Sunday, August 2, 2009

On Teaching Memoir Writing to Senior Citizens

As my colleagues and students will tell you, I don’t like teaching those in graduate school. They remind me too much of myself: desperate and cynical and sincere (a deadly combo). They’re typically very sweet as well, but I know, as they do, that they can glide through the program and be quite fine on their own. Teaching graduate students for most people is a sign of status, of teaching people who are more serious." I wish I found those beliefs to be true.

I much prefer to teach non-creative writing majors in introductory classes. They are excited to learn. Yes, I do confess: I love teaching freshman composition, especially first semester. They transmit exhilarating nervous energy.

Teaching prisons inmates, AIDS patients, illiterate people, and the elderly make me happy, too. I’ve done each one with varying success.

I would like to emphasize that I state my teaching of marginalized people in a completely unromantic way. My goal here is not to boast my own humanitarianism, selling myself as a charitable person. I’m quite selfish, and this act is selfish, too. I like to feel of use. I’ve always reached the worst states of depression when I have rendered my life purposeless. Teaching people who are at different crossroads in their lives than me reminds me that as an artist and a teacher I have something to give.

As a childless gay man, one who would never adopt a child, I find the fulfillment of this need important. A lot of heterosexuals live for their kids; a straight friend recently said, “Well, you have your writing.”

Any person who says that giving birth to a baby is like the writing of a book is an asshole. A book sits around your apartment, collecting dust. So can a baby. But at least it whines occasionally, reminding you that there is something else in the universe other than yourself.

About a week ago, I taught a workshop to predominately senior citizens in Sedona, Arizona at the Well-Red Coyote, one of the most amazing independent bookstores I've visited. I had a lot of fun. Its focus: how to begin writing a memoir. It was to last a strict hour and a half; twenty people were there for the class. I want to list some things I did to keep things running fairly smoothly. A friend of mine wants “tips” so here they are:

1.) Do NOT spend all the time talking about all your accomplishments.. You’re there to teach them. If you do a good job, they’ll approach you afterwards. Be as brief as possible. At the same time, you do need to establish some authority. So do say some things. But monitor yourself closely.

2.) Make your workshop revolves around a writerly anxiety. This workshop focused on the panic one feels when confronting the blank page as you begin a memoir.

3.) Everyone’s nervous at a workshop and wants to impress everyone else (including yourself). Say the word anxiety. Share a brief anecdote about your own. It makes people feel more comfortable. Confess that the reason you choose the topic is because it is one that plagues you. You’ll get a chuckle.

4.) Give them a writing exercise that restricts how much they can write. Otherwise they will write a lot and want to share everything they wrote. Who can blame them? If people though continue to read beyond a certain point, it will take away time from other deserving participants.

5.) I emphasized in the workshop that you shouldn’t edit yourself as you write your book. You shouldn’t try to write in a linear narrative. And most importantly, do not worry about closure. Things don’t have to come circle. When you get bored, stop. You're writing a draft after all. It doesn't need to make sense.

6.) This is the actual writing exercise I did:

I asked them to write down a significant person, place, and thing from their own life on a piece of paper. You give them 3 minutes to do that. Tell them the odder the person, place, and thing, the better is. I emphasized briefly the necessity of idiosyncrasy. Not a living room table. But an abacus. Not Mom or Dad. But a creep next door neighbor. Not a Florida beach house. But a Milwaukee bomb shelter.

Then I told them to write no more, absolutely no more than 5 sentences on each person, place, thing. Someone inevitably said, “But I can’t say anything in five sentences.” This is a good thing. “Fine,” I said, “You won’t be able to say everything. It doesn’t matter. I just want you to stop anyway.”

Five sentences each, fifteen sentences total may not seem like a lot. Trust me the sentences will be long and they will make them count.

Do not let them write more than five sentences for each. This is key. This is not an exercise in which they should be sharing their entire life story. They should leave the workshop with some “stuff.” Not an entire draft. Even more importantly, you need to have time for everyone to share.

After they wrote their paragraphs, I told them I wanted them to choose the best their best and we’d discuss it. I had 20 students. If you have less, you may want to have them read the two aloud.

Before they presented, I said “I want us all to think of two things to say.” Then I named that two things: 1.) What word, or phrase, or image strikes you as something that is truly unique 2.) Based on what you just heard, what would you to hear about next? This forces everyone to focus their attention. Their comments were precise, kind, and generous. Make sure you say something about each person's. No matter how brief. Everyone wants input from the teacher. Even if you know your students are saying smarter things than you.

7.) Most importantly: Be affirmative. They are trying to get stuff down on the page. They don’t need any negativity.

8.) Really do be affirmative. There’s no reason not to be. They’re accomplishing their goal: to get something down on the page. For a writer of any age that’s the most difficult step of all.


  1. I once wrote a series of haiku about a situation going on that was causing me a lot of pain. Because I had to really think about what I was saying in order to make the story fit the strict parameters, I of course had to examine the situation very closely. It was much more cathartic than my usual word salad. I should so that more often.

  2. Rather, I should DO that more often.

  3. These are excellent guidelines for running a writing workshop. I especially like the advice to make them stop writing afer 5 lines. So many workshops want to be the place of completion as well as initiation. But if that is actually accomplished, it doesn't help people find pathways to continue writing. If you help them open up an idea and then stop short of fully articulating it, they won't have a problem the next time they sit down to a blank page, they'll be more like "oh my god, FINALLY I can finish this thought." I would never have completed my dissertation if I had not discovered this approach of strategic repression.

  4. that was really nice to read this .. that was really great to read this .. that was nice written and explained... great job.. for more information regarding Pittsburgh memoir writing, Pittsburgh storytelling, Pittsburgh corporate communication u can visit

  5. I am doing a workshop for seniors on memoir writing for the first time. Thank you for these excellent suggestions. :)

  6. Thank you so much for this post.

    I teach creative writing to seniors at senior centers and retirement communities, and I love it. I appreciate (and agree with) your tips.

    I'm thrilled to connect with someone else who has had this experience. Have you taught seniors since then?

  7. Hello,
    I have recently published a website that is designed to allow elderly people to record memories from their life. The site allows the user to invite family and friends to add comments and pictures to the memoirs. The site is completely free. We are currently working with the Library of Congress to preserve these stories for future generations.
    I am creating a links page on the site and was wondering if you would like to share links?
    The site is


  8. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I just wonder if you have any thoughts to share on retirement? I've found this long island retirement community and I am hoping that perhaps you can give me some of your opinion about the community.

  9. The black background on your pageis too hard for my senior eyes to read through your writing. After reading two lines I could not read any more so I quit.

  10. Same issue - lost me at the background. After a few seconds I couldn't read anymore. Looked interesting too.

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