tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Take the time to write your story

I like reading books about other people; it is not so important to me whether they are famous, just that they have a story to tell. And everybody does.

For a long time, I have been encouraging people to write their stories down. Everyone who has any inclination to write should take the time to consider their own life and write about it. The reaction I typically get when I suggest that someone record their life’s story is that their life is uninteresting. They say things like, “Who would want to read about my life?”

This question misses the point. It is true that when we read an autobiography or a memoir that we learn something about the person who wrote the book, and there is value in that. But the real reason to read such a book is for the reader to learn something about himself. If there is something in the book that the reader can identify with, can relate to, then the reader will learn something about himself. This is why books by ordinary people are so important. Books written by rock stars, actors, politicians or big time CEOs offer little that is relative to my life. A book written by an ordinary person, who has common struggles with a spouse and a boss and his kids – now that’s a book I will be able to relate to.

There are at least three very important audiences that can benefit from a story written by an ordinary person. The first audience is your immediate family and friends. Your closest circle of acquaintances will be interested in your story and they will read your work. Most will probably be grateful to learn a little more about you.

Several years ago, I had an opportunity to listen to a speech delivered by an astronaut, Jerry Linenger. He had spent five months aboard a Soviet space station. He nearly died several times. There were fires on board, and the oxygen went bad, and he had several very difficult experiences. He said he thought he was going to die at least a half dozen times. In the middle of his first emergency, he thought about his wife and children on earth, and lamented the fact that he had never shared with them his dreams for their future. He promised himself that if he ever made it back to earth, he would write down his hopes and dreams for his children and family. And he would attempt to articulate his deep love for his wife and children. He did return to earth and he did write those things down. They were compiled into a book, called “Off The Planet.”

It shouldn’t take a life-threatening incident for us to realize the importance of recording our thoughts about our love for family. Wouldn’t it be sad if you died and your kids actually weren’t quite sure what you thought of them? So I say, don’t risk that. Write down what your kids mean to you so there is never any question, even after you are gone.

The second important audience for your story is future historians. At some point in the future, people will look back to life in the early 21st century and they are going to try to figure out what life was like then. How will they do that? Typically, they will go to the newspapers and magazines of the time. But do you think that will give them an accurate portrayal of life today? I know when I read the newspapers, I generally think there is nothing in them that has anything to do with my life. Stories about terrorists and criminals and popular trends that seems strange to me, don’t say anything about the life I’m living. If historians are going to get a glimpse of life as I know it, I am going to have to tell them what it was like. I cannot leave that task up to the media.

My daughter loves to read the “Little House of the Prairie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Those are good books because they are written from the perspective of an ordinary person dealing with the ordinary struggles of her day – getting food, settling in a home, Pa earning a living, going to school, dealing with illness. These are universal, timeless struggles that are common to nearly all people. It was interesting when Ingalls Wilder wrote about it and it will be interesting if you write about it.

But who cares what historians think? Why is that important?

Historians don’t just look at the past for fun. The reason you look into the past is so you can see into the future. Someone once said that the farther you can see into the past, the farther you can see into the future. I believe that is exactly correct. The more we can understand about our past, the more we will be able to understand the things that are yet to come. And as a corollary, I would postulate that the more accurately we can see into the past, the more accurately we can see into the future. And if historians are going to get an accurate picture about life in the early 21st century, then you need to write your story.

The final audience that really needs to read the story of your life is you. Yes, you need to read your own story. You may think you know your story, but I guarantee you will know yourself even better if you take the time to think about your life, define your story, and write it down.

You might ask, “How do I start? Writing a book seems like a big challenge; where do I begin?”

When I wrote “Emerging Son,” I started by journaling. I didn’t worry so much about what I was writing, I just wrote. I bought a notebook at a drugstore and every day I would write a page or two. I ended up filling three notebooks. I would think back to my childhood and write down everything I could remember. I described the neighborhood I grew up in, I wrote about the friends I had back then, and I wrote about our life in our little house in South Minneapolis. I didn’t worry about whether I wrote the stories in chronological order, or whether I spelled everyone’s name correctly. I just wanted to get a rough sketch of my various memories written down.

Then I wrote down the things I remembered from being a teenager, and the things I remembered from being in college. I wrote with the idea that nobody was ever going to see my notebook, so I just wrote whatever came to mind, without worrying about whether I was being mean or uncharitable. As I wrote about the more recent years in my life, there seemed to be more to write down. Perhaps that was simply because it was easier to remember. After about a year, I had a lot of information, more than I’d ever be able to use. It was jumbled and sloppy, but it was a starting point.

Then I started another journaling exercise. Instead of writing about the things I did, I wrote about the things I thought. For example, I would consider my relationship with various family members and friends, and write about them. I asked myself questions, such as “How do I distinguish good from evil?” “What do I think will happen to me after I die?” and “What does God mean in my life?”

These questions are important because I believe that intuitively everyone deals with these questions at some point in their life. Some people deal with them by choosing not to answer. But these questions are inescapable and I think any meaningful story about a person’s life needs to touch on these areas to some extent. If I read a whole autobiography and the author never once mentions God or anything spiritual or something to do with his mortality, then I consider the book to be rather shallow. I am not looking for a sermon, but I do want to know how the person dealt with these questions, the same way I want to know how they dealt with love, disappointment, sorrow and all the other things that are common to the human experience.

Once all this is written down, then it is a matter of going back and reading the material and seeing what is there. At this point, you are looking for trends. You are looking to find a common thread through these journal entries.

At this point, the writer has the advantage of hindsight. There are a lot of things a person can see looking back that were not obvious at the time. By looking back on history, by looking back at seemingly unrelated anecdotes, you may find the real story. You may find that incidents are related in powerful ways – ways that could only be apparent from the perspective of several years later.

Let me offer an example of what I mean. In the early 1930s, a young British politician came to New York to deliver a speech. In the evening, he was getting out of a taxicab. He got out on the street side instead of the sidewalk side. As he stepped out of the cab, another car came barreling along and knocked him over, taking the door off the cab. The politician was hospitalized and very seriously injured.

Months later, the president of the United States was riding in an open car during a parade in Miami. At one point during the parade, a woman in the crowd raised her arm. She was holding a handgun. She shot at the president from point blank range, but just as she was pulling the trigger, someone else in the crowd bumped her hand and her aim was disrupted. She missed the president and hit instead another passenger in the car.

These two incidents seem entirely unrelated, until you know that the British politician was Winston Churchill and the U.S. President was Franklin Roosevelt, two men who would form a unique friendship and lead the Western World through the Second World War. What would have happened if that car had killed Churchill in New York? How would the world be different today if the assassin had succeeded in Miami? These are big questions to ponder, but we only know to ponder them by looking back at history.

In your own life, certain incidents may take on entire new meaning when you look back on them and pair them up with other incidents in your life.

Ultimately, what you want to do is look at the different things in your life and order them in a story format, with a beginning, middle and end. There should be a certain build-up to a crucial question that gets resolved near the end of the story. A book is not just a collection of unrelated anecdotes. There should be an overall story. There should be a narrative that walks a reader through the story of your life.

Writers often talk about “finding the narrative.” That means defining the story. This can be the most difficult part of the whole project. But if you have written down stories from your memory and your answers to life’s common questions, you will have the building blocks of your story. It is now a matter of you building the story. How do you see the blocks coming together?

I wrote “Emerging Son” at age 40, and sometimes people ask me about writing a memoir at mid life. What does a 40-year-old know? That’s a fair question, and I am not claiming any special knowledge, especially at a relatively young age. But I do think mid-life work is very important, especially for the writer. At 40, I am still young enough so that if I look at my story and decide I don’t like it, I can still change it. I am still young enough that I will likely have some time to change my story to what I want it to be.

I think of that movie, “About Schmidt,” in which Jack Nicholson plays a retired insurance man who tries to patch up some troubled spots in his life. He waits until his retirement, until after his wife dies, to try to make things better. What he discovers is that it is too late. So it is important for us to consider our stories, to look at our life, at a point in time when we still have the opportunity to make some changes if we need to.

Taking time to examine your own story to the point where you are willing to make changes in your life, requires a certain amount of humility. Humility is accepting the fact that you don’t know everything; you admit you are not perfect, and you attempt to make improvements in your life. I think it is very interesting that in Jim Collins’ book, “Good to Great,” he talks about the importance of humility. Collins looks at companies that perform exceptionally over a long period of time. He looks at those companies and compares them to everyone else and tries to identify the keys to their success.

When Collins looked at the CEO of the really successful companies, he found several things. One of the things he found was that those CEOs, universally, were humble. They were not big-ego blowhards. He says they “display a compelling modesty, are self-effacing and understated. In contrast, two-thirds of the comparison companies had leaders with gargantuan personal egos that contributed to the demise or continued mediocrity of the company.”

Humility is a characteristic anyone can cultivate within themselves. Sure, some people are born with it more than others, but I believe most people can develop a strong sense of humility. It starts with self-awareness.

Self-awareness is at the heart of something called “emotional intelligence.” This is a concept that has found a lot of favor in the business community in the last decade. It is basically a way of measuring a person’s ability to relate to others. Great leaders generally have very high emotional intelligence. The good news is, emotional intelligence – unlike an intelligence quotient -- can be improved with study and practice.

Leadership and good business management is a matter of connecting with people. In order to connect with others, you have to first be able to connect with yourself.

Writing down your story is a way to define your life, articulate the things in your life that are important to you, and highlight the path that your life is taking. Others will benefit from your willingness to share your story. And you will benefit enormously from seriously considering your own story.

1 comment:

kim said...

I printed this entire column for my mother to read. She has some fantastic stories, but struggles to get them on paper. I found a few handwritten stories in her drawer the last time I was home so I know she is working on it. I also have a tape recording of her telling some of them one evening. I wish I could have a professional help her get it all down. Any suggestions?