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THEY DON’T ASK a lot of questions and they don’t like to do their homework. Well, the men don’t, anyway. The women at least did it, though they wrote about something other than the assigned topic of ‘Who am I’ (Theo Pauline Nestor’s 26 Minutes exercise). I didn’t mind that. In fact, I thought it was brave and creative of my new writing students to follow their pens so early in the morning.

Canadian National Railways station in Eatonia,...

Canadian National Railways station in Eatonia, Saskatchewan

I have only had two classes at Carrington Place, a fancypants retirement residence where I now teach The Story of Your Life – Writing for Seniors. I had been thinking for a while about the idea to teach a memoir-like writing class to seniors — they have the time, the stories and, mostly, maybe, the need to write their past.

I worked at an old folk’s home in college, serving tea and eggs and wheeling residents back to their rooms, where they told me stories about marrying on a whim at 16, about the tractors that took their fingers, about the sons that died. I always hated leaving.

Now I will have every Tuesday afternoon to share with them what little I know about writing and to hear from them everything they know about life. My Tuesdays with Morty and Eileen and Phyllis and Hugh and Flo….if you will. There are 12 of them. After day two, I realize they don’t really need me.

Now I will have an hour and a half every Tuesday afternoon to share with them what little I know about writing and to hear from them everything they know about life. My Tuesdays with Morty and Eileen and Phyllis and Hugh and Flo….if you will. There are twelve of them. After day two, I have realized they don’t really need me.

You see, their stories don’t care about developing a voice or a less-is-more approach to adjectives and adverbs. Their stories don’t need to cultivate an intimate point of view or complex characters.

My students’ stories are instantly living things, pulsing on plastic tables and breathy from their travels.

My students’ stories are instantly living things, pulsing on plastic tables and breathy from their travels.

Partly, it’s because 83 years of living gives one a writing voice so sharp and candid and sure of itself that you’d never want to ‘affect’ it.

Partly, it’s because their stories are so…stark and stiff. One woman wrote about her mother, a woman who was sent on a train in 1864 from Ontario to Saskatchewan at 13 to tend house for an uncle. On her journey she carried one carpet bag and the family’s last name scribbled onto a piece of cardboard and pinned to her coat.

I’m not going to say to these students, “You know, if you’re using an adverb, you’re probably not using the best verb. If they want to write, ‘My father ran wildly toward the train…’ they can. Their style, as much as their story, is who they are.

It makes me wonder if sometimes writers try a little too hard to craft their ‘writing voice’ these days, if we’re not all a little homogenized.

I wonder, too what other ideas about writing they’ll denounce.

Anyway, I, the teacher, can’t wait for next week’s class.

What have you learned about storytelling from a senior?

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