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Doing Life Without Parole

August 18, 2014

This blog, website and my personal history business all emphasize the importance of preserving our life stories. Most of the people motivated to do that are either wanting to record their stories for family and friends, or perhaps to better understand their life. And a few are hoping that their story will reach a wider audience, perhaps helping them gain some fame as an author.

For the most part the stories of people's lives tackled from the motivation of preserving personal history have a self interest, either by the subject of the story or the family members who crave to know more about loved ones.

Today I read about a reporter who is interested in getting the stories of lifers, people convicted of life sentences without the possibility of parole for at least 25 years. I think this can yield an interesting perspective. What if your life of freedom came to an end and you knew you would be behind bars quite possibly for the rest of your life? What would you be willing to reveal to an interested writer? It can't be easy to speak about crimes committed that lead to a life in prison, but there could be redemption in the telling and certainly a lesson to others. The Edmonton Journal posted this story by their crime bureau's chief reporter Jana Pruden, The Lives of Lifers.

Seriously Funny, Robin Williams Was A Manic and Majestic Comic and Actor

August 12, 2014

I remember watching Robin Williams on cable comedy specials in the 1980's and being amazed at his rapid-fire manic impressions and hilarious, yet cosmic comedy insights. The man was a whirlwind onstage, yet as his career developed we witnessed a nuanced dramatic actor who could certainly be humorous, but also capable of delivering performances of ringing truth.

The news that Williams died of an apparent suicide spread like wildfire yesterday, thanks mainly to this age we live in where social media can make us aware nearly instantaneously of breaking stories. I saw it on Facebook first and yes, it shocked me. But it didn't take me long to begin reflecting on his legacy. I knew he'd had a history of drug and alcohol problems, that he'd found recovery and yet also battled his demons of depression. Perhaps one silver lining from his passing will be a heightened awareness of those struggling with such problems and how there is both help and hope available.

We should also remember that he still found many opportunities to help those who needed a laugh and a kind visit, be it deployed troops, kids with cancer, or the homeless.

I certainly want to remember Robin Williams for the laughter he gave us and to also appreciate his acting talent. Stories at NPR and the New York Times certainly helped me recall some of those special moments. From the dramatic The World According to Garp and his Oscar winning role in Good Will Hunting, to the comedic brilliance of Mrs. Doubtfire and Aladdin, there is something to enjoy from a wide variety of movies. Two films that especially resonate for me were Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poet's Society, probably because I've worked in both the radio broadcasting and teaching professions.

So long, Robin Williams. Carry that laughter into the afterlife. Thanks for being seriously funny.

Self Awareness From a Distance

August 8, 2014

"People who keep a journal often see it as part of the process of self-understanding and personal growth. They don’t want insights and events to slip through their minds. They think with their fingers and have to write to process experiences and become aware of their feelings. "

The above is a quote from the beginning of a very interesting article by David Brooks (online at the NY Times), Introspective or Narcissistic? The gist of the article is that for many of us we learn more about ourselves when we can see our lives with some distance. This is the gift that life story writing and, in particular, journaling, can give you.

If you are like me, you are well aware of how easy it is to rationalize my actions or fool myself. Shakespeare's Hamlet has the line, "To Thine ownself be true" and when it comes to life examination (which is certainly part of memoir writing) this is particularly important.

Brooks goes on to point out that we can also oversimplify our self analysis or become obsessed - both leading to less than the truth about us. Of course, our truth comes from knowing ourselves and ruminating about life, including journal or diary writing, can help us get some emotional distance. I know how important it is for me to do some journal writing whenever I am restless, irritable or discontent.

Another great insight from this article refers to the value of narrative writing (another way of saying life story). "We should see ourselves as literary critics, putting each incident in the perspective of a longer life story. The narrative form is a more supple way of understanding human processes, even unconscious ones, than rationalistic analysis."

If you are looking for a great computer journaling tool, I highly recommend DavidRM's The Journal - more here.

iPhone Left Clues to an Estranged Father's Life

August 5, 2014

Jordan Jayson works for The Huffington Post. That's an online site where I often find interesting stories, but they are usually written about people "in the world", not stories that give insight into the personal life of their staff. However, Jordan's story about finding her father's iPhone after he died and how it gave her clues to his life was a very poignant tale.

Her father passed away in the Virgin Islands, a destination he'd moved to many years ago. As a result Jordan had almost no contact with him for 25 years. She never got the chance to see him and say goodbye face-to-face before he died, but when she discovered his iPhone after his passing she was able to piece together a number of digital clues about her father's feelings for her as well as bringing up a number of old memories. She found some recipe apps that reminded her of when her family would order Chinese take-out. She also saw some pictures that showed how he looked in his final days. And she was able to peruse music on his phone and see that he also received daily jokes to his email along with the type of news and sports he was following.

Although she didn't get personal closure she did get a better understanding of her father. It wasn't a written life story, but she was able to put together some pieces of the puzzle. It's an interesting tale that could only have happened  in our digital time with our modern devices.

Below the Waterline

August 4, 2014

I live in the desert, so it is unusual for us to get a lot of rain, especially enough to cause flooding. But it can happen, and it did a couple of days ago when a thunderstorm dumped enough water on downtown Albuquerque to flood streets. A few unfortunated motorists tried to cross some of those streets and their cars suddenly became amphibious.
Car caught in Albuquerque downtown flooded street
Flood waters can be scary and damaging. It can also be exhilarating, as long as you aren't in danger. I recall a summer many years ago in Oklahoma. I was attending the University and that summer we had a lot of rain! My roommates and I sat on the porch of the house we had rented one morning and watched the water rushing down our street.  It was as if a river had suddenly replaced our residential road.

Last year I reported on a story of a flood in Colorado and how a family's portrait had been swept away in it, yet was miraculously recovered.

Do you have memories of floods? Sometimes they can be devastating, sometimes less so, but they usually make an impression. This is particularly true if you have belongings that get caught below the waterline. Try writing about such an experience and see where the memories take you. If they come "flooding back" then perhaps you've discovered some material to add to your life story.

Tips to Help Gather Memories of the Elderly

July 31, 2014

We all have family members, friends and aquaintances who are in their golden years with a lifetime of memories. They have experiences to share, but sometimes they need encouragement to share them. Eve Pearce has contributed an article with some helpful tips and I included it in the July Your Life Is Your Story newsletter. You can subscribe to receive it free to your email, but it is also posted online.

Writing About Hardship

July 28, 2014

I've been reflecting this past week about hardship, difficulties and troubles. The life challenges we face, big and small, can often make up the bulk of a memoir or life story. Everything from large issues like abuse, death of loved ones, wars, poverty and diseases to the smaller and more mundane issues like broken appliances, lost car keys or petty arguments can be fertile ground for exploring how we live and, more importantly, how we deal with life on life terms.

What has prompted such musing? It's a subject we all consider and deal with, the stuff of hard times. Writing about hardship can provide insight and perspective. We need this reflection. Such musing could yield something grand. For Charles Dickens it became the sweeping tapestry forming the backbone of the classic and aptly named novel, Hard Times. But it also can be the subject of a personal essay, journal entry or memoir. Jessica Handler, personal historian, recently posted about her own experience with family in Three Tips for Writing the Tough Stuff in a Memoir. She bravely wrote about the loss of two sisters in her first memoir and has written more on the subject. It's a good article for encouraging those of us who become timid about delving into life's difficulties for our own stories.

There is a lot of hardship and hard times going on in the world right now. Conflicts and tension in the Middle East, Central America and between Russia and the United States can make any of us who follow the news uneasy. But these things happen and whether our hardships are part of a global story or of a more personal nature I know that exploring our feelings and writing our truth about hard times makes us stronger, wiser and provides a better story to share with others.

Nostalgia Can Make You Feel Older and Younger

July 21, 2014

Nostalgia is defined as a sentimental longing for something in the past that we associate with happy memories. It can be triggered in various ways, by seeing an old friend, remembering a special date, historic event, seeing an old advertisement, hearing a favorite old song or watching an old TV show or movie.

It was easy for me to feel nostalgic yesterday. July 20 is a an important date in world history and also in my personal history. Forty-five years ago men walked on the moon for the first time. Even though I was just a teenager in 1969 I remember our family gathered around the black and white television set watching at Neil Armstrong made his memorable first step onto the moon.

Sixteen years later, in 1985, I married my wife, Annette. We've stayed together and I can say I am still "over the moon" about her 29 years later. Reminiscing about these two events reminds me of my youth. So even though I am a number of years older, I feel younger as I recall the summers of 1969 and 1985. Isn't it interesting how nostalgia can make you feel both older and younger?

For those of you who grew up in the 1950's you might enjoy this interesting short video from A Diamond Films titled Lost in the Fifties - Another Time, Another Place. I spotted many things I remember, from Elvis Presley to the fear of communism, food products, television shows and fads and fashion. You can watch this video here. Maybe it will make you feel both older and younger.

Memoir Editing is Not Quick and Easy

July 17, 2014

I do a fair amount of editing of other people's writing. It is not quick and easy. Nevertheless, I always appreciate it when people hire me to edit their writing. This is because we all need to have help with our writing. Nobody does it perfect. All good writers (you know, the ones you read and quote) have their writing edited.

While it is true that you, the writer, can come up with clever wording and heartfelt insight in your writing, there is often a need to restructure, or reconsider what you've written. Another pair of eyes is invaluable. An editor will help catch grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes. But they will also be helpful in how your writing flows and whether it is vivid enough or descriptive.

Today I was reading a post on the Memoir Network written by Denis Ledoux, How Memoir Editing Works. I've worked with Denis before and he is good at what he does. He is a gifted writer, speaker, coach and editor. I thought his insight on how he approaches memoir editing had good points. He also runs into the challenge of editing properly, realizing it takes time and several reviews. His approach is a three part process. You can read his article here, along with others as part of the free basic membership at the Memoir Network. And you might consider signing up for his some of his services, including the premier membership option, the Memoir Authority.

Animating Past Interviews of Cultural Icons - Blank on Blank and Storytelling

July 14, 2014

Over the years there have been many interviews of famous people by journalists. Some of these we've heard, but many are tucked away and could be easily lost if not preserved and presented by someone. Someone, for instance, like Blank on Blank, a multimedia nonprofit with the simple mission of taking unheard oral history interviews and bringing them to life on radio, YouTube and other platforms. This is an interesting way to present storytelling.

These raw journalist interviews are edited and produced with music and animation. The list of interview subjects is varied and fascinating: JFK, Carol Burnett, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Bono and Merryl Streep are a sampling. They are not long (averaging about 5 minutes), but quite revealing. A very worthy project supported by PBS Digital Studios and PRX, among others.

I first learned about this project from a FaceBook sharing of a link to one of these interviews, this one of Princess Grace Kelly. In it she recalled her first meeting with the future president. She visited John F. Kennedy in his hospital room in the mid-1950's following his back surgery. JFK's wife, Jackie, came up with the idea and Ms. Kelly introduced herself as the new night nurse. JFK knew, of course, who she really was, a famous movie star. The interview goes on to describe what she thought of Kennedy as a dynamic and youthful president, something unusual in America. And she reflects on his death and legacy.

 Everybody has a story to tell!
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