“Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is that it allows you to come to terms with your life narrative. It also allows you to work through some of life’s hardest knocks – loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure – and to find understanding and solace.” – William Zinsser
A recent post on the Association of Personal Historians (APH) listserv reminded me again of how valuable life story writing is to the person doing the remembering and the writing. As personal historians we often emphasize the importance of leaving a legacy for family and friends – and, certainly, chronicling life stories does that. But, perhaps, just as importantly, the life review that is part of any life story writing provides remarkable gifts, in the here and now, for the writer. If you undertake a concentrated life review, you are likely to gain a greater ability to find continuity amid the apparent chaos and rapid changes of your life. You will also probably garner an appreciation of the resourcefulness you’ve exhibited as you’ve navigated life’s ups and downs. Life review will doubtlessly provide you with a sound understanding of how you came to be where you are in life which, in turn, will provide you with a well founded base upon which to explore alternative directions for the future.
Remembering and sharing our memories is not just about our past lives. It is very much about how we view our present and our future. When we revisit our past, we often come to see things in a different light or from a broader perspective.
My APH colleague, Paula Stahel, was addressing this point when she shared a quote from a soon-to-be-released personal history book entitled “Thriving in the Care of Many Mothers”. In the forward, the author states:
“Occasionally I would tell my children something from my past, but my feeling was that I should not dwell on what happened a long time ago, as the past was irreversible. Rather, I needed to concentrate on the present and try to plan for the future. . .Now I no longer feel that the past should be left well alone, but that it has a place in helping me understand myself today. This retrospection has allowed me to see many past events in a new light, and has helped color how I view myself now, and how I hope to evolve in the future.” -Rosemary Bore
With the selection of Russian oral historian Svetlana Alexievich for the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Nobel committee has given recognition and a huge stamp of approval to the work done by personal historians everywhere. Through this decision, the committee has also recognized the importance of capturing the life stories of ordinary people as part of the broader historical record.
Ms. Alexievich has, over the years, conducted thousands of interviews aimed at capturing the stories of average Russians caught up in extraordinary events such as soldiers in Afghanistan, Russian children in World War II, survivors of the Chernobyl disaster. Through these highly individual stories, she elicits the broader story of the larger event and shines a light on the human side of these events.
We must remember that all life stories, to some extent, achieve this same outcome. We take for granted the details of our lives, but they are all part of a broader history. We have all lived through historical events which affected and shaped us. We must not take our “ordinary” lives for granted. Each life is unique in the river of time yet each of us is a reflection of a historically unique experience. Our stories are an important, both for ourselves and our families, but also for the historical record of our times.
Thank you to the Nobel Prize Committee for recognizing a writer who has devoted her life to capturing the unique and personal stories that reflect the times in which these people lived. And, of course, thank you to Ms. Alexievich for her important work.
Recently, there has been considerable discussion amongst people in the personal history realm about the subject of legacy letters (sometimes called ethical wills). What are these? Basically, they are documents in which individuals share the important values, lessons, and stories they wish to pass on to those who are important in their lives. Such documents may well become the most cherished and meaningful gifts a person can give to family, friends or community.
What is the point of legacy writing? Rachael Freed, who wrote a book titled “Your Legacy Matters – Harvesting the Love and Lessons of your life” (MinervaPress, 2013) sums it up nicely when she says:
“Reflecting on, clarifying, and documenting a legacy is an important component of a life well lived. Its major purpose is to gather, preserve, and communicate values, wisdom, and love for future generations. Components may include family history and story, values and life-lessons, blessings and gratitude, appreciation and love.”
Many of my personal history colleagues offer workshops to assist individuals to begin the process of reflecting on, clarifying and documenting their legacies. In this same vein, I will be offering a short, three session workshop entitled Documenting Your Legacy of Wisdom, through UVic Continuing Studies. This workshop will start on November 14th. Details are available in the UVic Continuing Studies calendar (p. 15) or at
This will be the first time I have offered this workshop and I am truly looking forward to it.
I have recently become aware of an UK based organization called the Forgiveness Project that uses real life stories from people all over the world to explore the experience of forgiveness in situations of violence and abuse. The aim of the organization is to encourage people to consider alternatives to resentment, retaliation and revenge.
The stories on the Forgiveness Project website are truly amazing – dramatic and often traumatic, yet ultimately uplifting. One of the story tellers offers a quote from Harold Kusher to sum up his experience: “Forgiveness is first and foremost a way of seeing. it cannot change the facts about the world we live in but it can change the way we see those facts.”
I encourage you to read some of the heartwarming life stories on the Forgiveness Project website.
Dawn Thurston, a fellow member of the Association of Personal Historians, recently shared some excellent techniques for making our life stories as interesting as possible. Dawn has been teaching life story writing for 20 years so she knows what makes for interesting story-telling.
I love her comment:
“We write our stories from a deep, human need to be remembered and leave a legacy. Capture all the vitality and richness of your life experience by writing for your audience, being personal, including details and creating scenes. After all, you want to write a story people will want to read.”
I recently came across the following quote:
“The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down.” – A. Whitney Brown
A profound thought, don’t you think? Documenting our life stories makes us part of the grand tapestry of human history. This awareness certainly makes our efforts that much more important and significant.
I recently read an article in my local newspaper about two women, one French and one American, who are considered to be the oldest humans on the planet. Both are 115 years old. The article emphasized how much history these two women have experienced in their many years on this earth. It struck me that we have many people in our communities who have lived through the signature events of the 20th Century. If we listen to their stories, they can put a human face to those events. They can bring history to life.
Just one example is a 97-year-old friend of mine. Here is his story of a particularly important event in his life:
When I was a kid, my father was a ranking member of the Labor Party in England. I remember going with him to many of the Labor party meetings and there was one that I’ll always remember. All the top leaders in the labor movement in England were there. Because my dad had an important position in the Party, we had good seats near the front of the hall.
After several speeches from other labor leaders, the Right Honorable George Lansbury, who was the Member of Parliament from our area, rose and said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a very distinguished guest with us this evening.” Who do you think came in, right near where we were seated? It was Mahatma Gandhi!
Gandhi walked in wearing his little shawl, his sandals and carrying his walking staff. He was so close, I could have reached out and touched him as he walked to the stage. There were something like 12,000 people there that night and they all rose to their feet with an absolute roar of applause. It seemed like it would never stop.
After the applause died, Gandhi spoke for a while. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember him so clearly, his sandals and his staff. I actually saw and heard the man who was called the Great Soul, the man who did so much to stop the violence during India’s struggle for independence. It was such an incredible experience for me.
When my friend was telling me this story, he couldn’t recall exactly how old he was when he had this experience. With a bit of research, I was able to discover that, after Gandhi moved back to India as an adult, he only ever left India once and that was in 1931 when he visited Britain. That means that my friend was 13 years old when he saw and heard this great man. After 84 years, it is a memory he still treasures.
If you are like me, you often think of people who played an important role in your life who are now gone. There are so many questions you wish you had asked but you were too young or two busy to think to do so. And, now, the opportunity has passed. When you remember these special people – your parents and grandparents; siblings and other relatives: special friends – don’t you wish they had left more of their stories behind? Wouldn’t it have been a treasure to have documentation of their lives through their eyes?
It is so important to document your life stories. Why? Because you and your life experiences are important to many people – some of whom are still very young and many who haven’t even been born yet. Your family, now and in the future, want to know who you are and what you have experienced and learned as you’ve journeyed through your one unique life.
You are the one true witness to your distinct life. You are also a witness to the lives of so many others – people you’ve known who are no longer on this earth. Documenting your life stories, talking about yourself and other family members and friends, is a gift you can give to future generations. It is also a form of immortality.
You might think this is a lot of fuss over nothing. Why bother writing my stories? It’s not like I was ever famous or important. In the words of Mark Twain: “There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy and a tragedy.” Those who succeed you will want to know about your particular drama, comedy and tragedy. They will benefit from knowing the real you and learning about your life. So, please start the work of documenting your life stories. There is no greater gift you can bestow.
David Suzuki’s latest book is titled “Letters to my Grandchildren”. According to a recent article in the Times Colonist, Suzuki decided to write this book following a trip to Japan where he tracked down information about his grandparents and realized how little he knew of them. He didn’t want his grandchildren to have the same realization. In the book, he shares life lessons, experiences and values in a casual conversational format.
Through this book Suzuki has affirmed his view that it is important for the older generation to pass on the wisdom they have gained through living. “We’re the only group in society that has already lived an entire life and we’ve made mistakes, we’ve suffered failures, we’ve had a few successes. Those are life lessons,” he is quoted as saying.
What a wonderful gift David Suzuki has given his grandchildren with this book! I will definitely be alluding to it in the workshop I will be facilitating in the fall (Documenting Your Legacy of Wisdom) which specifically looks at ways participants can examine and chronicle personal values, life lessons and achievements through a conversational letter format. Who knows, some of the workshop participants may decide to produce a book! Wouldn’t that be great?!
If you’d like to read the Times Colonist article on David Suzuki’s new book go to: