When I became a hospice volunteer, I imagined – considering my background as a reporter and writer – that I might be able to help people who wanted to write or record their life stories.
I thought it would help people make sense of the joys and struggles in their lives. Or it would help them leave their stories as a gift for family and friends – particularly for younger generations – so that they would be known and remembered.
I’ve never actually done this, though. Sadly, by the time I see people in hospice care, they may be too ill, too fatigued, or, as is often the case, too far into dementia to be able to consider writing, recording, or otherwise telling the stories of their lives.
So, I’ve come to understand that if you’re going to tell your life story, the best time to start is when you are healthy and vital!
Why do it? It isn’t just a way to share the details of your life with those close to you. It’s an important way of putting your life into context so that its meaning and purpose become clearer to you. I believe that the story you tell yourself about your own life is just as important as the story you share with others.
Reviewing your life gives you the opportunity to think about basic, profound questions. Who are you? What is your place in the world? What is your meaning and purpose? Where has your path taken you?
And it gives you a chance to think about whether or not the assumptions you’ve made about your life have been wrong. Or whether it’s possible to forgive people who have hurt or betrayed you. You may even end up reframing some of the major events in your life so that your story is rebalanced with the positive as well as the negative.
A long time ago, I took a writing course at the New School in New York City, and the instructor was the late Anatole Broyard. His advice about combatting procrastination, lack of inspiration, and writer’s block was simple but outstanding, and very pertinent: start somewhere!
Start in the middle of a scene, an event or a memory that is particularly meaningful for you and go from there.
Don’t think of telling your story as a mere linear slog through your chronology, although these milestones are useful jumping-off points: where and when you were born, where you grew up, when you went through school, when you started your first job, the trajectory of your career path, when you got married, or unmarried, raised your children.
Don’t even think that you’re required to tell an entire epic tale. You can concentrate on one, two or three major developments in your life that you think are key to telling the story of who you are.
Need a little prompting? I think there’s a difference between simple nostalgia and diving deeper into your emotional history. There are many portals to accessing that history. Go over old photo albums or videos and pick out the ones that evoke your strongest emotions. Revisit old places that do the same for you. Beloved antiques, jewelry, even cherished old clothes can help too.
To put your life into historical context, take a look at major news stories from your formative years. What impact did they have on you? Personally, for example, the air raid drills we had to practice during the Cold War and John F. Kennedy’s assassination had a powerful impact on me, as I’m sure it has on many of my fellow baby boomers.
When it’s time to write your story – and recognize that it will take time – or record it on audio or video, remember to be specific. Details count. Your readers or your listeners – including you – want to be able to see, hear, smell and feel what you did in the moments you describe.
Tackling a project like this can be a pretty daunting task. Fortunately, there are some excellent sources to help get you started.
For inspiration, visit The Moth, and watch or listen to people telling their compelling stories in 15 minutes or less. Or take a look at StoryCorps, a treasure of a resource of storytelling, including audios, short animated movies and essays. Its website also includes guidance on how to get started and questions to consider.
Stanford Medical School has organized a Life Review Project, based on the idea that there are seven basic tasks for a life review. They’ve even developed a template in the form of a “Dear Friends and Family” form that you can fill out on your own.
Although the Stanford form is aimed at helping people who may be struggling with serious illness, I think that its key points are highly relevant regardless of your health status, or your age. A quick summary:
Task 1: Acknowledge the important people in your life.
Task 2: Remember treasured moments from your life.
Task 3: Apologize to those you love if you hurt them.
Task 4: Forgive those who love you if they have hurt you.
Task 5: Express your gratitude for all the love and care you have received.
Task 6: Tell your friends and family how much you love them.
Task 7: Take a moment to say “goodbye.” Optional, of course, but you can certainly include the hopes you have for your loved ones, as well as guidance you want to pass along as well as how you hope to be remembered.
A good workbook, A Guide for Recalling and Retelling Your Life Story, is divided into five sections: Family, Growing Up, Adult Life, Growing Older and Reflections. Each section asks specific questions for reflection. The book offers some excellent advice about getting started, namely, don’t be self-critical. Don’t be afraid of the word “I.” Don’t worry if your memory doesn’t match a sibling’s or a friend’s. This is your story and your life.
To that advice I would add: don’t fret over whether or not your life has been an ordinary one. You are unique, you have a world of experience under your belt and you have probably made a difference to more people than you realize.
Your story deserves to be told. You don’t have to have a “happily ever after” ending, either. You can honestly reflect on the struggles, challenges, losses and regrets in your life: They’re what contributed to making you “you,” after all.
Have you ever considered writing or recording the story of your life? Which would you prefer to leave, a written or a recorded version? What historical moments have made an impact on your life story? Please share in the comments – after all, that’s one way to begin!