Random Autobiography


Serves: Multitudes

Time: 10 minutes, 12 seconds

Perfect for

  • Community building and ice breaker activity for classes, meetings, retreats, Sunday school etc.

  • Creating a list of writing ideas for future story writing.

  • Growing writing love.



  • Copies of mentor text, written by me.

  • NOTE: I first learned about Random Autobiographies when I was a Fellow of the South Coast Writing Project. (THE BEST group of writing teachers ever! National Writing Project, GO!) I believe my mentors in that project learned of the idea from Kim Stafford's book, The Muses Among Us. I've also seen the same idea described by Linda Rief as a Rambling Autobiography in her books, The Quickwrite Handbook and 100 Quickwrites. Both of these resources include mentor texts, as well.


Writing Prep

1. Define random. Define autobiography.

  • Traditional autobiographies are usually chronological. Random Autobiographies are not.

2. Read mentor text aloud. I give every writer a copy. They need to hear it, see it, and take notes on it.


Lorrie Tom’s Random Autobiography

I remember saying, “I do.”

I flew in a helicopter, hiked with grizzly bears, fell out of a raft,

and crawled over rat nests in a Canadian cave. 

That was some honeymoon adventure!

I look for the moon every night.

I believe seeing a dolphin is good luck.

I used to think seeing 11:11 on the clock was good luck.

I remember my Great Grandma’s stories

about growing up on a Claremont orange ranch.

I can still feel her gentle fingers rubbing my neck

as I sat at her feet and listened.

I used to carry a red, patent leather purse everywhere.

I used to dance in front of the sliding glass door after dinner.

I remember fighting with my brother about TV shows. 

He wanted Speed Racer.  I wanted Get Smart.

I remember reading Gone With Wind on a family trip to Yellowstone. 

I couldn’t put the book down for three days. 

Missed most of the beautiful scenery.

I love the space between my two front teeth

even though dentists always want to fix it.

I used to wear high heels, but I’ve never had long fingernails.

I’m thankful for modern medicine

and the doctors who kept my little daughter alive.

I’ve learned that being a teacher means being a student, too.


3. Discuss form of text:

  • list poem with snapshot phrases or sentences from random parts of your life.

  • Don't worry about chronology (like traditional autobiographies). 

  • Don't worry about covering ALL.THE.DETAILS.

  • Be accepting of whatever comes, and let one memory inspire another.

4. Note line starters:

  • I was born in (season, month)...

  • I am told that...

  • I loved to...

  • I've held a...

  • I have seen...

  • I remember...

  • I have heard...

  • I used to...

  • I remember how it felt to...


Time to Get Cooking

1. Write a random autobiography. Writers can begin their pieces with line starters, but they are suggestions and not requirements.  They can also repeat line starters more than once. Let the last idea inspire the next one.  This is a fun way to discover surprising and forgotten stories.  This is one of the great joys of writing. 

2. Use the Quick Write  Method for 10 minutes, 12 seconds without stopping or talking.  Keep pen/pencil/keyboard moving the entire time.

  • If writers get stuck, write I’m stuck I’m stuck I’m stuck until they aren’t anymore. Cross that part out later.

  • Don’t worry about spelling.

  • NO talking or getting up or asking questions once teacher is seated and writing. 

  • Quick Write ProTips:

    • Writing fast for a short period of time helps writers outrun the inner voice that says, “You can’t write.  You are bad at this!” Tell your students this very thing!  Continue with, “We’re in this together.  We don’t have time to listen to that nasty voice. Let’s go for it!”

    • I always say something like, “Scientists have determined that the perfect amount of time for this piece is 10 minutes 12 seconds.” The accuracy of that data is a lie, but honestly, time’s up when I finish writing my piece! Often, I give students a one minute warning – and then ask, “Does anyone need just a bit more time?” Then, I tack on a bit more time.

    • I slowly get to a writing spot (often strategically near someone I know will be struggling or disrupting) and I say, “Darlings, when my pen hits the paper, it will be silent in here cuz I’ve got some hard thinking to do in the next 12 minutes and 13 seconds! I need to think!” (Of course, someone will need to barf or the principal will make an announcement at that very moment, but I digress!) Show the kids that nothing is more important in that moment than writing.

    • I always write with my students, and drumroll, I hope you do, too. On days when I was just too tired, I might have written a grocery list, but I always wrote something. It will change everything. Promise.

    • “Oh…Mrs. Tom, you’re so mean. I really can’t ask another question?” Nope. Interruptions ruin the writing mojo. And I say, “Trust yourself as a writer. You can answer your own questions…at least for the next 12 minutes and 13 seconds.”


Share Your Words

1. When writers are done (or even if they aren’t), do SAYBACK sharing with a partner, or a small group.

  • In SAYBACK, writer reads his/her piece ALOUD and listener says back what they heard as a golden line, using the exact same wording in the writer’s piece. That’s it. No suggestions. No corrections. Celebrate a phrase or sentence that’s great (i.e. a golden line) and move on.

  • And don’t just switch papers and READ the writer’s piece. Listen to the writer read his/her piece. The writer needs to feel and hear the sound of his/her words out loud. This is one of the best ways to notice what’s working and/or not working in the piece.

2.  Then, ask every writer to select one golden line from his/her piece and write it on an index card.

3.  For sharing the golden lines, do a Golden Line Mixer and/or Snake Sharing.

  • Golden Line Mixer: When you say, “Go,” writers get up with their index cards and walk to another person in the class. One person says, “Hi, my name is _____. Here is my golden line: ________.” Then, the other person shares his/her name and golden line. Then, they both move to other writers in the class. When you say, “Stop,” writers go back to their seats.

  • Snake Sharing: Every writer picks one golden line from his/her piece. Writers stay in their seats. Then, pick a starting person and an ending person in whatever way you like. Next, point to everyone else in the class (connecting all the other writers like a big ole snake). The starting person reads Room #’s (or Troop 1234's etc.) Random Autobiography + his/her golden line on the index card. Then, everyone just reads his/her line when it’s their turn so the piece sounds like one giant poem. This is a technique I recycle a lot!

4. Collect golden lines on index cards and type one giant poem called Room #’s (or whatever works) Random Autobiography.

  • Arrange lines in an order that makes sense, paying special attention to writing that sounds like good first and last lines. Be sure to include your golden line, too. Type everyone’s golden lines so you have one giant class poem. I title these Room #’s Random Autobiography.

  • Sample HERE.

5. If time permits, here are some other sharing options:       

  • Have individuals read their entire piece and then do SAYBACK response. If you’re feeling daring, note what the writer DID to make listeners pay attention to the line. You can even make up a name for the technique as a group.

  • Say to the writer who is sharing, “Hey, that thing you did in your golden line…you could do that again in another piece. You’re already doing that really well.”

  • Then, tell the rest of your group, “Hey, you can borrow Bob’s golden line idea and do that in your own writing, too. I might do it in my next piece! Wowza, good writing is contagious!”

  • Or, take the Room #’s Random Autobiography (the one with everyone's golden lines) and give every writer a copy. Have them secretly underline a golden line that isn’t their own. (Often, I make a version that doesn’t have names after lines so it’s a little bit anonymous!). SNAKE SHARE. If there are repeated lines, have a discussion. What did the writer do to get your attention? Could you do that in your own writing, too?


Making It Pretty

1. Link to post explaining art project for this piece.  


2.. A note about editing and revision for this first piece of the year:

  • I don’t focus on revision and editing for this piece if I’m doing it at the beginning of the year. Bottom line – I edit the golden lines on the index cards for spelling and punctuation.

  • If needed, I might do a quick conference with individual students if their lines don’t make sense or feel flat.

  • My goal is to get their stories in the room, create community, get something on the walls for Back-to-School Night, and begin to teach classroom writing procedures that will carry us through the year. (Revision and editing resources can be found in the Reuse and Recycle Resource.)


In my Random Autobiography, I wrote about surviving a guided exploration of Rat's Nest Cave in Canada on my honeymoon. It's also the day after I flew out of the raft in a class IV rapid on the Kicking Horse River (we renamed it the Kicking Ass River, but I digress).

Rats Nest Cave.jpg

Thank goodness my beloved took our til death do us part vows seriously and pulled me out of the rushing water.

Each and every time I begin working with a new group of writers, I always start with Random Autobiographies.

Over the years, I've written about 30 of these babies, and I always seem to include lines about our honeymoon and my Great Grandma Azile.  But, I'm also surprised by the discovery of forgotten memories that feel new.  And that surprise translates into interest.  And interest leads to enthusiasm, and that's where I want to meet  writers so we can begin falling in love with writing. Fast.

So, writers, are you up for it?  Write one. Write another. If you're really bold, send me a copy.  I'd love to write back and tell you the lines I love!  Below, you'll find enough printable goodies to keep you inspired for a hot teaching minute.  Enjoy.

Always writing,