Ten Years of Lessons about Lifestory Writing, Part 1


As I consider lessons I’ve learned about the heart of lifestory writing, I think back to the first class I taught for the Carnegie Mellon University Osher Program ten years ago. I’d taught several classes on this topic before without qualms. But here . . . at Carnegie Mellon . . .  ropes of anxiety bound my chest. My Inner Critic exploded to life:

What do you really know? What are YOU doing in these hallowed halls? You might bluff your way through a Senior Center class, but this is CARNEGIE MELLON. They expect the best. They expect EXPERTISE!

In case that wasn’t enough, within minutes one woman in that first class boldly announced that she had just graduated from the University of Pittsburgh’s nationally renowned MFA program in creative non-fiction.

You’re screwed! She knows more than you do, and she’ll know you’re a fake. Quick! Run out of the room RIGHT NOW! Go home and don’t answer the phone for a year.

I’m not a quitter! I’ll give it my best shot, and we’ll see where it goes. Besides, with that one possible exception, I know more about lifestory writing than anyone in this room, and that’s something. 

Taking a deep breath, I plunged in. I was weeks away from the official release date for The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, published by Lighthouse Point Press. I knew quite a lot, but Inner Critics are hard to placate or silence. I took a deep breath and plunged in after explaining that although I knew a lot, I didn’t know everything, that I continued to learn more, and we’d all learn from each other.

The class went well. CMU Osher invited me to teach again. And again. Eventually I also taught for the University of Pittsburgh Osher LLI program, across Panther Hollow from CMU. Teaching for the Osher programs at CMU and Pitt are among my most treasured memories of the years I spent in Pittsburgh. I’d always dreamed of teaching at an esteemed university. That dream came true in an unexpected and welcome way. As classes progressed, some students were new, but many returned, time after time. “I don’t write when I’m not in a class, and I always learn something new in yours.”

Well, yes. They learned something new because I continue to learn something new and share what I learn. May that always be so! Much of what I learned came from reading their stories with them. I recently stopped to survey what I’ve learned over the past ten years. Some lessons come from experience and others from newly published research. It’s challenging to sort them into a linear list, because many are intertwined, but I’ve given it my best shot and you can read the first four of ten items on the list below:

1) You don’t learn this stuff all at once — I began with piles of short stories. I polished them as well as I knew how. And I kept reading and writing and revising. I learned about scenes and story arc and building stronger connection with readers. I discovered that the more I wrote, the more perspective I gained on life and myself. What a bonus! The adventure continues, and I hope I never quit learning.

2) You don’t learn this stuff alone – I’m more firmly convinced than ever that writing is best done as a collaborative, team sport. You can improve your writing by yourself, but you’ll learn more and learn faster in a class or a writing group. At the very least, find some trusted critique partners online.

3) One of the best ways to improve your writing is to read – Painters study works of the masters to learn technique. Writers can do the same thing. Find fiction or memoir writers you love and pay attention to how they structure stories and use words to pull you in. Read voraciously and constantly. Join a book group.

4) Importance of clear purpose and focus — I learned this more deeply from reading students’ stories than my own. Some stories seemed to ramble without any point. “What are you trying to tell us? What’s the most important thing you want readers to remember?” I ask. They get it.

To be continued in the next post.

By the way, that MFA grad? I quickly discovered that she had not covered this subject in her studies. Furthermore, I couldn’t tell from her stories that she’d ever had a class of any sort. Who knows? Moral of that story? Never make assumptions! Claim whatever power you have and forge ahead.

What writing life lessons have you learned? I invite you to share in a comment.


Linda M Kurth said...

I learned that when I thought I'd completed the story, I had only begun.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Beautiful lesson Linda. And ain't that the truth!

Anonymous said...

When my writing group didn't gasp in horror and run out the door after I read a story about the beatings I got from my mother and then my other. They were pretty awful. I mean the beatings and the stories both. But people in the group gave me hugs and said they'd wondered when I'd get around to writing about what was really isnide me. So I learned that it's okay to write about deep dark secrets and people will love you more when you do. I'm still not brave enough to let my family read those stories, but maybe someday. I know I'll never get in a relationship like that again. Not ever. I'm not ready to go pulbic with this, so anonymous will have to do.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Dear Anonymous, thank you for your deep honesty, here and in your writing group. I hope you'll keep writing and learning. You know the value of writing even when nobody outside your inner circle (maybe nobody at all) reads it. You are writing for YOU! Many blessings as your writing continues to flush out that old stuff and make room for love and joy.

Amber Starfire said...

I have learned that being consistent (i.e. writing at the appointed time) and persistent (keep digging, keep revising, keep crafting) are the two most important qualities for making progress in one's writing. That, and to ignore the negative inner critic.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks Amber. I should probably take a cue from your consistent lesson. Persistent? Yes! And I would not have thought to highlight that, so thank you for shining the light in that direction. I suppose in my case, I'm more persistent than consistent, LOL.

Audrey D. said...


I so appreciate you sharing, even as an expert, that your inner critic voice still visits. And, I've observed from reading your posts on other's blogs and here on the NAMW, that you have both strong expertise and deep wisdom. Your wisdom sees what is needed beyond the form.

In your point #1, you mentioned that "you don't learn this all at once." I have been planning, reflecting, writing scenes, getting up from my bed at night to write down a memory or a thought for my memoir for 4-5 years. I'm only half way through my memoir writing. Then, a few weeks ago, I had a flash of insight about the inner story, i.e. what fueled my social justice activism (the external story). On one level it was obvious, but I recognized it in a new way. This insight is a "golden thread" of my story. It will now require more re-writing. And, I hope it will give more value to the reader.

Writing has been a part of my academic and business life for decades.I have always been recognized as a very good writer. Yet, memoir writing holds many new challenges. Thank you for sharing both your expertise and wisdom.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Aw shucks Audrey, I blush at your kind words. Congratulations all over the place for finding your Golden Thread. That thread is so finely spun that few even know it exists. It has not gotten wide press, as far as I'm aware. But for all its near invisibility, it's strong as spider web silk and will carry your story through to its intended destination.