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Self Stories Writing Workshop Training Tools

The main purpose of the Self Stories workshop is to help make writing about the experiences, people, and events that have made people who they are something that is easy, enjoyable, and productive.

The workshop is structured so that over the course of eight weeks, workshop participants are tasked with a writing assignment and are then invited to read their completed work aloud to the group for feedback. Along the way, participants learn about choices that affect the quality and readability of their writing, but writing itself is not the main purpose. Rather, Self Stories© is meant to help people reflect on the past, engage in the present, accept new challenges and, through the act of sharing their work, connect with others.

Reflect on the Past

When we write about our lives, we select and connect certain events that seem to form a story. We look for causes and effects, and we reflect upon our actions and the resulting consequences. We seek to identify the people and events that influenced our decisions. Rather than being bystanders to whom life dealt this or that destiny, we assume an active role in our written work. Crafting our experiences into stories can help us make sense of our lives. When we think deeply about what we write, we often discover, as Robert Frost said, something we “didn’t know we knew.” The act of trying to get it right on the page, trying to be true and fair to everyone involved, can sometimes reveal things we never understood before.

Engage in the Present

The stories we choose to tell are often ones we think others want from us, based on the role we play in their lives, or based on what society deems significant. For example, many people describe themselves to friends, family and new acquaintances by what they did for a living, through the families they’ve raised, or by the places they’ve been. Although these are certainly important, there are many sometimes small things that have had a big influence on who we are and that never get told. These are the the small moments and interactions that changed us, for better or for worse, and these are the stories that comprise our sense of self.

Accept New Challenges

Being part of a writing workshop requires a degree of dedication and flexibility. Members of the group are asked to meet weekly deadlines, and to provide feedback to their fellow participants. This is not to say that the workshops aren’t fun. (They absolutely are!) But they also require people to be willing to experiment with new forms of expressing themselves, to listen and respond to the stories that others have written, and sometimes to feel a bit vulnerable in the process.

Connect with Others

On an individual level, participating in a writing group can provide a meaningful outlet. On a group level, engaging with others in a way that encourages dialogue can also foster a sense of community. Over the course of the workshop, members become more comfortable with each other and, as they do, they often begin to think deeply about their writing . They also often form friendships and unique bonds with others, folks they may or may not have known before the workshop. There is power in being part of a collective group with shared interests and goals and in sharing stories about one’s self with others.

What is Not Our Purpose

(or, Common Misinterpretations of Self Stories©)

It is important to know from the onset that the purpose of Self Stories© is not to focus on people with interesting experiences such as world travel, exciting jobs, brushes with fame, or other publicly noteable events. (These stories are certainly welcome, as all stories are welcome.) Instead, the purpose is to capture those small moments that make us who we are. The assumption of Self Stories© is that everyone’s life is interesting and worth telling about, even if you’ve never left the town where you grew up. Self Stories© is not about telling the best or the funniest stories. It’s about capturing the simple acts that make us human. This is done by using different forms (literary genres) of story writing to move away from the typical types of stories told in traditional memoirs, autobiographies, or life stories. Another thing that Self Stories© is not is a workshop designed to help people write an autobiography or a lengthy life narrative. Instead, it is purposefully designed to introduce participants to different ways that they can write about their experiences by experimenting with different literary genres (e.g., letters, poems) and devices (e.g., description, dialogue). Having a range of literary tools allows participants to find a comfortable distance or closeness to the stories they want to tell, not just what they think others want to hear.

Finally, the workshop is not meant to help individuals become better writers per se, although that often happens as participants become more comfortable with language. In other words, this is not a composition class. The primary focus is on the story that is revealed through writing rather than on the writing itself. Therefore, participants ranging from having no writing experience to having written professionally are all appropriate.


Scripps Self Stories

Forming a Group

Following are guidelines for forming a Self Stories© writing group.

Workshop Size

Workshops will vary in size. Limit registration to 12 people, assuming that a few will drop out or be unable to attend each meeting.  Eight is an ideal number since and will provide opportunities for discussion.  Groups of four or fewer can be challenging, especially if not everyone is comfortable with sharing their work. Depending on the availability and interest of your participants and location, workshop sessions can last 60 or 90 minutes.

Recruiting Participants

Sometimes it’s difficult to recruit the first group of participants since many people can be intimidated at first by the idea of writing. It is generally easier to recruit subsequent groups once word about the experience of participating gets out. The more you’re able to talk directly to the people who you are trying to recruit, the more likely you are to succeed.  Talking to people directly can help assure them that they 1) don’t have to have lead an “interesting” life to participate, 2) don’t need any previous writing experience and 3) they do have stories worth telling.  Consider also:

  • Listing workshops in local papers, websites and blogs;
  • Submitting a listing about the workshop to religious centers’ calendar of events sections;
  • Spreading the word through conversations with potential participants, as well as friends and colleagues;
  • Making a public announcement at an event or activity.

Be sure to stress that previous writing experience is not necessary, and that access to a computer or knowledge of spelling and grammar aren’t important. If participants cannot write due to physical impairments, offer the option of using a device such as a portable audio recorder to record their stories. 


At a minimum, you will need enough funds for folders (with pockets), pens, and copies of the writer handouts (located at the end of this manual.) It is also important to have tissues on hand since reading what one has written can be an emotional experience . If you have the resources or are planning to charge a small fee, refreshments are a nice way of building group camaraderie.


Meetings should be held in private, closed-off rooms where passersby cannot hear what’s being read. Spaces should also feel warm and inviting. A cozy, quiet meeting room will add importance and intimacy to the group setting. Other considerations:

  • Is the room handicapped accessible?
  • Is there adequate overhead light?
  • Is free parking and/or public transportation located nearby?
  • Are there restrooms near the meeting room?
  • Does the space have tables or desks for writers to take notes?
  • Is the room available 30 minutes before and after, so participants can take their time?

Facilitator’s Role

The most important credentials for a facilitator are 1) an interest in people and their stories and 2) ability to listen closely. Writing experience isn’t necessary although the facilitator should feel comfortable providing helpful comments on participants’ written work. Workshops will depend largely upon the participants who join them. All levels of writers and thinkers are welcome. Facilitators should be prepared to meet participants where they are, and understand that circumstances may change from week to week.

Much of the facilitator’s role involves balancing the dynamics of the group, especially group members who might be talkative. Decide at the beginning of the workshop how much time each person will be allowed to have to read and comment, and announce it to the group.  For example, suggest that each person can have up to 10 minutes to read their piece and receive feedback.  By having a pre-established time, it is easier to interrupt someone who is talkative.

At the end of each session, workshop participants submit their stories to the facilitator for comments. The facilitator should photocopy each story, and respond on that copy with notes, leaving a clean, original version for the writer to keep. Point out positive writing choices (“Nice image. I can see this house you describe.” or “The repetition in this passage emphasizes what a struggle this must have been”). Include comments without stifling or correcting the writer. The importance of feedback isn’t on “correcting” a person’s work.  Instead, knowing that someone has read their work seriously can be a very validating experience for the participant.

Getting Started

Important Considerations for the Workshop

It is extremely important to note that this workshop, in its current form, was developed and tested over several years. As such, there are very specific reasons why the workshop takes its current form. For example, the literary genres presented range from the most familiar (i.e., the first-person narrative) to the least familiar (i.e., third-person narratives).  As demonstrated in the examples in Week 7, even if people do write about the same experience using a different genre, the story will be very different.  Please do not change the orders of assignments and do not assign topics for people to write about.  People must always have the choice of what to write about.  Changes to the structure and content of the workshop changes its purpose.

Why Writing Can Be Intimidating and Rewarding

People often feel more vulnerable when writing a story than when telling a story. A story that is told aloud lasts only while it is spoken, and it can be told and retold in slightly different ways each time. The storyteller has the advantage of seeing his or her audience, making it possible to respond directly to questions or change the story slightly depending on reactions to it.

The writer, however, creates without knowing how the work will be received. The good writer creates without trying to imagine what other people will think. Rather, they write what comes from within. Many people feel that once they put words on paper, the story cannot be changed, but they can.

Understanding the vulnerability that people feel when putting moments of their life down on paper is an important step in thinking about the life story writing process. Experimenting with different writing forms helps participants find comfortable ways to express themselves by matching a form with an experience. For example, a form such as third-person narrative, where the story is told by someone else’s perspective (“she rather than “I”), can create a distance between the author and the event, enabling the writer to narrate a painful experience. This doesn’t mean that the story is not true just because the writer doesn’t use the word “I”.  The story is as true as it was if told by a narrating “I.” Using the pronouns of “he or she” instead of “I” can give the writer more space and allow him or her to include only the details that an outsider would perceive. This is why each workshop session explores a new genre — to provide writers will more and more tools to express themselves.

Week Course Outlines

Use this section each week along with the writer handouts. The times, discussion topics, concepts and devices are included as suggestions only. Sessions should last 60 or 90 minutes, depending on the availability and interest of participants and locations. With 90-minute sessions, plan to include one 10-minute break at the halfway point if needed. Also, try to schedule the workshop so there are no breaks, such as holidays, which would require to miss a week. It is easy for participants to lose momentum if there are numerous cancellations or changes to the schedule. At the start of each session, ask about the writing assignment for that week. How did it go? Was it easy or difficult to get started? Was is easy or difficult to think of what to write about? Ask if anyone who would like to read their piece out loud, but respect the fact that some people might not be comfortable doing so. Always allow the participants to make the choice about whether to share their stories or not. While people are reading their work, it is helpful to jot down notes about each piece so you can recall specific moments during the group discussion. After a volunteer has read his or her piece, start by asking for that person to tell a bit about why they wrote that particular story. Be sure to open the floor for group discussion as well. Start with by saying something like, “What comments do you have about this piece?” Obviously, the point is to be positive and encouraging rather than overly critical. It can be helpful to ask the group questions such as “What do you all think about the title?” or “What did you think about the descriptions?” These can be ways to bring in discussion about specifics of the story. Avoid having the group ask prying questions that are related to the piece that was written such as why the writer stayed in a troubled marriage or other overly personal details that aren’t relevant.

Session One: Introduction and First-Person Memoirs

Introduction of facilitator(s) and group members – 15 minutes

Start with a brief explanation about who you are, why you decided to start a writing group, and how you can be reached for any questions between sessions. Ask participants to say a few words about what motivated them to join. Make sure they keep it brief — there will be a chance to share more later in the session.

Course Materials – 5 minutes

Distribute notebooks and pens. Briefly discuss the workshop outline (“Each of you will be writing stories about your life, using a variety of different forms, or genres…”) and goals (“Our aim is to help you reflect on the past, and find new ways to express yourselves…”).

Ground Rules of the Workshop – 10 minutes

Explain the need to be open-minded and non-judgmental of other participants, as well as the importance of completing the workshop’s weekly assignments. Stress that confidentiality is an absolute must. Participants should feel secure that what they bring up in the workshop will not be talked about by others later. Ask each participant to sign a confidentiality agreement, which they can keep in their workshop notebook as a reminder.

Written Introductions – 10 minutes

Ask participants to write five sentences about who they are, why they are there, what they hope to accomplish, or anything else they would like to say about him or herself. Keep the instructions vague. Allow each participant to define what should be included or excluded, and what areas of their life to focus on.

Reading the Introductions – 15 minutes

Ask if there are any volunteers who would like to read their introduction. Do not pressure people to read or go around the room asking each person to read. Since people will feel the most vulnerable during the first group session, they should not be put on the spot or they may feel uncomfortable and decide to discontinue. Once introductions are read, collect them and keep them until the final workshop session, when the introductions will be returned after participants complete a similar last assignment.

In-Class Example: “The Captain’s Lady and the Tiger” – 20 minutes

Distribute hard copies of the piece, an example of a first-person memoir. Read the memoir aloud, and ask the group:

  • Without looking back, what do you remember about this piece?
  • Did you get a sense of the person writing the memoir? If so, how?
  • What does the title say about the piece? How would a different title, such as “The Boat Trip,” change the piece?

Explaining Assignment One – 5 minutes

Distribute this week’s assignment (First-person memoir: Write at least one page about a significant event in your life -- see writer handouts), and ask participants to consider a topic. If there is time, see if participants would like to share their ideas. People who do not wish to share should not be pressed to do so.

Discussing Literary Concepts

  • Briefly review the following literary concepts so that each person can think about these as they write their piece for the following week.
  • Plot – the action that the story retells; each story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end
  • First person – from the point of view of the writer, who is generally the main character; tells the story using “I”
  • Conflict – action that creates tension and interest in a story, which may result in resolution or not; in sharing a life story, writers should try to interpret events, but not invent resolutions 

Session Two: First-Person Memoirs

Discussion of Assignment One – 10 minutes 

Ask the group: Was the assignment difficult or easy, and why? How did you choose your topics? Did anyone have trouble starting, or ending? What were some of the challenges in writing a first-person memoir?

Sharing Stories & Feedback – 30 minutes 

Ask for volunteers to read their assignments. Allow participants to provide positive critique on the work by offering comments. Although it’s fine to allow people a few minutes to reminisce about places or situations described in the piece, comments should be focused on the writing itself and should not drift into comments on the writer’s personal life. Some questions to consider:

  • Without looking back, what do you remember about the piece?
  • Did you get a sense of the characters (e.g. physical descriptions, a “genuine” or honest quality in the writing)? If so, how did the author accomplish this?
  • Was the title effective and interesting?

 In-Class Example: “The Smell of Gardenias” – 15 minutes

After collecting assignments, distribute hard copies of this piece, another example of a first-person memoir. Read the memoir aloud, and ask the group:

  • Without looking back, what do you remember about this piece?
  • Did you get a sense of the person writing the memoir? If so, how?
  • How does this first-person memoir differ from “The Captain’s Lady and the Tiger”? Which one do you like better?

Explaining Assignment Two – 5 minutes

Distribute this week’s assignment (First-person memoir: Write between one and five pages about a significant event in your life). Suggest that participants focus on describing events in detail, and finding a voice that sounds real and genuine. Participants may build upon last week’s assignment or create a new story.

Discussing Literary Concepts

  • Sensory description – details that appeal to the senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch); offers readers a livelier experience
  • Voice – a specific and unique tone; a writer’s voice is his or her “stamp” or “signature” 
  • Active vs. passive voice – using action verbs (“The partners broke the agreement.”) rather than passive ones (“The agreement was broken.”) gives the subject a more significant role in the sentence

Session Three: First-Person Memoirs and Introduction to Letters

Discussion of Assignment Two – 10 minutes 

Return Assignment One with your comments. Ask the group about the current assignment: Was it difficult or easy, and why? How did this first-person memoir assignment compare to the first one? Did you like what you wrote? Were you surprised by anything you remembered?

Sharing Stories & Feedback – 30 minutes 

Ask for volunteers to read their second assignments. Allow participants to provide positive critique on the work by offering comments. Although it’s fine to allow people a few minutes to reminisce about places or situations described in the piece, comments should be focused on the writing itself and should not drift into comments on the writer’s personal life. Some questions to consider:

  • Which details in the piece stick out in your mind?
  • Are there any events or characters that you wish the writer described more thoroughly?
  • Did the story begin and end at the appropriate time?

In-Class Examples: “Letter to Myself, Revisited” and “Letter” – 15 minutes

Distribute hard copies of the pieces, examples of letters. Read the letters aloud, and ask the group:

  • Without looking back, what do you remember about this piece?
  • Did you get a sense of the person writing the letter? If so, how?
  • How does this letter differ from the first-person memoirs we’ve talked about, like “The Captain’s Lady and the Tiger”? Does the author reveal details in a different way? If so, how?
  • How does the recipient of the letter (or, the letter’s audience) affect which details are shared and how they are shared?

Explaining Assignment Three – 5 minutes

Distribute this week’s assignment (Letter: Write about an incident or event from your past in the form of a letter to someone you know or would like to know). Brainstorm topic ideas and possible letter recipients, the audience of this piece. Remind participants to choose their recipients wisely — details that emerge (or do not) depend on who is supposed to be reading.

Discussion of Literary Concepts

  • Audience – all present and future readers or listeners; writers sharing life stories should focus on expressing their past experiences and their present thoughts, opinions, and feelings as authentically as possible
  • Sentence structure – prose with varied sentence length is more interesting and easier to read; interject a short, effective sentences to grab readers’ attention
  • Starting in the middle – a trick to jump into a story in “the middle of things,” or in medias res. Rather than writing from the beginning, you begin writing when the action takes place.

Session Four: Letters and Introduction to Poetry

Discussion of Assignment Three – 10 minutes 

Return Assignment Two with your comments. Ask the group about the current assignment: Was it difficult or easy, and why? How did this genre compare to writing a first-person memoir? How did you choose who to write to? What details in your letter would you include or exclude if you were writing to a different person about the same event?

Sharing Stories & Feedback – 30 minutes 

Ask for volunteers to read their third assignments. Allow participants to provide positive critique on the work by offering comments. Although it’s fine to allow people a few minutes to reminisce about places or situations described in the piece, comments should be focused on the writing itself and should not drift into comments on the writer’s personal life. Some questions to consider:

  • How did audience affect this letter? What’s left in or left out?
  • Would this letter have changed had there been a different recipient?
  • What is the tone of the letter? Is it conversational in style or more informative?

In-Class Examples: “Let There Be Memories” and “Childhood Memories” – 15 minutes

Distribute hard copies of the pieces, examples of poems. Read the poems aloud, and ask the group:

  • What makes (or does not make) this a poem?
  • What are some of the metaphors used by the authors?
  • As a reader, what did you like or dislike about the poem?

Explaining Assignment Four – 5 minutes

Distribute this week’s assignment (Poetry: Write a poem of at least 15 lines about an incident you remember). Provide strategies for writing a poem. Participants could use repetition. For example, each line could begin with a phrase, such as “I remember,” followed by some key images. Participants could experiment with rhyme or meter, too, if they’d like, or stick with free verse. The key is to remember that poetry uses image-rich language and sensory description. Poems tend to be shorter than other types of writing, but can carry a lot of meaning in their brevity. As always, stress the importance of giving it a try — and having fun with it.

Discussing Literary Concepts

  • Repetition – repeating a word or phrase for emphasis
  • Stanza – a grouped set of lines in a poem, like a paragraph in prose; stanzas can be simple (e.g. four-line quatrains) or more complex
  • Metaphor – a way to describe one object by asserting that it is similar to another, unrelated object (e.g. Everything I did that day was an effort. I was a six-cylinder engine operating on four cylinders.)
  • Simile – a comparison similar to a metaphor, but using “like” or “as” (e.g. as brave as a lion)
  • Meter – rhythm or beat; meter adds music and dynamics to poetry

Session Five: Poetry and Introduction to Third-Person Narratives

Discussion of Assignment Four – 10 minutes 

Return Assignment Three with your comments. Ask the group about the current assignment: How was writing poetry different than the other literary forms we’ve learned so far? Was it more challenging? If so, why?

Sharing Poems & Group Poem Exercise – 30 minutes 

Ask for volunteers to read their fourth assignments. Rather than spend time critiquing and discussing this week, suggest the following group exercise that should underscore the accessibility of poetry: Have the group select a topic such as “school days” or “things I miss the most.” Use the topic as the first line of the poem, or as the title of the poem, then ask each participant to write a word or phrase related to that topic. When they are finished, put all the phrases together to form a group poem. For example:

            What I miss the most is:

                   the smell of freshly cooked bread
                   my mother
                   Paris in the winter
                   looking forward to Santa Claus

In-Class Example: “Ann’s Nursing Career” – 15 minutes

Distribute hard copies of the piece, an example of a third-person narrative. The story is true, written by a woman who found that writing about these events was too painful as a first-person memoir. The third-person perspective gave her the literary distance that she needed. Read the piece aloud, and ask the group:

  • Could you tell from whose perspective or point of view the story was being told? (e.g. an omniscient narrator, one of the characters in the story)
  • Does the piece convey a sense of setting? Do you know in what time period the piece occurred?
  • Was the title effective and interesting? If so, why?
  • Would this piece be different if written from a first-person perspective?

Explaining Assignment Five – 5 minutes

Distribute this week’s assignment (Third-person narrative: Write a story about an incident from your life using the perspective of an outside viewer). Talk about who that outside viewer might be such as a child, a pet, a stranger, or an omniscient (all seeing) narrative).

Discussing Literary Concepts

  • Third person – from an outsider’s point of view; writers can become characters in their own stories to add narrative distance, using “he” or “she” to refer to themselves
  • Omniscient narrator – told from a perspective that knows what all characters are thinking and doing at all times
  • Setting – the time, place, and conditions in which a story takes place; vivid details help show, rather than tell, readers about the environment

Session Six: Third-Person Narratives and Using Different Literary Forms

Discussion of Assignment Five – 10 minutes 

Return Assignment Four with your comments. Ask the group about the current assignment: How did writing in the third-person add narrative distance to your story? Was it difficult to imagine yourself from an outsider’s perspective? Did you write about something surprising, perhaps something you wouldn’t have revealed in the first person?

Sharing Stories & Feedback – 30 minutes 

Ask for volunteers to read their fifth assignments. Allow participants to provide positive critique on the work by offering comments. Some questions to consider:

  • Did the writer convey the setting, or a sense of time and place?
  • Were the details provided appropriate for the characters? For instance, if the story was written from a child’s perspective, does the writer remain true to the “child” by using words a child would use and making observations a child would make?
  • Did the story flow well or were there places that were confusing?
  • What would happen to this story if it were written from a first-person point of view? Would it change?

In-Class Examples: By Ellie Porter, Clyde Wehrle, Bob Harvey – 15 minutes

Distribute hard copies, examples of pieces rewritten in different literary forms. Read the pieces aloud, and ask the group:

  • How did each piece change through the use of a different literary form?
  • As a reader (or a listener), what form works best? How are the stories different based on the literary forms they take?

Explaining Assignment Six – 5 minutes

Distribute this week’s assignment (Rewrite a piece in a different literary form). Encourage participants to think about what details to include or exclude, depending on their chosen literary form. Since this exercise may be difficult for some, consider giving the alternate assignment of writing a piece in a literary form of the participant’s choice.

Session Seven: Using Different Literary Forms and Introduction to Revising

Discussion of Assignment Six – 10 minutes 

Return Assignment Five with your comments. Ask the group about the current assignment: How did the piece change when written in a different literary form? What was gained or lost?

Sharing Stories & Feedback – 30 minutes 

Ask for volunteers to read their sixth assignments. Allow participants to provide positive critique on the work by offering comments. Some questions to consider:

  • How did your piece change in its new form? How did the literary form bring about those changes?
  • Which piece do you prefer, and why?
  • Which piece do you think was more effective?

The Importance of Revising – 15 minutes

Since the act of revising is a very critical part of writing, briefly discuss ways of improving a piece, such as varying sentence length, condensing wordy sentences, or adding sensory description. If time allows, ask participants to brainstorm aloud about concepts they’ve learned over the course of the workshop, and how they might apply them to their revisions.

Explaining Assignment Seven – 5 minutes

Distribute this week’s assignment (Revise a selected piece). Ask participants to consider how they might tighten their writing or clarify their meaning. If they prefer to not rework an earlier piece, suggest that they write a new piece using a literary form of their choice.

Session Eight: Where to Go From Here

Discussion of Assignment Seven – 10 minutes 

Return Assignment Six with your comments. Ask the group about the final assignment: What were the greatest challenges in rewriting your piece? Did your changes improve the piece? Are you more or less satisfied with the revised piece than the original? Why or why not?

Sharing Stories & Feedback – 20 minutes 

Ask for volunteers to read their fifth assignments. Discuss the changes and how they affect the piece overall.

In-Class Exercise: Rewriting Introductions from Session One – 10 minutes

Repeat the introduction exercise from Session One. Before handing back the introductions that the participants wrote at the first workshop session, ask them to once again write five sentences of introduction. Just like in the original exercise, participants can choose to interpret the assignment any way they wish.

Reading the New Introduction – 10 minutes

Return the introductions written at the first workshop. After allowing participants to read what they wrote several weeks earlier, ask for volunteers to read their new introductions. Discuss how the introductions have changed, if they have.

  • Did you describe yourself differently this time around?
  • Did you include new details in the revised version? Did you exclude certain details from the first session introduction?
  • Comparing the two versions, are you surprised by anything?

Where to go from here? – 10 minutes

The conclusion of the writing workshop will inevitably lead participants to ask: “What now?” Consider your time and ability to continue to be involved moving forward. You may want to suggest that participants continue to meet on their own. If they choose to do so, you may suggest that they consider having a facilitator. This could be you, a member from the writing group, or an outside individual. Although the group doesn’t necessarily need a facilitator to continue, having a leader can help keep the sessions focused and can reduce any tension within the group. Whether they choose to continue a group, encourage them to keep on writing, to experiment with different forms, and to revise their work until it’s satisfying.

Another thing to consider is creating some kind of printed volume of their work. Even if there are little resources available, you may think about having participants turn in their favorite pieces and photocopying them for everyone. If you have access to funding, consider a self-published compilation of their work.

Weekly Writer Handouts

Weekly Writer Handouts include examples and assignments for the next week. Distribute the Weekly Writer Handout when you are ready to discuss the next week’s assignment. For example, for week one, distribute the Week One handout when you are ready to discuss the “In Class Example.” The assignment portion details what participants should prepare for the next meeting and provide them with a sample piece written by an older adult in case they need help getting started.

Session One Handout

Session One: First Person Memoir Assignment

Write at least one page or four paragraphs (no more than five pages) about a significant event in your life. For example, something that happened to you during your school days, a memory from World War Two, or a story about how a loved one touched your life. Your piece should have a beginning, middle and end.

Imagine that you are writing your story for a young student who may not be familiar with the historical events of the time. Be sure to include details that will give your reader a feeling for what life was like during the time that your story takes place. Try to answer questions the reader might have. For example: What was the year? What kind of cars were being driven? What were the prices of everyday items such as milk and gasoline? Other details to include: What do the people in your story look like? What kinds of clothes to they wear? How old are they? Any description you can provide will help the reader to “see” your story.

If you are having trouble getting started, think about how you would tell this story to a friend or family member, and simply write down what you would say. It’s not important to get it perfect the first time. Your goal should be to put your words down on paper. You’ll have plenty of time later to change things around.

Sample of assignment

The Captain’s Lady and the Tiger

by Eleanor Porter

         It is late in World War II. I have graduated from Cornell and gone to Charleston, South Carolina, with my friend Katia, because our Cornell friend, Pat Colbert, lives there with her sister in a small Charleston house on an alley. It is an interesting little city; it seems a possible place to begin independent life. And I have Katia, to take the lead. We live in a tiny exposed-beam loft over a garage. I get a job as a copywriter of ads and of filler, where Pat works, at the radio station. It is not something I want; it is just the next step — to pay one’s way in the world. The quality of the copy seems dreadful to me.

         The station wants a little patter show at the end of the day. An announcer named Allen and I are chosen. I’m a theater person, a talker; it works fairly well, though it must have been dumb. (At night, often, I am at the Footlight Players, in a play or helping at the theater.)

         A destroyer escort comes to town, with a submarine; they, the submarine and its escort, are selling war bonds, assisted by naval personnel. One is named Doc, and he is the captain of the escort — good-looking, a gentleman, what would be called normal. Allen and I do an on-air interview. In due course, Doc invites me to be on the ship for a day when it sails on, down to Savannah. The captain’s lady.

         I spend the day before in anxiety, starting with finding something in the closet to wear. Nothing is remotely right. I go aboard at dawn, and part of me is pleased, another part says, “Oh God, what am I supposed to do? What is expected? This all feels unreal, false, a terrible little one-act play, in which no one knows the lines or is joyful.” I remember sitting in the ward room, the sun blinding on the water outside the portholes, the sense of hypocrisy. “I don’t know this person at all, really.” What’s the price at the end? Sex? I don’t fear attack, nor, as it turns out, the full sharing that I come later to love and understand. I fear the awful maneuvers, the gropings, verbal and physical, to establish what is going to happen next. Behind one door is the lady, peace and the familiar; behind the other, the tiger, the whole spectrum of grown-up behavior.

         There is a party that night in Savannah at the Naval Base. I do party-talk and smile and smile, with a sense of exhaustion, with the same sense of having lost my script that I always had at school dances. We don’t stay together that night. I go back to Charleston. He visits. On the sofa in the little loft, he asks me to marry him. Was I conscious of suburban St. Louis just outside the door, of a husbandly career at Proctor and Gamble, of — nightmare — children, vulnerable bits of being needing constant care, going off to school, searing my conscience, tearing my heart? Making me feel caged, with a good, kind, boring tiger. I say these things only now. I must have simply sensed them then. Besides — how could he have the bad taste to choose me?

         He wept at my refusal. In God’s name, I must be a bad person: I am supposed to do this dance, and presumably I have done it well, and the end is a wound, a tearing, a pain.

         Good Captain, unlikely tiger, I hope you had a happy life. I would like, as a seasoned person — as one who has decided much of life is as absurd as that day was, as much a rehearsal as that day was — to thank you nonetheless for that day. It made me, for all the messy script, proud.

I salute you, who were once the enemy.

Session Two Handout

Session Two: First-Person Memoir Assignment

Write a story of between one to five pages about a significant event in your life. You may build upon last week’s assignment or create a new story. In addition to focusing on description, think about the plot of your story. Where does the story really begin and end? Are there details that could or should be left out (people or actions that aren’t relevant to the particular story being told)? Are there details missing that would provide your reader with a smoother transition (such as background information on the event or main characters)?

Sample of assignment

The Smell of Gardenias

by Bob Harvey

         Last week my wife came in from shopping carrying one of those dwarf gardenia bushes so often found in super markets. You know the type — small dark green shiny leaves, plastic pot wrapped in foil and a special water-absorbing ribbon that sags if the humidity gets above 60%, plus a couple of small cream colored flowers.

         One smell of those little blossoms transported me back 50 years to my home in Galveston, Texas. It was the fall of 1946, I was 12 years old and my hormones, while not exactly raging, were staging frequent border skirmishes. When Yvonne asked me to take her to a dance the internal battle between fledgling man and Peter Pan was bloody and without mercy. But since Yvonne was the best pitcher within a square mile and could run forever, it was more like taking one of the guys, (who was a little different), than taking a girl. Poor Peter Pan. In that one moment he lost not only the battle but the entire war. Though not dead, he would never again pose a serious threat to the new order.

         For the next two weeks my mother inundated me with rules of proper conduct. I not only had to learn what to do and what not to do, what to say and not to say, I had to learn to dance the box step. Mrs. Letz, our local florist, made me a corsage of sweet peas. She thought that sweet peas were the most appropriate flower for a girl of 13. I thought that for a $1.25 I should have gotten the Garden of Eden complete with animals.

         Since neither of our parents owned a car, the big evening found me walking to Yvonne’s. Clutching the cellophane corsage bag, dressed in my Sunday school best, strong of stride, head held high and bladder, bowels and belly threatening to void themselves at any moment, I spent the entire trip trying to find a graceful way out of this frightening situation.

         When I finally reached my destination and rang the bell, Yvonne’s father answered the door. That almost ended the evening immediately. Mr. Lang was a very large man with a craggy face and a dour expression that was accented with one eye that was slightly askew. All of the guys were afraid of him and I was no exception. However on this night he was Mr. Congeniality, doing his best to put me at ease while we waited for his daughter to make her appearance. When she finally emerged I was dumfounded. Tousled hair had become silken tresses, sweaty skin had become burnished alabaster, chapped lips had become sweet strawberries and her white strapless gown was held up by parts I didn’t even know she had.

         After the standard “oohs” and “ahs” a beaming Mrs. Lang wished us well and told us to be careful. Finally we were allowed to leave and the three of us headed for the bus. Yes I said the three of us — Yvonne, me and Mr. Lang who stayed a silent and discreet distance behind us. After dropping us off at the dance, he disappeared for the next four hours. Years later I learned that his time had been spent at the Clipper Ship Bar and Grill.

         We entered the dance through large old mahogany double doors and were immediately surrounded by girls. Yesterday I knew that girls were different; today I was learning a little of just how different. And the smells. We guys usually smelled of peanut butter, sweat, and stale urine, but these beautiful creatures smelled of scented soap, sachet and perfume. It was the heady aroma of gardenias, however, that dominated all others.

         I must have gone into sensory shock because the rest of that evening is little more than a vague memory. Not one specific incident is recallable.

         When we got home, and with her father in plain sight, Yvonne put her arms around me then kissed me slowly and gently on the lips. At that moment I was totally in love with love, women and humanity in general. I now look back on that instant not so much as the beginning of the loss of innocence, but more the realization of my own ignorance.

         Though we never became sweethearts, Yvonne and I remained good friends until she married and moved to another state. Last month we met at our 45th class reunion. She told me that she still has that little sweet pea corsage and whenever she looks at it she fondly remembers that first dance. We smiled, hugged and, after a few moments of polite conversation, went our separate ways.

Session Three Handout

Session Three: Letter Assignment

Write a story about an incident or event from your past in the form of a letter to someone you know or would like to know. This person need not be living. The letter can also be to someone such as a grandchild not yet born, a historical figure, or a group of people such as “the children of the year 2020.” The main objective is to have a defined audience to whom you are writing.

Your letter should be from one to five pages long. Remember to keep your audience in mind. What details do they need to follow your story? What is appropriate to tell them, to not tell them? Try to make a mental note of details you selectively omit. It will help you gain a deeper understanding of narrative voice and the writing process.

Samples of assignment: “Letter to Myself, Revisited”  and “Letter” 


From “Letter to Myself, Revisited”


 Dear Mary Lou,

         Do you remember what it was like to be five years old? Of course you do. That was the year when your life changed completely. That was the year the gardener called you “Molly Cotton Top” and you learned the words to the song, “Mary Lou,” especially the part about people bringing pretty presents just for you.

         You and your brother Jack and your mother and father had just moved to Houston from Burlington, Iowa. It was the fall of the year. That has always been a restless time for you. Do you suppose that’s why? Because when you were at an age that treasures grandparents and sameness and routine, suddenly none of those things were a part of your life – and you thought they never would be again.

         Do you remember when your Aunt Mamie and Uncle Ed came from Burlington for a visit? The trunk of their car was filled with apples, just as your grandma’s cellar had been, and when they raised the lid, the smell of apples permeated the warm, humid air, blending the aroma of dying magnolia blossoms and fusing the two divergent cultures of Texas and Iowa into a unifed whole for you. Do you remember what your aunt said about Houston?

         She said, “Well, it isn’t Iowa.”

Do you remember what your father said about that? Of course you do. You weren’t allowed to repeat it. But then, he didn’t like Iowa. That’s why you moved.

From “Letter”


My Dearest Husband,

         You have been gone two years, but you are always with me. Nothing is the same but I try to continue on the best way I can.

         You spoiled and protected me in so many ways. For example, at one point in their teens, each of our sons came home ill after experiencing their first indulgence of alcohol. And when I was awakened by sounds in the bathroom and came in to check, you said, “Go back to bed, honey. He just has a virus.” Naturally, I accepted that explanation and returned to bed leaving everything in your capable hands. How naive I was!

         You would be proud to know that I have become a little more independent, realizing I am on my own and must assume certain duties. You should see me replacing batteries where needed and resetting the clocks and answering machine. These are not hard chores, but nevertheless I depended on you to handle these details and you were always there for me.

         I miss your going grocery shopping for me or the two of us going together. I used to joke and say “our social life for the week.”

         It was always pleasing when you complimented my cooking, simple as it was. When we had company, you commented how good the food was and I told you not to do that in front of the guests, thereby forcing them to agree. After that, you would catch my eye, smile, and nod your head, letting me know you were pleased with the meal. Remember the time you evidently didn’t enjoy the dinner and said, “You must not be feeling so well today?” What a gentleman!

         Please know you are in my heart.

         How proud you would be of our wonderful grandchildren. They seem to be growing so fast and becoming such fine youngsters.

Your Loving Wife

Session Four Handout

Session Four: Poetry Assignment

Write a poem of at least 15 lines about an incident you remember. You may try writing a formula poem, starting each line or each group of lines with the phrase, “I remember.”

Samples of assignment


LET THERE BE MEMORIES of our daily things.
That helps me have peace remembering brings.
LET THERE BE MEMORIES of fun times and sad.
Together we shared the good and the bad.
LET THERE BE MEMORIES of your kind deeds.
Being right there when someone had needs.
LET THERE BE MEMORIES of the people you touched.
By your caring, concern, helping and such.
LET THERE BE MEMORIES of our forty-three years.
A number that surprised all of our peers.
LET THERE BE MEMORIES of all that we did.
And our two boys, each a wonderful kid.
LET THERE BE MEMORIES of our grandchildren three.
Their energy level was amazing to you and to me.
LET THERE BE MEMORIES of our songs of the past.
They will live on and continue to last.
LET THERE BE MEMORIES of your numerous dogs.
And your hunting raccoons out in the bogs.
LET THERE BE MEMORIES of your "Uncle Jack" [a reference to Jack Daniels whiskey). The enjoyment you had in the barn in the back.
LET THERE BE MEMORIES of those twinkling eyes.
Particularly when telling those little white lies.
LET THERE BE MEMORIES so you will last on.
Even though in my heart I know you are gone. 


Childhood Memories


I remember the summer evenings when I was a kid. My dad would take our family and some of our young neighborhood friends for a ride in the back of his pick-up truck.

I remember how excited we were anticipating our trip to the east end of town to W&S, a drive-in ice cream parlor.

I remember we could hardly wait to order our 5 cent scoop of sherbet. This was quite a treat for us.

I remember when we were young our parents took my brother, sister and me to the Queen Theater on Sunday afternoons to see a movie

I remember that after the movie we would go next door to the Royal Confectionery where we would sit at a small table and order our five cent cokes.

I remember as we grew a little older, once a month on Sunday evening we were taken to the Tremont Sandwich Shop to have an egg sandwich and a glass of milk, totaling 15 cent per person. Those were the days!

I remember all the fun things as far back as 70 years or so, but I can’t remember the movie I saw on TV last night.

Session Five Handout

Session Five: Third-Person Narrative Assignment

Write a story about an incident from your life using the perspective of an outside viewer. You can be the main character in the story as seen by an omniscient (all-knowing) narrator, or as seen by someone else.

For example, a third-person narrative about my life might sound something like:

The young girl sat still on the piano bench, concentrating on the piece that she would play within the next few seconds.

When I saw Kate just sitting on the piano bench with her eyes closed, I was sure she had forgotten the piece.

As you write (at least two pages), keep in mind the narrator’s point of view. Does the narrator know what your characters are thinking (omniscient point of view)? Does the narrator only know what the main character is thinking and feeling?

Sample of assignment

Ann’s Nursing Career 

         Ann surprised her head mistress upon telling her that she, in fact, had already applied to college nursing programs. Mrs. Smith, a small framed, gray haired woman doubling as head mistress and guidance counselor at the prep school Ann had attended the past four years exclaimed, "I thought you would major in something having to do with mathematics. Are you sure you want to become a nurse?"

         Ann nodded affirmatively and replied, "Yes, that is what I've always wanted."

         Neither were aware that Ann's maternal grandmother, aunt, mother and sister expected Ann to become a nurse, as they all were nurses themselves. Also, Ann's parents ran a medical facility for handicapped children. Ann just assumed from a young age that nursing was her chosen field.

         Upon admittance to college, Ann launched her nursing education. Skidmore had a four-year college program to become a registered nurse. The first and last years were on campus while the second and third years, plus the summer between, were spent nursing at the local hospital.

         The first year on campus went well. Ann had to take courses such as anatomy and physiology, chemistry and the history of nursing. The second year was very different. Ann had a rude awakening. She had lived in a town of 1600 people in and attended college for one year in another small town. The campus dorms were the homes of past residents sprinkled throughout the town, and now she was living on the 17th floor of a high-rise in the city. Not only were her living quarters different than what she had been used to but she also had to walk ten blocks of city streets to get to the hospital. Nursing began to be a challenge to Ann as she had difficulty adjusting to her new environment plus she was not excited by pharmacology and statistics, two of her courses. Besides that, her first rotation at the hospital was “Female Medicine.” That rotation was the pits. After she completed “Female Medicine,” she was assigned to “Male Surgery,” which was a little better. After that, she was sent to “Pediatrics.” However, in the spring, her assignment led her back to “Female Medicine.”

         In those days, the 1950's, most patients who were terminal were not told.   While on “Female Medicine,” Ann's assignment included a woman who was convinced she was getting better and would walk out of the hospital healed. The doctor's orders as well as the hospital's policy directed all nurses and student nurses to pretend that she would be cured. Ann felt she was lying by her silence and quiet agreement with her patient.

         The next assignment, a dying woman with numerous bedsores and suctioning needs really upset Ann. Most assignments were the same for two or three days in a row. Ann decided, after the first day, that if she were given the same assignment the following day, she would feign illness and go back to her room in the high-rise. Fortunately, Ann's supervisor noted the situation and reassigned this woman to another student. Ann sighed, "What a relief."

         During that day, Miss Knoll, the supervisor, called Ann into her office and asked, "Do you want to be a nurse?"

         Ann responded emphatically, "No."

        "I thought not." Miss Knoll said.

         Ann explained, "During Christmas break I told my parents that I had made a mistake and did not want to be a nurse. They insisted that before I made any rash decisions about switching my major, I should stick out this year."

         "Why don't you call them now and if need be, I will talk with them," Miss Knoll said.

         Ann called. After some discussion, her parents, very unhappily, said it was okay to drop out of nursing and switch to another major. Miss Knoll did not have to speak to them. That was the end of Ann's nursing career.

Session Six Handout

Session Six: Using a Different Literary Form Assignment

Rewrite one of your past assignments using a different literary form. For example, you may wish to turn one of your first-person memoirs into a poem or a letter, or a letter into a third-person narrative.

As you write, think about what details you need to include or exclude depending on what literary form you are writing in. Think about how the new form changes what you chose to say or not say about the event you are describing.

Samples of assignment

from “A Woman’s Mourning,” originally written as a 3rd-person story.

         The mourner is not young. She thinks of Mac’s head, his skull, the brain within, herself within that brain. A mush of tissue. Where was she in it?

         That brain slowed down. Perhaps a blood vessel broke. The brain’s function dimmed. What dims? When did she disappear from the gray coils, the synapses, the “stored stuff?”

         What was “she” when she was in there? How was she stored? The woman thinks: What is he, now, within my skull, moving across synapses, stored, how? Coming to me—how?

changed to “Letter to the World,” rewritten as a first-person story.

         I think of Mac’s head, his skull, the brain within, me within that brain. A must of tissue. Where was I in it?

         That brain slowed down. Perhaps a blood vessel broke. The brain’s function dimmed. What dims? When do I disappear from the gray coils, the synpases, the “stored stuff?” What was “I” when I was there? How was I stored?

         What is he, now, within my skull, moving across synapses, stored, how? Coming to me—how?

from “Listening to the Drum Beats,” originally written as a first-person story.

        One of the most memorable experiences of my mission work occurred in the little village of Chambon, population 600, located about 50 miles southeast of Port-au-Prince. The village had electricity but only a central town pump for water. People bathed and washed their clothes in the nearby irrigation ditches.

changed to “My Friend, the Bla,” rewritten as a third-person story, told from the perspective of a child in the mission where the writer performed volunteer work.

         I was only seven years old when I first saw him. He was with a group of “blahs” (white men) coming to my village to build a church. I have seen blas before, missionaries or medical teams having a clinic here. They must be very rich, all of the equipment they bring with them, and nice clothes and shoes. I’ve never had a pair of real shoes, only sandals made from a tire. They say a tire comes from a car but no car has ever been in my village.

Session Seven Handout

Session Seven: Revising Assignment

Choose a past assignment that you would like to revise. See if there are ways to tighten your writing and clarify your meaning without detracting from your narrative voice.

You may want to address questions raised in class about your piece or areas of improvement that were suggested by the facilitator. Check for passive verbs that may be changed to active. Is your title effective? Do you provide descriptions of the major characters and places in your story?