Using autobiography to clear the cobwebs for the bonus years

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday September 30, 2012

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

It was late one Friday evening – this was nearly 15 years ago.  I had just returned to Annapolis from a week-long business trip. Going through the mail that piled up over the week, I found a FedEx package from my uncle Walt. Walter Copper, well into his bonus years at 90, is the brother of my mother. He was a B-24 pilot in WW II, a proud member of what Tom Brokaw calls “the greatest generation.”  After the war, he and his wife Barbara raised a family and were actively involved in the lives of their kids and in the larger community.

When I opened the FedEx, I found 108 double-spaced  pages of Uncle Walt’s completed autobiography. In the foreword, he said he wrote it for his kids and grandkids, so they could know the history of their family, how their grandparents had experienced the Great Depression and served in WW II and then reignited their lives after the war was over.

The first few pages grabbed my attention. I read it at one sitting, finishing around 4:30 am!  It may not have been great literature, but it was a great read and a wonderful story of faith, true grit, optimism, merit, a strong work ethic, and most of all, love – love of family, community, and country. Uncle Walt’s story is a personal treasure, and I know it will be a treasured legacy of our family for generations to come.

As I thought about what I had just read, I was reminded of the words of author, educator and storyteller Norma Livo who said, “The ability to tell stories – by ancient peoples as well as today’s suburbanites – is the only art that exists in all human cultures. It is through stories that we experience our lives. The ability to tell a story is what sets people apart from all the other creatures of the Earth. It may be the one element that defines us as humans.”

Writer Muriel Ruckeyser takes it a step further. “The universe,” she says, “is made of stories, not atoms” – a view supported by the enduring popularity of Aesop’s fables, fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen, stories of virtues from McGuffey Readers to Bill Bennett anthologies or Christmas stories by Joe Wheeler.

I’ve had many conversations with my uncle since reading his story.  It is clear that he found writing his life’s story to be both therapeutic and energizing.  It is also clear that taking a time-out to reflect on his life and then to tell the story helped him and my aunt to create a baseline for thinking through how they would spend their bonus years.

I recently called Uncle Walt to tell him I would like to write about my experience with his autobiography to make sure he was OK with that. He approved, but during the course of our conversation, he told me that he was rewriting parts of his story, quickly assuring me that he wasn’t changing anything, just “adding some details.” I told him, “Uncle Walt, this is your story and you can tell it any way you want; it’s your life and you can interpret it any way you want. That’s what is great about the autobiography.”  Indeed, if you don’t interpret your story, someone else will.

Writing your autobiography – telling your story – is a terrific bonus years project.  Make no mistake: Writing is a demanding mistress.  Still there are so many rewards, both to the writer and to his or her readers, that the results are worth the price.

There are many ways to approach your bonus years autobiography.   You may decide that your life story is best summed up by:

  • a theme – e.g., rags-to-riches , up-by-the-bootstraps, unbelievable opportunities, your struggles: with school, finding a job, in the workplace, in personal relationships, in war, with faith or religion.
  • lessons learned – e.g., an interesting approach used by Bill Gates’ father in his recent autobiography, Showing Up for a Life  or by St. Augustine in his Confessions.
  • a single event – death of a parent, winning a prize, getting married, birth of a child, losing an election, a road not taken, a failed business venture or – like theologian Henri Nouwen and his viewing Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son, an experience that dramatically changed the rest of his life.
  • a single driving thought – e.g., determination to achieve a result in business, music or sports, fear of failure, desire to make money or raise a family, desire to do good or help others;
  • a single characteristic – e.g., a disability, a love of the outdoors, an aptitude for mathematics or history or poetry, a love of travel, giving, children, education, acting.
  • a single day – e.g., the day you visited the Johnson Space Center, the day a teacher applauded your performance in math or English class, the day you lost your job, an approach frequently used by novelist Howard Fast.

Or, you may decide to tell it the old-fashioned way – chronologically, from the beginning (when and where you were born, your upbringing, key events in your life) to the present.

There are all kinds of ways to go about telling your story – and you will be surprised how many among your family and friends will be interested in reading it. More importantly, you will be encouraged by how the exercise will help you clarify your own thinking, clearing the cobwebs from your mind as you set about charting a course to guide your bonus years.

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