did you grow up in a small town? Do you have memories that when brought fully to life can paint a colorful picture of that certain place and time?

George Vaughan sure did. He grew up in the small mill town of Fries, Virginia, on the banks of the New River. George attended one of my Autobiographical Writing classes at the University of Virginia School of Continuing and Professional Studies, and he was just bursting with stories from his small-town life experiences as a child in the 1930s and ’40s. George had been a highly accomplished professional; he served as president of two Virginia community colleges and published scores of academic-oriented books and articles. But writing personal stories about his life was an entirely different kind of animal, he observed. He was enjoying the process and was inspired to teach others what it was like to live the way he did back then. He had visions of writing a book about it all. Could he really stick with the process well enough to build an entire memoir around his childhood in Fries?

George found his answer, and he has recently released his memoir: “Once-Told Tales: A Boy’s Life on the Crooked Road, Fries, Virginia, A Mill Town.”

http://www.amazon.com/Once-Told-Tales-Growing-1937-1951/dp/1470178605/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1352558824&sr=1-1&keywords=once-told+tales+george+vaughan

He gave voice to it all: camping out in the backyard in his Army surplus tent; surviving an attack of leeches by burning them off with matches; becoming a big-time “gambler” by flicking coins; killing a bird with a BB gun and deciding he would never kill again; making it through school with Cs and Ds; spending five days a week after school and all day Saturday playing basketball and ping-pong at the Y; eating dinners of fried potatoes, green onions from the garden, mustard greens and cornbread; burning his bottom while drying too close to the stove after his Saturday night bath; getting a jar of pickled peaches as a Christmas present while pondering the question: if Santa could come every Christmas, why couldn’t Jesus? He made sure to weave in a good bit of the town’s history, informing readers at the outset that Fries was pronounced “freeze” not like what you ate with your hamburger. He didn’t surgar-coat his depiction of the town and its people, including himself. He just let the stories do his talking, and in so doing left readers with a real and deep appreciation of his small-town life while beckoning us to dive into our own memories of our childhoods in towns small or large.

If you are embarking on writing your life story, and you happened to have grown up in a small town, maybe you’ve got your own once-told tales to bring to life. Perhaps, instead of seeking to write a full-fledged autobiography that covers your entire life, you too may want to consider writing a slice-of-life memoir. Would you like to tell us all about what it was like to grow up in your small town?

– Kevin Quirk, author of “Your Life Is a Book And It’s Time To Write It,” teaches classes on Writing Your Life Story and serves as a ghostwriter for memoirs and autobiographies.

Autobiography Ghostwriter Views Celebration of Life Memorials As Another Way of Honoring Our Life Stories

I was recently in the midst of a long drive from Virginia to Massachusetts for a family wedding when I caught part of an NPR interview in which the subject of memorial services came up. The point was made that in the last few decades we have seen a growing trend toward memorial services oriented more toward a celebration of life of the person who has just passed away, and that the family and often the deceased themselves play an active role in planning it.

I thought about that. Regardless of your religious affiliation or spiritual leanings, have you also noticed this shift toward more personal and celebratory memorial services? Fifty years ago, you didn’t often come upon memorial services that made room for vibrant music, or family and friends sharing both the humorous as well as the profound memories of the person they had gathered to pay tribute to. You didn’t see many references to popular songs, or the deceased’s favorite poems or sayings about life. You didn’t hear a whole lot of stories that would begin, “And I’ll never forget that time when she was 8 years old and she…”

From my perspective as a memoir ghostwriter and teacher of “Autobiographical Writing” classes, the trend toward more personal and sometimes more colorful end-of-life celebrations is another way our culture has found to preserve and share our life stories. It appears to fit our need to capture our memories, and to honor our lives, no matter how ordinary or extraordinary they may be.

And this shift in the format and approach to memorial services today leaves me with this question: do we really need to wait until a loved one has died to organize and present a moving and meaningful celebration of their life?

–  Kevin Quirk is a ghostwriter and book writing coach for memoirs and autobiographies through his service Life Is a Book. 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 Story (www.yourlifeisabook.com).

If You Don’t Know Where to Start in Writing Your Life Story, Memoir Ghostwriter Suggests You Begin with WHY You Want to Do It

When people email me to inquire about my services as a personal historian and memoir ghostwriter with Life Is a Book, they often express a real determination to write their  meaningful life story while explaining how they feel stuck on the launching pad. “Where do I start?” they ask me.

They go on to share with me some of the dramatic experiences they have lived through: overcoming a major illness or disease; suffering a major loss or family trauma; getting knocked off their feet but coming back up with renewed passion and commitment. Sometimes they say something like, “I just want to help others feel they can make it too.” But, they emphasize, they just can’t seem to get going in writing the story.

More often than not, I bring in the advice I offer in my guidebook, “Your Life Is a Book – And It’s Time to Write It!” Begin with your reason for writing your life story in the first place. What is it you are trying to do with your memoir or autobiography? Do you want to inspire others? Do you seek to inform or educate? Do you hope to offer support and encouragement to people who may be facing the same kinds of life challenges that you have met? Or maybe your goal is to capture your memories so family and friends can share in them? Then again, your intent may be more about your own self-discovery and healing.

Your answer to the question “why are your writing your life story” will be unique to you, but I bet you know just what it is. I also trust that you can express your answer in a clear and articulate manner. And that’s just what you should do. State your purpose or mission for writing your life story in a personal, honest, and open way. Hold nothing back. Get beyond the bumper-stick answer and keep writing what you mean by “I want to inspire others like me” or “I want to help people understand.” No one needs to see what you’re writing. It may never even appear in your memoir or autuobiography, unless you decide that it fits in a Preface, Introduction, or Author’s Note at some point.

This is for you. To get you going. To give you that push that propels you out of the starting gate. It will also be the motivation that will serve as the wind at your back that keeps you moving around the track.

Naming your purpose, mission, or intention as a first step in writing your memoir or autobiography is important not only for those of you who may be writing your life story yourself. It’s also beneficial for those who want to tell their life story by enlisting the aid of a life story ghostwriter like me. When I begin work with someone who has entrusted me with writing their life story, I usually spend some time asking them about their mission in doing this. Their answer helps them focus on their purpose and feel more eager or ready to tell me their stores. It also helps me as the ghostwriter to tune in to who they are and what they’re doing, so I can steer my interviewing in the most effective and engaging way as I envision the shape and direction of their memoir or autobiography.

I remind those clients, as I also tell my students in my Autobiographical Writring classes, this is not simply an exercise that hopefully will pay dividends as you go along in writing your life story. It also will naturally spur you on to start writing specific stories that you yearn to bring out. How? Look at what you name for your mission. Say it’s something like, “I want to encourage and support cancer survivors and their families so they will know they are not alone.” Now ask yourself: When did I ever feel alone? When did I feel the most cared for and supported? Who understood what I was going through and how did they support me?

Your answers may not come in the form of what you would identfy as the “beginning” of the story, but it almost cretainly will get you writing about, or telling to your ghostwriter, a part of the story that will be critical to include. And it will naturally trigger the next series of questions, and the next burst of stories.

Suppose your mission comes out something like, “I want to show people how I survived my childhood wounds and built a successful and satisfying life.” As you write those very words, allow your mind to drift to a moment when you doubted if you really would survive, or a moment when you knew you would make it. Or see what you are specifically thinking about in your current life that would prompt you to refer to it as “satisfying” or “successful.” In other words, dive into your written mission for writing your life story and uncover the jewels awaiting you there.

So don’t let yourself get stuck at the starting gate. Write down for yourself, or for your life story ghostwriter, your reason for writing your life story. Then hoist up your sails and see where that wind may take you!

– Kevin Quirk has been helping ordinary people write their life stories as a professional ghostwriter and life-writing teacher and coach for 15 years. He provides more tips in his book, “Your Life Is a Book – And It’s Time To Write It! An A-to-Z Guide To Help Anyone Write Their Life Story” (www.yourlifeisabook.com)