University of Nevada, Reno




Tips for Leading a Life Stories Writing Class


In 1904, Mark Twain defined the "right way to do an Autobiography" as "start it at no particular time in your life: wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it at the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime."


In our experience, Twain's observation was right on the mark.  There is no right way to write an autobiography.  However, we have found some helpful tips for leading a class of people trying to find their way into their life story.  We share them here with you.


Dr. Claudia Collins instructing a Life Stories autobiography class.
  1. As the instructor, read the autobiography curriculum used in our Health Education for Assisted Living course as a guideline (though audience/setting is different) and become familiar with the two autobiography fact sheets, Starting the Process and Creating a Family Keepsake.
  2. There is always at least one who will say, “my life isn’t that interesting.” Usually, it helps to explain that no one’s life is fascinating every minute or every day though many things contribute to the fabric of their life stories that are interesting. Wouldn’t they have been interested in their parents' written story?
  3. Keep the class discussion about the writing process and feedback on written stories. After Week 1 direct participants away from ‘storytelling’ and encourage all stories to be written, which will evolve into their family legacy and keepsake.
  4. In a class of more than 10 participants, you may need to set time limits in order for everyone to have the opportunity to share. Watch for participants who monopolize time.
  5. Always be courteous and respectful of all readers and their stories. Remember, it is their story and they will create it in their own style. Be complimentary and encouraging.
  6. As participants read their stories, ask further questions. Get the group involved in this process too as it will help with story expansion, develop new story ideas and keep up project enthusiasm. Participants often find they have some shared experiences.




"The Latest Attempt," one of the prefaces written to introduce the final form of Twain's autobiography.  Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1.  (2010)  Harriet Elinor Smith, ed.  Berkeley: University of California Press.  p. 220.