The assignment was to write about their earliest memories, and the brief essays were as varied as the two men and 17 women in the Life Story Writing class at Felicia Mahood Center in West Los Angeles.
The students' ages ranged from about 40 to nearly 90, and they were learning how to chronicle their lives for themselves and for their children. Their teacher, Bernard Selling, was helping them probe the memories of years long past in a way that will make readers feel the experiences of the writers.
Some of the students in the class have been with Selling since he started it two years ago. Their early works are already typed and bound in a book entitled "Reflections."
At the second weekly session, one woman prefaced the reading of her work with the warning, "Maybe you won't believe it and maybe I don't either. Friends told me it's not possible to remember being 2 months old."
Her recollection of being nursed and swaddled by her mother at that young age triggered a lively discussion in the classroom.
The other students seemed willing and able to accept her memories. Their stories also rolled back the years to their childhoods, sometimes going as far back as the first decade of the century.
Selling talked about other students in his classes on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley. One of them is 89-year-old Vera Mellus, who has written about crossing the country in a stagecoach at the turn of the century. She has also written about acting in a 1915 Western film in Glendale.
Caecilia Faraj wrote of her mother's efforts to single-handedly build a house in Bavaria during World War II, and of her mother's death shortly after the house was completed.
John Morley wrote about his youth as a radio, stage and screen actor and of the hearing loss that ended his acting career. His memoirs, which he continues to write, gently poke fun at those who treated him unfairly, but he avoids bitterness.
Selling said the preservation of these memories is especially satisfying. His interest in autobiographical writing began at age 16, after his father died. The elder Selling, a prominent psychiatrist who held seven college degrees, was "an angry and charming man by turns; highly ethical, overbearing and accomplished," his son said.
Selling said he searched his father's letters, trying unsuccessfully to find anything that could tell him something personal about the man. He said he wishes that his father had left him the kind of memoirs that are being written in his classes.
Selling said the life story writing classes allow him to draw on his background in literature, drama and teaching. He teaches English at West Los Angeles College and for 10 years owned a company that produced educational films. Most recently, he produced a 30-minute cable television show in which class members read their works.
He now hopes to produce a one-hour show consisting of 30 minutes of readings and a dramatic presentation of one of the students' stories.
In October, Selling will lead a new class at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St. It was arranged by the center staff for its volunteers, many of whom are elderly.
Selling is teaching life story writing at Felica Mahood Center, 11338 Santa Monica Blvd., from 1 to 3 p.m. on Mondays; at Beverlywood Senior Citizen Center, 1672 La Cienega Blvd., from 1 to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays, and at Burton Chace Park, 13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey, from 1 to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays.
The free classes are offered by University Adult School, 11800 Texas Ave., West Los Angeles, (213) 477-2084.
Selling, a Venice resident, holds graduate degrees in literature from Michigan State University, and in film making from UCLA. He studied directing and acting with Lee Strasberg.