Tag Archives: writing your life story classes

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 Writing Your Life Story in an Autobiography or Memoir, Try Looking at Your Life from Both Sides

It was a song I had not heard or thought about for many years, and yet there it was playing over and over in my mind. The song is Both Sides Now, written and recorded by Joni Mitchell and made more popular via the version sung by Judy Collins, and it had come floating across my brain during my class “Writing Your Life Story” through OLLI at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

As you may recall, the singer is reflecting on clouds, love, and life, and how each can be seen in completely different contexts. Love is this, but it is also that. Life looks like A, but it can also look like Z. It is our lens, our perspective over time, that shapes our view and our attitude as we observe it.

The song memory was prompted by what I was witnessing in the sharing of stories from a group of students who were especially eager and committed to giving voice to what really mattered as they sifted through 60, 70, 80 or more years of experiences. On this day, we happened to witness a number of stories that touched upon the tougher stuff of life. We heard stories about childhood households darkened by alcoholism and abandonment, stories about grappling with depression, stories about the loss of loved ones in the long ago or more recent past, stories about the struggles of caring for an elderly parent. The writing that brought these stories to life was clear, strong, poignant, and powerful.

Each time one student was courageous enough to paint a vivid oral picture of hardship or difficulty, I could see the door open a little wider for others who had similar stories just waiting for permission to burst through the gates of life writing. I also recognized that it would be helpful to offer one of my “equal time” talks. Often in my Writing Your Life Story classes I hear a run of stories that are all about the happy times of our lives. In the middle of all those positive images of Sunday dinners with a kind, loving family as well as fun and adventurous vacations, I remind other students that if they’re really wanting or needing to write about and share with the class stories about the tougher stuff in life, their stories are just important for us to hear, too. Looking at life from “both sides now” when we write our life stories helps us all to see and ponder the many dimensions to our experiences.

So I explained this to my class, only with a different twist.

“So here we are, hearing the powerful words of life’s struggles,” I said. “Well, usually I hear a lot of happy stories and I have to remind other students that it’s perfectly okay if they find themselves writing about and wanting to share with the class their stories about the harsher parts of life too. But with YOU folks, I need to turn this around. I want to remind everyone in class who may be writing about the happy parts of life, it’s perfectly okay to write and share your stories too. In fact, we need to hear them!”

Everyone laughed. They understood. And the truth was that as our Writing Your Life Story class went on, we were weaving together a beautiful blend of dark and light, of love and loss, of hardship and triumph. And those students who were telling the hard truths about alcoholism or depression or loss or struggle were at the same time illustrating an uncanny ability to see those experiences from a different perspective. The tough stuff was also about perseverance and trust and forgiveness and wisdom. Looking at life from both sides now? You better believe it!

If you are in the process of writing your own life story, perhaps there is a message for you here. It’s not only okay but quite possibly beneficial to give voice to the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the successes and the failures. Welcome the full panorama of the landscape of your life. Show it to us in all its shapes and colors.

And maybe, as you write from both sides, you will discover something to add to the words of Joni Mitchell. She whimsically concluded that after looking at both sides through her perspective gained over time that she really didn’t know love or life at all. There’s certainly truth in that point of view. And yet could there also be truth in asserting that when we look at and write about both sides of our own lives, we might really come to know, and appreciate, our life better than we thought possible?

– Charlottesville, Virginia-based ghostwriter and personal historian Kevin Quirk has been helping men and women of all ages and backgrounds write the most meaningful stories of their lives in memoirs and autobiographies for more than 15 years. 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.”

Memoir and Autobiography Ghostwriter Kevin Quirk Savors the Naturally Therapeutic Experience of Writing Our Life Story

My wife Krista recently told me about an interview she had heard on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with J.R. Moehringer, the ghostwriter of Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open.” He had been commenting on his experience during the collaboration process with one of the biggest names in tennis. “It sounded just like you and what happens with you and your clients!” Krista said.

So I read the transcript of the interview, which gets to the book about Agassi near the end:

http://www.wbur.org/npr/163947259/sutton-americas-1920s-bank-robbing-robin-hood

I laughed. I nodded my head. And as I remembered many of my own ghostwriting clients from recent times and years gone by, I smiled and felt a wave of gratitude and appreciation for what I have witnessed and experienced in helping people tell their life stories in memoirs and autobiographies.

“It worked like therapy,” observed Moehringer, who at one point got so concerned about “playing” the role of therapist that he started reading Frued and Jung so he wouldn’t take Agassi too deep or too far. Agassi assured him that he needn’t worry, that in fact he was receiving just what he had hoped for in seeking a biographer: someone to help him make sense of the stories of his life and find the truths inside them. Moehringer was doing his part to make that happen, not through any psycholgoical expertise but simply by listening, by asking the rights kinds of questions, by being curious, and always present.

That’s how it’s worked for me with many of my ghostwriting clients. As a former journalist, I have a solid foundation in asking questions and staying curious. I also happen to have a background in counseling, with training in Psychosynthesis, a holistic and spiritual approach to personal growth and therapy founded by Roberto Assagiolo, who shared many of Jung’s beliefs. So I have a deep respect for and an understanding of the places that people visit when they begin to share meaningful stories about their lives, and I’m quite at home when their exploration may lead them to important discoveries or moments of healing. Like Moehringer, I know I am not in any professional way serving as their therapist when I interview autobiographical ghostwriting clients for hours and hours – that is not what I have been hired to do. But I also recognize that something therapeutic may well be happening for my clients just by what we’re doing together. Some of them acknowledge this unexpected benefit of telling their life story. Others may simply show it with a facial expression, or some new insight into their life, or a changed outlook or perspective. I’m often touched just to be there.

The desire to write your life story often comes from an urge to relive something important, meaningful, and perhaps dramatic or even traumatic. The motivation is often to help support, encourage and inspire others in facing comparable life challenges. In 15 years as a personal historian and memoir ghostwriter, as well as a life story book writing coach and a teacher of Writing Your Life Story classes, I’ve attracted many clients willing and often eager to share what some of us would consider things too hard to discuss: the loss of a spouse or a child, overcoming sexual abuse, battling a life-threatening disease or condition, spending time in jail, coming back from the brink of suicide, clawing a path out of addiction.

Yes, I’ve witnessed many tearful moments in the recounting of those experiences. And as a ghostwriter committed to “getting inside the skin” of those telling their life story, I often feel those deep feelings too. Yet, I’ve also been privileged to hear and see the other side: pride in what they have risen above, a commitment to help others, a reverence for the gift of life and the mysterious journey we all share. When the book collaboration process is finished, I find myself thinking that there can’t be anything more life-affirming. I am indeed very fortunate to do what I do.

I don’t worry about whether it “worked like therapy,” as Andre Agassi’s biographer put it. As a memoir and autobiography ghostwriter, I just savor the experience of being along for the ride.

– Kevin Quirk, former journalist and counselor, has been helping people of all ages and backgrounds tell the most important and meaningful stories of their lives as a memoir and autobiography ghostwriter for 15 years.

Life Story Writers Reflect on the First Presidential Election They Remember

Last week I had the opportunity to hear stories from one of my favorite October assignments in my “Writing Your Life Story” class through OLLI at UVA in Charlottesville, Virginia. I invited students to write the first thoughts that came to mind in response to this Story Spark:

“The first presidential election that I paid much attention to was…”

After the ten minutes were up, students read their accounts, and we were suddenly diving back into American political history, from a personal lens:

One student recalled how his family pretended to be Republicans in 1956 because everyone else around them were, though they secretly suppoted Adlai Stevenson in his election bid against Ike Eisenhower. Another student nodded when she heard that name Stevenson. She had written about being a little girl in ’56 and listening to her parents educate her about Eisenhower and his celebrated background in World War II, but she just could not remember who ran against him!

Another student’s first election memory was watching the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates on black-and-white TV. And for one student born in another country, the memory triggered was having a crush on Eugene McCarthy during his challenge to President Johnson in the 1968 Democratic primaries.

A native Southerner, whose memories go waaay back, transported us to 1932 and the Depression when FDR was first elected president by defeating incumbent president Herbert Hoover. His father informed him that there in eastern Kentucky he was born two things: a Democrat and a Methodist. For years he believed you could only be a part of one group if you also belonged to the other.

I always enjoy this assignment not only for the memories and historical markers that come with them but because I witness life story writers in their 60s, 70s, 80s and even their 90s connecting with vivid life experiences that make them smile – and prompt them to keep diving into the pool of memories.

So, whatever age you happen to be, and how many or how few elections you have tuned into, try this exercise now in your own exploration of writing your life story:

“The first presidential election that I paid much attention to was…”

– Kevin Quirk is the author of “Your Life Is a Book And It’s Time to Write It” and an autobiography ghostwriter who helps people of all ages and backgrounds tell the most important stories of their lives.

Memoir Ghostwriter Reminds Life Story Writers To Listen To the Book Idea They Feel Called to Write

I’ve been asked the question many times already by those who know me as an author, ghostwriter, editor and advisor who specliaizes in telling the most meaningful, life-changing experiences of our lives:

“When are you going to write your book about going around the world with Semester at Sea?”

I’ve offered varied responses: 1) Not yet, but maybe sometime after I get my feet firmly planted on land again; 2) Oh, I’ll probably start with some blogs (I’ve written one brief one) and see where I may go from there; 3) I’m not sure, but I’ll let you know when I do.

Now, still only a month after returning from 111 days at sea, I’m coming to a new answer: I might not be writing a book about sailing around the world at all, because it just may be that it’s not “my book” to write.

Oh, I’ve got stories I could tell: the cheetah thwarted by pesky birds in his attempt to hunt down some springbok on a South African safari; standing on dried and hardened human feces on a slave castle in Ghana; my mind swirling with Vietnam War images while listening to our boat engine supttering on the Mekong; Chinese men and women gathering spontaneously to sing patritic songs in a Shanghai public park that tourists seldom see; creating a walking routine on our cruise ship’s fifth deck with life boats shading out the glaring sun. But do I feel called to write a book about what I did and saw, how I felt about it, and how it might change me? When I ask that question to myself, the answer I hear is this: not this time.

I’ve heard the calling to write a memoir or life-story account at other times. When my wife Krista and I adopted our son Aibek in Kazakhstan ten years ago, I knew from the start of that experience that I would be writing a book about it all. When I was touched with awe and wonder by the first news accounts of the Miracle on the Hudson plane crash and rescue in 2009, I was sure that somehow I would write a book about the people who lived through it. And I have supported and encouraged hundreds of students and clients in honoring the call that they have heard to tell their entire life story or, as is often the case, the story of something dramatic and unforgettable that they experienced.

In my role as memoir ghostwriter, personal historian, and teacher of “Writing Your Life Story” classes, I assure them that the calling they may hear as only a whisper is quite real. When it comes, honor it. And don’t let anyone or anything get in the way. That’s what I tell them.

Sometimes, though, we have some life experience that we might think we should write a book about, or at least tell it in a detailed story as part of a memoir or autobiography. Often we hear the urging of others who say, “You’ve got to write a book about that!” But for whatever reason, we don’t share the same sense of urgency. It’s not a calling for us. And as I tell my life-writing clients and students, it’s okay to listen to that message too. It’s perfectly natural to sometimes know we could write about something but choose not to. Reasons will vary: timing, discomfort, a general disinterest. It doesn’t matter. It’s usually far more important, and useful, to notice what story you are called to write about and follow that trail. That’s the life story book theme, angle, or focus that will get you motivated to start your memoir or autobiography and provide you the foundation, or mission, to see it through. Let the other life story possibilities go, knowing that once you do heed the call to pursue what you most need to write, you may someday come back to that other idea with a different perspective.

With my Semester at Sea journey, my sense is that this expeience is someone else’s book – maybe many other people. Perhaps it’s the student from India who proudly led a “field trip” for students back to his home and family. Or the energized scholarship student conducting video interviews with people living in most or all of the countries we visited, asking them to share something meaningful that had happened to them. Or the countless students who would tell stories in our post-port reflections about the impact of witnessing poverty they had never imagined, or their gratitude for those who opened their hearts to these strangers traveling from afar. I know these students have had many a blog in them – I bet one or more has a full-fledged book brewing as well. I support them in going for it.

Similarly, I wonder if there might be a book floating around for an adminsitrator who had sailed around the world many times before but discovered something new and vital this time. Or the faculty member who embraced this first-time experience so whole-heartedly that she immediately decided to do it again. In my own household, I wonder if my wife may someday feel the pull to write a memoir about the contrast of sailing around the world as a student in 1979 and again now, a good bit later, as a staff member. And who knows what stories my ten-year-old son may feel called to tell someday, especially since he has already decided that he will sail around the world three more times at least!

If the calling to write a memoir stirs any or all of these Semester at Sea Spring 2012 voyagers I’m thinking about, or others, I sincerely hope they do indeed listen. And I will be eager to see what emerges in their life story accounts.

For me, I’ll keep listening. I’m heading to Cleveland later this week, and while others might suggest that the Clevelands of our daily life don’t carry the same potential for exotic aventure and life-stirring moments as Capetown, Beijing, or Ho Chi Minh City, I would say this: you never know. The calling to tell a compelling life experience in a memoir or autobiography can beckon us when we least expect it.

– Kevin Quirk, memoir ghostwriter, personal historian, teacher of writing your life story classes, and 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.”  Kevin is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), the Association of Ghostwriters, and the Association of Personal Historians.