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You have a story to tell--so tell it, and start now

By Warren Wolfe

Retired Star Tribune staff writer, now a community volunteer

As a newspaper reporter, I learned two big lessons about how to communicate important information:

1.    The best way to tell someone anything you want them to remember is through storytelling.

2.    Everybody has a story, and most people would like others to know that story.

There’s probably a third lesson here: We don’t tell our stories enough. 

Our stories are not just the nuts and bolts facts of our lives, as rich as the facts may be.  Your obituary likely will end up being a very brief biography – where, when and to whom you were born, where you live, what you did for work and maybe for recreation, names of your parents, your spouse, your kids. Maybe a good cause to which people can donate in your memory. 

But the story that people want to hear is the story of who you became in life – how the authentic you emerged from the events of your life.

And who are those people whose lives might be enriched by your stories? Think about your kids, your grandkids, even your spouse (who may never have heard the story of your first touchdown when you limped over the goal line with a Charlie horse, or your first loaf of bread for your parents that turned out gummy inside, or what it was like to go to the prom). 

One way to get started is to think of your own parents or grandparents – what are the questions you now wish you’d asked when you had the chance? What was it like when they were growing up? What were their parents like? Their schools, jobs, first homes, being parents?

And your first step?

Years ago, I attended a lecture by a Zen master visiting Minneapolis, who was to talk about how to be a good writer. At the appointed time, he settled cross-legged in the middle of a circle of maybe 100 writers and aspiring writers and the crowd hushed and leaned forward. He beamed at the crowd, his face moving around the circle, smiling, nodding, joyful. And silent. Very silent. For maybe 4 or 5 minutes. The crowd stirred, respectful but growing uncomfortable with the silence.

Finally, a brave young woman asked, “Master what does it take to be a good writer?”

The Zen master smiled at her, continuing to beam, and then said, “The frog goes kerplop.” And smiled and nodded and sat back. The audience sat, stunned, for another minute.

Then another brave soul finally asked, “Master, what does that mean?”

The Zen master asked the question back, “What does that mean? The frog goes kerplop. What does that mean?”

It took a while, but with give-and-take with the rapt audience it finally became clear: The frog is just sitting beside the pond until it takes action. And when it does, the frog leaps – goes kerplop in the water.

And the same is true of a writer. A writer takes action by writing. If you want to become a writer, you write. If you want to become a better writer, you write more.

So here are a few tips:

1. Start now.– You can sit down with a keyboard, or pen and paper, an audio or video recorder, and start recording your memories.  Don’t worry too much about style or spelling or chronological order. Just write. It doesn’t matter where your start. Start with whatever comes to you first. If you want, you can write down a series of ideas you might want to write about – first year in school; your first memories of your parents, or grandparents, or siblings; your last year working and your transition to retirement. But don’t spend much time on your list. The ideas and memories will keep coming as you write. Think about including some old photos of the people and places you write about.

2. Keep a “parking lot” of memories and ideas.– In a notebook or computer file, jot down the ideas that come to you while you’re writing about something else. I was just remembering visiting my grandparents in Monessen, Penn., as a child. Then remembered my Uncle Branson, who loved to eat hot peppers but – to my delight – his head broke into sweat whenever he did. I knew right then I wanted to grow up to be a bald man so that I could eat hot peppers and have sweat break out on my head. 

3. Pace yourself– It’s easy to get very swept up by the excitement of writing your life story – then burn out. Keep at it, but for manageable bites of time. Some people really can dive in, keep at it for months and end up with pages and pages of rich memories preserved for generations to come.  Some try to pace themselves, perhaps sitting down to write at the same time each day, or schedule parts of two or three days a week to write. Figuring out what works for you – what keeps you intrigued but doesn’t sap your energy – can be part of the fun of writing. 

4. Share the results– When you’ve written about a few episodes of your life, consider sharing them with close friends or relatives. You don’t need them to edit your work, or to “correct” your memories of your life. Your stories are your own. Your brother may remember an incident differently, and that’s fine. It’s not that one is right and another wrong; it’s just that we look at life from our own perspectives. Your truth is your truth. 

5. Consider printing your work in a book– It’s relatively inexpensive to find a printer who will make 10 or 20 or 100 copies of your work. You can find them online or ask a pubic library researcher to help you find one. The value is that it can be stored and shared better that way than with a computer file or a hand-written notebook – although keep that hand-written copy as well. That notebook could become a treasured heirloom for you great-great grandchildren.

And don’t worry about getting everything on your list of topics into your collection of stories. You can always start My Story: Volume 2.

Warren Wolfe was a reporter, copy editor an assistant city editor at the Star Tribune from 1970 to 2014. For the last 20 years of his career, he wrote about aging and health care policy. He started his career at the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle in 1966. He participated in a 2014 Vital Aging Network Evolve class and now is active with the Roseville Alzheimer’s and Dementia Community Action Team, the Dementia Caregiver Re-Entry Initiative for former caregivers, and in immigration and refugee issues. 




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