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War Memoirs - Celebrating Heroes or Glorifying War?

January 28, 2015

Here's a tough one. People who publish memoirs of their experience in war give us insight into the incredible difficulties and horrors of war. But at the same time, do they run the risk of glorifying war? It's a tough question that comes into play if you are talking about war "heroes".

A very popular movie out now, American Sniper, tells the story of Chris Kyle, one of the most "celebrated" military snipers in history. He had 160 "kills" and ironically, he himself was shot and killed, but not in combat, rather at a shooting range in Texas. The film is based on Kyle's autobiography, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History.

I am not saying Kyle wasn't a hero. And I am not trying to create a controversy. I am just echoing concerns that have been shared by people. See a blog posting on the APH Blog for more, as well as another controversial subject - whether writing about someone's deciline from Alzheimer's or other dementias is an invasion of their privacy.



The Cause of Addiction May Be Very Different Than What You Think

January 22, 2015

There is no question that there is a problem with
addiction in our societies. Alcohol, drug, gambling, sex and other obsessions affect a lot of people. But what really causes someone to become an addict? Is it the power of the chemicals? Or could it be a need to connect to something, a need the addict has not been able to fulfill in a healthy way?

I read an interesting article related to this question today - The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think by Johann Hari. I saw it recommended by another member of the Association of Personal Historians (April Bell), but also from some of my friends on Facebook. The idea of isolation and poor living conditions lending themselves to situations that might promote addiction is an intriguing one.

The subject resonates with me because some of the most interesting life stories, to me, are those of people who've battled addictions and found recovery. Whether it is a 12-step group, a new purpose grounded in a loving relationship, or a connection to our natural tendency to find faith in something bigger, the stories of recovered/recovering addicticts are powerful. Many of them contain life lessons for all of us, not just other addicts. This is one of the great gifts of an honest story about overcoming a major challenge. It can give us hope and promote a greater compassion for our fellow human beings.


Writing Your Life Story Can Improve Your Happiness

January 21, 2015

I've seen more than one article about the benefit of life writing narratives or keeping a journal. Studies have shown that real health benefits and mental wellness can come from regular writing about your life and experiences. Psychologist James Pennebaker (info) has conducted research and makes some recommendations.

An article published on The New York Times (Writing Your Way to Happiness by Tara Parker-Pope) brings up the subject again. The author makes the point that writing about your life, and then (importantly) going back and revising it, helps you look more honestly at situations, challenges and experiences. And it can add to your wellbeing, positive outlook and even make you happier. It makes sense to me, because when we reflect about our lives it frequently helps us see that we've done many good things that matter. Some people worry that reminiscing about their life will make them sad, but it seems the opposite is more likely.

So, sit down and write about your life! Or start looking around for help. There are many willing and able personal historians who may be able to help you. Research more with articles I've written, such as Writing My Life Story, and check out the Association of Personal Historians and The Memoir Network.



Your Perspective Frames Your Memoir

January 13, 2015

One of the definitions of perspective is "a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view". When it comes to crafting a life story perspective is critical. Your point of view frames your memoir.

Perspective is related to perception (see below), but it is not the same thing. We all need perspective when it comes to our life stories. How you view your past, present and future has a lot to do with what you will include in your memoir. Your point of view is influenced and formed by experience, beliefs, what you've been taught, along with all the biases you bring to each situation. Chew on that. Can you see how your perspective on life, family, people, society and the cosmos will strongly contribute to how you will tell your life story?

One of the profound things about humans and perspective is that we can change our point of view. Sometimes we need to see things from a different perspective. It is quite a revelation when we discover and relate to another's point of view. Sometimes that is a powerful agent of change.

Reading biographies, memoirs and other life stories can help you with this. Try to understand the point of view of the author. Get inside their perspective and look around. You certainly don't have to agree with another's interpretation or viewpoint of life, but it helps broaden your horizons when you can see things from another angle. That should also give you pause to consider the slant you are putting on your own story.


Perception of You

January 10, 2015

Here's looking at you. A new year often brings fresh starts and thoughts of how to improve and change our lives. Much is made of New Year's resolutions, but the only ones that last are those that are both achievable and have enough meaning to us that we stay motivated and committed. No easy task, as anyone who has tried will tell you.

I am making a commitment at the start of 2015 to look more at what helps us tell our life stories. One of the things I believe is essential is a driving purpose. You need to have a burning desire to share with others something about your life that you find is really worth telling. This can be about past hardships and how you've struggled and perhaps triumphed over them. Or it could be about how you feel you have changed over time and what you think is important about life and our dealings with others. There are many purposes that can be the fuel that feeds the engine of your writing.

Today I want to write about how the perception you have of yourself plays a big part in both your purpose and motivation. If you have low self esteem you probably won't want people to know much about you. You will likely be guarded, maybe even putting up a facade. Although you will want to tell your story, it ends up being the story that paints you in a better light than the truth. Hey, we all want to look good, but getting to the truth yields greater rewards. As the saying goes, "the truth will set you free".

On the other hand you might be quite self assured, egoistic even. Your overly inflated revelations might protect your ego, but they will probably be a turn off to potential readers.

The tricky part is that our perceptions of ourselves are often not clear. We can make false assumptions about both our strengths and weaknesses. If we can't achieve clarity about who we really are our stories will likely ring false. Even if you do write a riveting life story full of exaggerations and half-truths you run the risk of being found out. Remember James Frey's "memoir", A Million Little Pieces? It would be better to write a novel than face accusations of literary forgery.

Life writing is hard work. Not only do you have to spend lots of time in the actual writing process, you also have to answer these big questions about who you are and what your perceptions of life and your part play in the revelations of your life story. This is one of the reasons I encourage journaling. There are other things you can do, as well, to get a better, more truthful perception of you. In future blog posts I will explore some other things that contribute to this theme. In the meantime, spend some time thinking and writing about your perceptions of various things. What do you think of your job, family, community, religion (or spiritual beliefs), art, politics, education and a myriad of other subjects. Your perceptions are the filters that you use to process your understanding of life. 

Once again, here's looking at you! Remember, you are both a highly valued and precious human being - and also just another one of several billion people on the planet. It depends on how you look at it.


Turning Their Lives Around

January 5, 2015

People who turn their lives around, going from demoralizing or depressing circumstances to a new way of life, full of hope and optimism, are inspirational. Stories about them help others see how it is possible to change. We can't always control circumstances or the things that happen to us. But how we respond in life, especially to difficulties, says a lot about a person and about life's possibilties.

NPR (National Public Radio) has been running a series on "starting over" and profiling some people who've been able to overcome some large difficulties and begin their life in a new and positive way. One example is of the woman who left a life of stripping and being a high-priced dominatrix to a more fulfilling career as a life coach. 

Some other intriguing stories are the former prison inmate turned personal trainer and the young Vietnam immigrant who was able to land gainful employment after falling through something called the "opportunity gap". Go here to see more of these stories.

Reading about these people and their struggles and perseverance reminds me that all of us can face difficulties. It might take perseverance and help from others, but sharing these experiences can help guide others. This can be a powerful purpose for your life story.



The Optimism of Looking Forward Here and Now

January 1, 2015

Welcome to the New Year. The start of every year always brings to mind thoughts of optimism and hope. I typically reflect in the final days of a year about how my life is going. The journey is really the deal. Of course, I must consider the important changes, people and
events of the previous 365 days. But every day is a fresh start and the power of living in the now can never be underestimated. The only real time we have is right now.

How do we bring into focus a forward looking gaze centered in the now but filled with hope? This is much of what drives me in my personal history work and in my own writing. My journaling reflects a great deal of this, so I usually spend time in December and January looking back over my journal entries. It feeds my imagination and also helps me get perspective on my life. It is not uncommon for me to gather themes from the threads of my writing. Some of the same big deals (from my current perspective) were big deals back then. Others have melted away in the light of a Bigger Picture.

Here's to looking forward, with optimism, from here and now, with an eye on doing something with your story in 2015. We need to have plans and goals, otherwise we meander, wander and drift. Some wandering is good, but we still need to have a direction. You have the opportunity to live a full, stimulating and giving life. And maybe you perceive an opportunity to share your journey with others. Your life journey is your story, being written in your thoughts, ideas, words and actions, and taking place in the here and now.

 Everybody has a story to tell!
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