We believe that life-writing is essential to living; that writing life is a privilege, right, and responsibility; that written words captivate the atmosphere of lived experience; that there are as many styles of life-writing as there are lives.
We are zealous preservers of memories and legacies. Preservation is not just the recollection of ancestors and origins, but also pre-serving: a proactive form of service for family, community, and posterity. Our mission is to create narratives that enlighten, entertain, and inspire while preserving stories that are vital to life.
Aaron Greenberg, Ph.D.
Everything I know about my paternal grandfather comes from a letter sent by his childhood friend to my then 13-year-old father. It is dated September 7, 1973, several years after my grandfather’s death and 14 years before I was born.
The two and a half typewritten pages reveal that my grandfather was impeccably stylish and spotlessly clean; that he hated being drafted into the Korean War but felt obliged to serve; that he was a loyal friend, respectful son, and “loveable clown” whose smiling eyes made “sweet young maidens’ hearts flutter unevenly;” in football and basketball a “6-foot stone wall,” but in baseball a powerful longball hitter and reliable outfielder.
Who cares? What’s the value of this knowledge? Self-knowledge is a virtue, and knowing oneself requires knowing one’s origins. The past doesn’t tie us down—it liberates us to make informed decisions and to build upon foundations rather than reinvent the wheel.
Whether I claim my grandfather’s virtues as my genetic heritage or a model to emulate, I take pride in reading that he “was a far above average quick thinker, could grasp and handle any problem, and had a vocabulary second to none. At the age of fifteen he could do the hardest Sunday newspaper crossword puzzles in just over an hour, without ever using a dictionary.” Though he died an eternity before my birth, he endowed me with a love for words, which I’d never know without his friend’s letter to my 13-year-old dad.
When I finished my doctorate at the age of 30 (only ten years before the age my grandfather passed) I taught seminars at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine on the history of longevity. While I studied and taught ancient and future life-forms, I was preparing for my life’s work—to preserve the lives of others through authentic storytelling.
My grandfather’s absence was ubiquitous in my childhood, influencing my life no less, just differently, than his presence would have. His relatively short life became my lifelong obsession, as I measured milestones against his truncated path.
This letter to my father is a rich inheritance. It’s the ethical will my grandfather never had the chance to write. If two and half pages typewritten for a 13-year-old can mean so much and last so long, how cool it would be to have my grandfather’s full story preserved in his own words.
I’ve learned some things through lived experience, but to echo Sir Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” We are all Giants in our own right and have stories to tell—bioGraph’s mission is to write and preserve these stories to enlighten, entertain, and inspire. We love creating with other people, businesses, non-profits, and institutions. Ben Franklin implores us to “either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” I urge everyone to take this advice and tell your own story.
- Hold a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from UW-Madison
- Began my career on the Innovation Banking team at CIBC (formerly PrivateBank), where I provided commercial banking services to tech-enabled businesses
- Organized bioGraph LLC in May 2018
I enjoy learning, writing, producing, and sharing with others!
Why We Write Life Stories
To me, the most memorable part of Roots, the 1977 television mini-series, is something so seemingly mundane that many viewers may have forgotten it. Each time there was a transition to a new generation of characters, the figure from the older generation would explain to the younger one the story of their family’s journey.
An historical narrative like the one passed down by the descendants of Kunta Kente in Roots is what I have always longed to have in my own family, whose history I know very little about. Moreover, as a descendant of enslaved Africans myself, I personally understand the great difficulty in finding the past of a people who have been deemed to be without one. I know the profound power that is reclaimed when a history-less people unearth and retell their own stories. I know the epistemological anxiety that comes from frantically filling in the blanks of a white-washed past.
Many times, when I ask other Black people about our history, they say “we were kings and queens.” However, exactly which kings and queens we were they cannot tell me. Rather than state historical facts, we promote comfortable fictions. As a coping mechanism for dealing with the loss of our lineage, we search for greatness in absence.
This re-narration of the many unknown areas of Black history is a practice that I also frequently find myself falling into. It is to revive my own roots, for example, that I prefer not to refer to myself as a journalist or anthropologist or storyteller but as griot, a West African social role that encompasses all of the above-listed labels in addition to historian, poet, musician, and singer.
I call myself griot because my passion for writing life stories comes from their lack among my own people, who ironically originate from the land of the griots. I call myself griot because, like the griots, I believe that a story isn’t any good unless it has some poetry, some history, and some song. I call myself griot because I have seen the social role that my writing may play.
In 2018, a man that I had profiled for a magazine a couple of years earlier passed away. In the email sent out announcing his death and the plans for his funeral, a link to my story about him was attached at the end. It was only then that I realized that what I had written about him extended beyond my personal interest in an interesting man. My words were a memorial object, the opportunity for a community of loved ones to return back to a time when this man was still present.
In only 1,931 words, I had given him what so many of my ancestors had been denied: a legacy, and to his family and friends I gave what I have been denied: a history. My article had made me into that older generation, keeping alive a cast of characters from days gone by.
This is why I write.
Rachel Louise Martin, Ph.D.
Rachel Louise Martin, Ph.D.
I published my first story when I was in the 8th grade. I wrote it because I wanted to understand the life and experiences of a man I’d never known.
I grew up in rural Tennessee in a tiny enclave a few miles east of Murfreesboro, home of Middle Tennessee State. The first major intersection on the way into town was a four-way stop. The 96 Food Mart sat on one corner, dispensing gas and chips. A small trailer rested kitty-corner from the store. At night, a single light shone through the trailer’s kitchen window. It wasn’t a bright light like the incandescent lamps that burned around our house; it flickered dimly like a candle or a gas wick. I’d lean my head against the sedan’s backseat window and wonder about the people living inside.
One day, the intersection was clogged with police cars and ambulances. I looked over toward the trailer as we passed. A single pair of dirty white tennis shoes sat in the middle of the street. A few days later my mom saw the obituary in the Daily News Journal, our local paper. The man who lived in the trailer had been crossing the street to visit the Food Mart. He’d been hit by a car and died on the scene. My first story was about him, this person I’d never known but spent many hours imagining.
I still chase people’s stories today.
I have been an oral historian for 13 years. I completed a PhD in women’s and gender history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. While there, I collected 70 interviews for my dissertation, Out of the Silence: Remembering the Desegregation of Clinton, Tennessee, High School. I was also a research assistant with the Southern Oral History project where I collected and processed interviews for the Long Civil Rights Movement Initiative.
Today I combine my love of stories with my training in interviewing and research. I have published essays in O Magazine, the Atlantic online, CityLab and Narratively. “How Hot Chicken Really Happened,” an essay for the Bitter Southerner was included in Cornbread Nation 2015: The Best of Southern Food Writing. I also collected and curated “Making Eyes on the Prize: An Oral History” for the Ford Foundation. Some of my work can be found here.
I think of oral history and audio storytelling as being akin to music. The basic building blocks of our narratives are solos: one voice telling its story. Such narratives capture our attention and grip our hearts. As soon as more voices join in, the music of the past becomes more complex. Some people have held onto perspectives that harmonize, differing only by gradations of nuance, but more often, the various voices are in discord and disagreement. This is often the most troubling part of memory, but it can also be the most revealing. There is power in the complexity of our stories, in the melodies, harmonies and descants of the piece. That is where the beauty and the truth lie, where I find the stories waiting to be told.
Toby Altman, Ph.D.
In answering these questions, I draw on an unusual set of experiences, a wide training as a writer and thinker. Over the course of my career, I’ve milked cows by hand, moved irrigation lines in the high desert of California, served as a community organizer in a rough part of Philadelphia, worked in scholarly archives, and performed poetry all over the country. Since I delivered my eulogy for Ewok, I’ve published a book of poetry Arcadia, Indiana (Plays Inverse, 2017), alongside several chapbooks, most recently Every Hospital by Bertrand Goldberg (Except One), which won the 2018 Ghost Proposal Chapbook Prize. My poems and essay have appeared in some of the leading national literary journals, including Denver Quarterly, The Georgia Review, and Gulf Coast. My work relies on my training as a scholar of Renaissance literature: I received a PhD in English from Northwestern University in 2017. That background gives me the patience and attention to detail necessary to dig deep and get to the heart of things. And my work also draws on my experience teaching and studying creative writing: I received an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2019. Teaching creative writing is all about helping people find their voices: it’s about listening carefully, discovering what’s true, what’s real, then bringing that out. Those moments of honesty and truth make community possible. Whether writing about a dead turtle or forgotten architects, I try to cut to them, bring them out, and, in doing so, make such communities possible.
Shoulders hunched over my father’s 1960s typewriter, alternating between the sharp taps of the keys and the scratch of an old pen, my middle finger stained a dull brown from the ink, particles of dust dancing in the air with each ping. In my mind, this was the only way to truly recreate the ultimate story-writing experience. I imagined myself a young Lucy Maud Montgomery. I was 12.
At 14 the world of Jane Austen came alive for me. I must have read it eight times, enamored by how Austin managed to create wonderful, flawed, real characters. I then proceeded to convince myself that one day I’d marry a duke. (My brother was quick to inform me of my delusions of grandeur, as he calls them.)
When I was 20 I wrote my college history thesis on Albert Speer—a reflection on how his childhood, experiences and education influenced his leadership in Nazi Germany—in essence how his story made sense of the man he ultimately became.
Twenty-three took me thousands of miles away to run a preschool in the middle of the Namibian countryside, four hours from the closest village and eight from the closest city. I experienced some of the most joyous and depressing moments of my life—writing them down was the only way I could cope and be sure I’d never forget what it felt like.
A year later I found myself sitting in a crowd of middle schoolers listening to another story—that of a Holocaust survivor who despite the pain, horror and loss he had endured, was willing to share his story with me and hundreds of others so that it might touch someone else, endure, and maybe, just maybe, keep something so horrible from happening again.
I was 24, a master’s student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and I was just beginning to realize how stories had completely shaped my life and become an innate part of my journey and calling. These were all key moments in my life, they all revolve around a story—either my own or someone else’s. Each story is unique—some are joyful and some are deeply sorrowful—most, like my own, are both.
Stories are the very essence of who we are, where we come from and what we aspire to. Without them, we have little context in which to understand our own lives and times. However, over time, oral stories grow the roots of legends and tall-tales, as truth becomes blurred and memory subjective. Our stories must be written down when they can be remembered, when taste, touch, smell and each minute detail are still fresh in the mind.
The process requires patience, honesty and often the willingness to peer deep inside and pull to the surface memories that have long desired to stay buried. But the result is as meaningful to yourself as it is a gift of love to the generations to follow you. I often ask myself: What will my story be? In many ways, I’m still creating it—we all are. But one thing I know, I don’t ever want to forget each moment and memory that has formed my story. For this reason, I write.
Whenever someone asks me why I became a poet, I like to joke that poetry is the easiest way to talk about myself while maintaining something like dignity. Of course, this isn’t the truth; or rather, it is not the entire truth. It’s something like a starting point, the setup for an improv actor’s infamous ‘yes, and.’
I admit it: as a young person, poetry was my diary. “Am I flying / or jumping off the edge?”, I penned at fourteen, jaw aching from newly tightened dental braces. While I can’t stand behind the melodramatics of the language, I can see the way that these lines spoke to something sincere about my newly pubescent life.
If in the moment of writing my pain was literally orthodontic, it was also psychic, the pain of being a late blooming teenager mortified by her own existence. The page was my portal into that part of myself, the part that eluded grammar, cohesion, explanation; the essential nonsense that I couldn’t otherwise speak to. To express this part required a semantic leap: “my body and sense of self are changing in a way that frightens me” became, “Am I flying / or jumping off the edge?”
Yes, I began writing poetry so that I could talk about myself. Then I started studying poetry, and found that it could be much more than that.
As an undergraduate I attended the Johns Hopkins University, where I learned from editors of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, Pulitzer Prize nominees, and former British poet laureates. I developed my interest in queer feminist poetics, the visual language of film, and the social efficacy of the written word. I took part in the Baltimore Uprising, marching to protest police brutality alongside graduate students in poetry, who went on to introduce me to Baltimore’s literary circuit.
When I was twenty-one I drove for three days with a cat on my lap to Iowa City, where I began my MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There, I worked on a thesis about—among other things—90s feminist photography, photojournalism and war, pacifism and utopic thinking, and the 1972 movie Deliverance.
Poetry—and by extrapolation literature—is more than a mirror for the disordered subconscious. It is our greatest hope for finding one another, for seeing and being seen, for speaking to the world around us. Language, one learns early on when studying literature, is a tricky thing; a faulty, unusual, and unstable tool. But the beauty of this instability is the uncanny entrance it grants into spaces beyond our own; to write is to leave the self and to enter the world.
So, this is what I hope for you: I hope you will allow me to pursue your essential nonsense as doggedly as I have pursued my own. I hope that, together, we can make the leap between the unspoken conditions of your life and the space of the page. I hope that when someone asks you about your life, you can hand them something we have written together. Read this, you can say, it will explain everything.
My father was an officer in the Navy, a fighter pilot, and by the time I reached the age of 18, I had followed him and his career to 5 countries and 17 cities.
Growing up on military bases gave me a skewed impression of my role in the world. I thought of myself as an ambassador; it was my job to demonstrate to the people of Italy, or Singapore, or Bahrain what an ideal American child looked like. By the time I moved to Japan at the age of 8, I knew there were thoughts and experiences that I should not express, that it was important to stick to a script of strength in order to support my father and, in turn, America.
I carried two stories of myself. One I told the world: a story of excitement and adventure, cultural exchange, strength and resilience, even at such a young age. The other I kept to myself: the story of watching my mother embrace a sobbing spouse whose husband died in flight training. The story of living with the knowledge that one day my own father might not come home. The story of leaving friends just as we started to connect deeply, of spending almost every birthday in a new city, of not getting to know my relatives outside of my immediate family.
But even though I knew the first story wasn’t the whole story, I also knew it wasn’t false. Both of my stories were true. I was brave and bold and terrified; I both felt part of a large American family abroad, and utterly alone in a land where I knew neither the customs nor language.
In this way, I learned from a young age how to hold nuance, to live with contradiction. I’ve always been fascinated by the complexities of every human being, how people I might have been taught to dismiss at first glance have just the same astonishing range of emotion, experience, hardship, and joy. As a poet, I’ve set out to excavate the complexities of underestimated populations, to acknowledge the story the world already knows, but also offer an equally true story, the one pulsing beneath the surface. I believe knowing all the different stories a person contains leads to empathy and compassion.
My voracity for nuance had led me to a number of achievements: I hold an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and received my undergraduate degree in English from UC Berkeley. I am the poetry editor of Storyscape Journal, and my poetry has been published in a number of nationally ranked journals, including Lana Turner Journal, Nat. Brut, and Berkeley Poetry Review. I currently teach creative writing at the University of Iowa, and hope to begin pursuing my PhD in creative writing in the coming year. I’m a passionate teacher; one of my greatest joys is teaching students of all ages how to express themselves, how to present their entire self to the world, contradictions and all. And I see that as my purpose as a writer: to be a guide through nuance and contradiction, to find understanding on the other side.
When I was sixteen, my paternal grandparents and my maternal grandmother died within months of one another. I wept, but not because I knew my grandparents in any capacity—in fact, they were complete strangers to me. I had only seen them once in the twelve years since my family had moved from China to America. I wept because I felt I had lost a huge portion of something that I felt I had been losing, slowly, my entire life: a connection to my cultural and ancestral heritage.
I had never gotten the chance to watch my paternal grandfather, a carpenter his entire life, shape a chair out of wood. I had never gotten the chance to wear one of my maternal grandmother’s technicolored sweaters. The twelve years between my time as a baby living near my grandparents’ village, and my time as a visitor and American teenager, had destroyed them. They were parched and dying. Then they were dead.
My family are first generation immigrants. We moved to Canada from China when I was four, then relocated to the Chicagoland area when I was nine. The entirety of my extended family still lives in China. In an effort to preserve in me some sense of cultural belonging while I was growing up, my father told me stories. Vivid, true stories of his childhood spent on a wheat farm, then his college days during the Cultural Revolution, alongside myths of the beasts and strange ghosts that wandered the countryside near our hometown. These stories became a medium of connection, the only way I could feel belonging to a place that I barely remembered, barely knew.
When my grandparents died, at sixteen, I remembered my father’s stories. I took pen to paper. I wrote and wrote—stories, poems, fragments—trying to articulate this thing that seemed to elude language, this feeling of what it meant to belong in community and family, despite—or because of—distance.
I bring this understanding—that language has the ability to create space in a community—to my writing now. I write poetry that endeavors to shape a communal imagination about how to belong to the world together. Language is the medium through which we process our shared world, and so is an essential tool for connection.
I’ve investigated the connective potential of language in a number of eclectic ways: I’ve conducted and complied oral histories and artist responses by people affected by different nuclear disasters around the world; I’ve written a short-story cycle loosely based on my early childhood spend in Toronto, Canada; I’ve worked at a traditional papermaking conservatory in Cleveland, Ohio; I’ve been a paralegal for community lawyers working to protect tenant rights in Evanston, IL. I finished my MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 2019, where I completed a manuscript exploring a specific period of Chinese history that correlates to my disjointed memories of my early childhood growing up in rural China. I visited my hometown in China two more times, once in 2017, and again in 2018.
Throughout my MFA, I taught creative writing and English, emphasizing the ways in which language shapes our belonging to our communities, to our nation, to our world.
That belonging, I believe, can take many forms and flow through us in many ways, but is ultimately articulated through the way we relate to one another, in language. Sometimes, stories call out to us to be told. When I was growing up, my father felt called to tell me his stories. When my grandparents died, I felt called to write down my own. I want to know what stories call out to you and I want to create a space where those stories can be told and belong.
In college, I recorded an interview with my Grandma Groeneweg for a class assignment. We talked about the changes in media that she saw during her lifetime. She was born on Christmas Day in Long Island, Kansas, in 1929. She came into this world in the wake of Black Thursday, the worst stock market crash in United States’ history, signaling the onset of the Great Depression. About 10 years later, the Dust Bowl forced her farm family to move to northwest Iowa, which is where I grew up.
My grandmother lived through decades of prosperity and protest, political upheaval, social revolutions and technological advancements that shifted the landscape around her like the wind-whipped Plains.
When she died a couple years ago, her life was reduced to a 319-word obituary with dry facts: the oldest of 12 children, Joanna Kats married Albert Groeneweg on February 22, 1950. They had nine children, 28 grandchildren and 57 great-grandchildren. Their legacy is faith, family and farming.
Looking for more color, more context, more meaning from her life—I opened the 40-minute audio file that I saved from college. I hit play and her gravelly voice came through the speakers.
“All we had was radio,” she says. Most of our conversation is contained to the assignment, discussing mass media and daytime TV before veering off into online dating. She tells me how she grew up tuning her radio dial to homemaking shows and Gunsmoke, a long-running Western drama that her younger brothers loved to listen to in the barn when they were supposed to be milking cows.
“They would leave the milker on that cow until a certain part of the story was over,” she says. “I would always get so angry with them. Finally, I told my parents about it—that them boys were doing that. So they took the radio away from them.”
I’m grateful to have my grandmother’s voice preserved, but I can’t help but wonder why we don’t ask more questions and record more answers about our family histories when we can.
I keep thinking of the things I’ll never know about her. What did she think about being a homemaker, a farmer’s wife, and raising nine children, eight of them girls? What hopes and dreams did she have for them, for herself?
In my years as a journalist, I’ve learned more intimate, personal details about relative strangers than I have about my actual relatives. It’s easier to talk to and write about people I don’t know. I can be more objective, ask clearer questions and see the thread weaves the story together.
With our own stories, sometimes it can be like looking through the lens of a camera and not realizing it’s zoomed in. When you’re looking at preserving your business or family histories, you’re often too close to the subject and you can’t see the whole picture. But if we could zoom out, what kind of life would come into focus?
That’s what I’m here to help you see.
“Grandpa, tell me a story.”The sixty years that separated me and my grandfather didn’t make it easy for us to connect. Our personalities, our hobbies and our perceptions of the world were diametrically opposed, and more often than not, our visits were marked by awkward silence.
However, with those five little words, I found the key to unlocking one of the most meaningful relationships of my life. What started as a trickle of anecdotes about his childhood evolved over the years into hours-long conversations about the twists and turns of a life fully lived. His memories of his parents, his friends and his community became the foundation upon which we grew to understand each other.
Through those stories, I met someone new: He ceased to simply be a gray-haired man who sat in the chair across from me and became a fellow human being with his own triumphs and failures, loves and losses, and a treasure trove of experiences to share. I discovered that generation gap wasn’t so wide after all. Although he can no longer tell me those stories for the fifteenth time, his words ring in my ears every day as I make my way in a world that’s different but not unrecognizable from the one he lived in.
These days, my grandpa’s stories aren’t the only ones I immerse myself in. I’m a Chicago-based creative writer, avid photographer, amateur genealogist and collector of an unhealthy number of hobbies. As I write plays, short stories and a blog that explores tales overlooked by history, I strive to keep story arc, lively characters, narrative detail and all the other elements of a good story at the heart of each project. Professionally, I’ve made a career of distilling complex ideas from the health care, education policy and political sectors and weaving them into engaging communications for diverse audiences.
Taken together, my creative and analytical experiences have prepared me to support you as you tell the story of your life to your loved ones. I’m living proof of the power that sharing memories has to forge and strengthen relationships; I would be honored to help you and your family enrich those connections through life-writing with bioGraph.
I could tell you about growing up in New York City, singing in the children’s chorus at The New York City Opera and working in a nightclub on the Lower East Side.I could tell you about leaving home as soon as possible, living in a studio with a Murphy bed in Chelsea, a loft in Chinatown with a roommate who stole all the cups. In an apartment owned by Tony Leone who I had to pay rent to in cash each month, sitting nervously at one end of the in-laid gold table, mirror on the ceiling above, grandmother counting out my bills.I could tell you about graduating from NYU, getting work in an office and dying of boredom. My skin turning gray from the fluorescent lighting; my mind turning black from the doldrums of routine.
I could tell you about moving to Los Angeles, a house up Las Flores Canyon in Malibu. My landlord didn’t believe in kitchens or screens. So we had no kitchen. We had no screens. One day his son went for a hike and never returned. The day I moved out, his remains were found with coyote teeth marks on his bones.
I could tell you the story of falling in love and moving to Venice Beach and writing screenplays and TV shows, a tragic, clichéd, Hollywood ending which resulted in falling out of love and moving to Silverlake where a surprise turn led to singing on stage in front of sold out crowds for the next four years until one day, I sold everything I owned and flew on a one-way ticket to Paris.
I could then tell you about living in the 11th arrondissement and how the first thing I was told was not to speak French like Brittney Spears. Three months later I moved to Barcelona. Three months after that to Edinburgh. I spent a month on the island of Eigg—population 87—waking to the smell of fresh bread. Running for miles in the blustery, sheep-laden wilderness. Sitting by fires for supper and after, joining the island’s night owls in a pub on the bay of Laig with the Singing Sands howling in the winds below.
Or I could go even further back and tell you what it was like growing up with the kind of father who built mansions one day and sold used cars the next. A mother who threw telephones through plate-glass doors and older brothers who let me drive around out with them and their girlfriends, me envying the way they rested the length of their arms against the car’s open windows, hands holding onto the roof.
I could tell you what it’s like living the life of a writer but that, I’m afraid, would go against Elmore Leonard’s advice to, “skip the boring parts.”
There are a thousand ways to write a bio, which is really just a miniature form of a life story—a reckoning of the thousands of experiences that have made you who you are, and if you’re very lucky, shed a little light on who you want to be.
Collaborating with a writer on your bioGraphy offers you, the storyteller, the chance to preserve your life experiences in the most exhilarating way. You, in essence, become a movie director, laying out the acts scene by scene, as the writer digs deeper, finding connections between moments long forgot, discovering significant supporting characters and unearthing all the grit, glamour and gravitas in-between. There is no better gift you can give future generations than to place your history in their hands.
Deborah Stoll’s work as a journalist has been featured in The Economist’s online magazine, 1843, the LA Times, the LA Weekly and Punch Drink. Her short stories have appeared in Slake, Swivel and Fresh Yarn, and her collective work as a content creator and animator has more than one million views on YouTube. Her first book is forthcoming from Harper Wave, summer 2020.
“It’s important to me that you have these stories, that we as a family pass on our memories.” With these words my grandmother ended the letter she sent me one summer day out of the blue. It enclosed stories of her childhood: growing up with her sister who had passed away long before I was born, of some her favorite pastimes, and of events that she felt truly shaped her life. I continue to feel so grateful that my grandmother put in the time to share her stories with me because of the newfound connection to her that I felt after reading them.
Stories have the power to bring us closer together. Intergenerational stories allow us to find a firmer sense of self in the world and to feel an unparalleled sense of connection and belonging. After receiving my grandmother’s letter I felt inspired to talk to all of my grandparents, as well as my parents, to hear their stories as well, to further connect to my family. Hearing their stories I found myself more connected to my Mexican-American heritage, gaining a more complex understanding of my family’s experiences and history. Moreover, I grew up in Connecticut but my entire family is from the southwest. I feel connected to a place I’ve only ever visited because of the stories that I have heard about that take place there. My father’s childhood home just outside of Houston. My great-grandmother’s house in Pasadena with a grove of orange trees and lemon trees in the back. Places that appeared as hazy memories of my toddler mind have since been brightened, filled in by the stories my parents have told me about these places, about their connection to them.
Sharing our stories with those we love, letting our memories become the memories of the next generation, linking ourselves to one another through our narratives. That is one of the most precious and indispensable gifts that we can offer one another. I learned this both through my personal experiences, but also through my time as a comparative literature major at Columbia University, where I looked at the impact of narratives of communities of people and specifically at the power of intergenerational narratives in fostering a sense of belonging and connection to one’s world and oneself. At Columbia I also attended workshops held by the Oral History department that offered training on how to interview people and provide the space for people to discover just how large their own catalogue of memories truly is. Each time I interview someone, whether they be my interviews with my family, or with others that I have interviewed for school and personal projects, my understanding of the power of sharing our stories becomes exponentially strengthened. I am passionate about doing the work that I can to help offer this gift to others as well, to enable others to feel that sense of connection that only comes through shared stories.
In the summer of 2009, I traveled to Bosnia and Herzegovina for the first time. I was considering a career in journalism, and had found a summer reporting internship in Sarajevo that would simultaneously allow me to explore a culture I had a growing interest in. That summer would change my life profoundly. I was as moved by the hospitality and generosity of the Bosnian people as I was captivated by the breathtaking mountain landscape—a dramatic contrast from Chicago where I grew up. When the internship came to an end, I didn’t want to leave. But I already had plans to go to Budapest for a master’s program in Sociology and Social Anthropology. Plus, I had run out of money and a student stipend was waiting for me.
That year in Hungary, I wrote my thesis on the ethical debates surrounding the issue of social anthropologists telling the stories of communities during times of conflict. When I graduated, I was determined to go back to Bosnia. I knew it still had more to teach me.
I lived in Sarajevo for nearly six years. I became fluent in the language; wrote feature articles for magazines and newspapers about local people and social movements; worked in media development; explored innumerable corners of the country; and updated the most recent edition of the only full-length English language guidebook to Bosnia and Herzegovina. What transformed me the most, however, were the stories I heard—far more than I could possibly record. The country is saturated with them. Almost every individual you encounter for more than a few minutes is ready to tell you one. Often the story is about the 1990s war, which inevitably touched the life of any Bosnian who survived that traumatic time. But just as often, the stories are about what happened after the war ended. Sometimes they are about finding happiness, and sometimes about how things got worse. Or, sometimes the story is just a simple, colorful anecdote to make a connection with you. I would do Bosnians an injustice if I didn’t mention that dark humor also tends to find its way into every tale. People expect you to tell a part of your story, too. Even if you are reluctant, you will be asked questions until you finally tell the other person something worth hearing. Exchanging stories is a form of social currency in a country where it’s difficult to find a person whose life has been uneventful, or a person who has not learned an important lesson they are eager to impart.
The result of all those brushes with the lives of others was not only an expanded consciousness, but also a sense of belonging in the world—that my fate is tied by an invisible thread to the people around me.
Now that I don’t live in Sarajevo anymore, exchanging stories with strangers — let alone loved ones — is again the exception rather than the rule. When I ask myself why this is the case, I come up with a number of possible reasons, like being glutted by movies, television, and social media; not wanting to bother each other; being afraid of each other; falsely believing we have nothing to say, or nothing to learn. Whatever the reasons, it’s a lonelier and spiritually poorer place.
Those Sarajevo encounters with the art of everyday oral storytelling are what first drew me toward an interest in life writing. Later, that interest was reinforced by the unexpected death of my father, who raised me and my brother on his own and who was the historian among us. I had no idea how much his personal and family stories meant to me until he was gone and it was too late to write them down. I am grateful for the single recorded interview I have with him—which I did as part of an anthropology class.
The events that shape a life don’t have to be as momentous as living through a war in order to be worthy of being told. Your effort to connect by sharing your humble, dignified journey is enough to fulfill the need of others—perhaps unspoken—to entwine their world and their own narrative into yours. While oral stories add texture and flavor to the broth of daily life, the beauty of a written story is that it can be shared with anyone at any time—whenever the receiver is ready. I am excited to use my ten years of experience as a writer, editor, and seeker of intercultural dialogue to help others craft a timeless, irreplaceable gift for those who will appreciate it and benefit from it the most.
Stories are one of several important things passed on to us. Intangible as they are, these colorful clouds of smiles and pained gasps and hard knocks settle us into our seats as we stop and listen. We listen because one day we might live to have our own stories, the stories from yesteryear helping us with every step forward. The problem with stories is their ethereal nature. Unless grabbed by the neck and penned into existence, stories remain the wispy playthings of the wind, only ever manifesting in the back of our memories.
As a First-Generation American the power of stories is quite clear. My parents had no other way of showing me the culture I would inherit except with stories. My mother told me about my artisan great-grandfather. He makes lacquered boxes and small figurines of butterflies, cows, pigs, odd tomato shapes and gourds. She told me how whenever she would visit him, she was always swarmed by the local cats he fed to have a source of hair for his brushes. She told me how she stood inside a monster dust devil, latching on to a chain link fence praying. The wind whipped around her, the dust asphyxiating. My father instead told me an Aztec love story between two volcanos: Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl.
I can remember the kids at my elementary school because they always had these bizarre stories and I discovered that children often have the best stories. I wouldn’t speak much, opting instead to listen as they excitedly looked to their crowd, eyes gleaming, hand on their hips. Growing up on the south side of Chicago, people who cared enough to genuinely listen to your stories, to be acknowledged was important to us, we just didn’t know it yet. These stories fueled my desire to create and there was never a shortage of stories, someone always had a story to tell whether it’s a pragmatic tale of caution or a silly tale of events.
I would hone my writing skill, eventually (after being forced to participate in a spoken word contest) I found myself writing poetry which only increased my reflections on writing. I was obsessed by the emotion brought in their stanzas. What was it about the delivery of emotion that I found so compelling? Eventually after reading the memoir The Color of Water by James Mcbride I realized why I gravitated so strongly to the emotion stories could rouse from the reader. The emotion made it real, it didn’t matter if the story already was real. If I could be brought to tears because of words on a page, I was sold. When the emotion communicated feels authentic, the story transcends the page and sticks to you. The message is understood, the knowledge consumed, it becomes a memory in the readers brain forever. We strive to bring your stories to life with the same excited breath you would use to tell it yourself.
So, tell me, what stories do you have to tell?
I never fully appreciated the beauty of the mountains of Northeast Georgia where I grew up, until I packed up my journalism degree and other belongings and moved to Manhattan’s upper west side to work as an editor and producer at CBS News and NBC’s TODAY Show.My work as a journalist, editor, and producer has allowed me to tell stories about people from all over the world. I spoke with a 101-year-old man from Devon, England, who took his entire family skydiving to celebrate his birthday. His family members described the powerful experience as something they will never forget. I also learned why an Australian mom’s childhood compelled her to purchase multiple houses so that the homeless in her community would have a place to live. I even spoke with a garbage truck driver who drove into the California wildfires to rescue a 93-year-old woman on his route who he knew lived alone. She called him “her dearest friend.”These people have taught me that stories are important, not because of the prestige associated with someone’s job or accomplishments – and those things are not to be discounted – but because of the impact they have made on the lives around them. I believe telling these stories helps people understand how important they are – even if they don’t feel like it in their day-to-day lives.
My journalism experience has taught me that there are so many reasons why it is important to reflect on your life. I am here to help you communicate your story so that it will be just as impactful to you as it will be to your family. I will work with you to communicate the story you want to tell about yourself in a thoughtful, thought-provoking way that reflects your personality and wishes. Sometimes these stories end up meaning more to others than they do to you — because it can be hard to communicate your own perspective in the most effective way when you are so close to personal issues that may impact the message of your life’s largest themes. My job is to help people gather photos, videos, and audio recordings that tell their stories. The results of this gathering are often unpredictable and astonishing. While no one knows exactly what it is like to be you — we can work to communicate your values so that you can take control of your story and tell it the way it should be told.
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
-T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
As a screenwriter, poet, international author, and mythologist, I am concerned primarily with two aspects of storytelling—drama and mythology. Drama is an interference. It’s where we bravely encounter the plight of living and rejoice after triumphing over insurmountable obstacles. Drama is not told dryly like cooking instructions but represented artfully through images and actions. Today, we often dismiss mythology as fictitious or irrational, but human beings have always been meaning-seeking creatures. Mythology is not told for its own sake. It is an inner exploration, the story of our own being. Like Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, Frodo in the Lord of the Rings, or Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, storytelling affords us the opportunity to discover that our lives contain sacred and magical elements. We are living our own hero’s journey.
My intention as a writer is to remind readers that riveting tales are not revolutionized or re-engineered all the way to profundity, but rather emerge profoundly after normal, run-of-the-mill truths become adequately named for the first time. When I say truth, I am not necessarily talking about empirical data, like scientific evidence. Mythological truth is similar to love. It’s what true to us. If I asked you to prove to me that you have ever been in love empirically, with charts and numbers, you wouldn’t be able to. But regardless, there is a resolute confidence in your experience that’s unshakeable. This is the direction we head towards with our own stories, this noetic type of knowing living deep within the body.
I published my first poetry series when I was a senior in college. What the Couch Told Me was an attempt to strip away the layers of the quotidian and discover something timeless beneath it. It was inspired after my professor hungrily wrote on the board one stormy morning, “All a poet needs to do is pay attention!” Mike had wiry, white hair and a wry, animated smile, and something about it stuck. Those words leaped off the chalkboard and into my heart, and I have been in pursuit of their meaning since. Last November, I published my second book called Crybaby: Meditation for Millennials and currently have a third manuscript in the final stages of editing.
Storytelling requires we become curious and turn our energies inward, a radical action to say the least. Like charioteers stirring up the dusty earth, our stories raise themselves naturally from the ground of being as long as we give them space to reveal their mystery. Storytelling is much more than leisure or labor. It is about reawakening liveliness and learning to see things as they are, which is different from our interpretations of the way things are.
Stories are the vessels that take us on journeys and carry us to faraway places. Storytelling is a powerful tool that transcends cultural boundaries and spurs people to adventure, play and restitution. We find hope, deliverance, faith and even freedom in stories. As an avid creative thought leader and entrepreneur with a passion for brand storytelling, I am a firm believer that stories have the power to change society and the world.
Brands can no longer afford to be empty and emotionless faces of the products or services that they offer. The advantages of the technical age have required brands to evolve and consumers now demand brand responsibility and vitality. Brands now must be living and breathing representations of what their services or products do for their consumers. When it comes to brand storytelling and communication, at the end of the day, truth becomes a matter of what the consumer understands about your brand and the way it makes them feel as an individual. This has ushered in a new era of dynamic branding and storytelling.
Throughout my life, my journey has led me to tell stories in many different ways. Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico I was surrounded by stories. New Mexico is known as the land of enchantment and is a place filled with a rich cultural history of our country’s native roots. My creative path began with writing music and my search for adventure led me on a journey that showed me the wide expanse of my own imagination and the value of curiosity. I moved to Chicago, Illinois when I was 18 years old, where I currently reside. Over the years I’ve learned that changing the world starts with changing ourselves and the way we think, live and create. I am a wellness advocate and often write about organizational development, challenging the status quo and creating a holistic work environment. I believe that creating space in your life to play, imagine and dream is vital in the creative process, stress management and innovation.
As a product of 12 years of homeschooling, I started out at Harold Washington College in Chicago, Illinois before transferring to DePaul University. At DePaul I received my Bachelor of Arts degree in Global Communications and a Master of Arts degree in Applied Professional Studies, with a concentration in Authorship and Entrepreneurialism.
My recent journey into the world of writing led to publishing the first book in my fantasy fiction series for young adults. Book 1 in my Clown Town Adventures series called ‘Escape to Clown Town,’ is a new breed of writing that was inspired by the old works of C.S. Lewis and Jane Austen. The story is set in an exquisitely crafted universe that successfully marries the whimsicality of fantasy with an in-depth look at good versus evil. Getting it out the door took me four years and I could talk extensively about the different challenges that I faced, but ultimately I will always be grateful that this is part of my legacy of creative advocacy.
I have been a writing coach from the age of six, and a professional freelance editor for the past thirty years. I am a wheelchair-user who has lived and worked in six countries, including as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jamaica and as a mediator in Northern Ireland. My passions include environmental sustainability, and the care and protection of animals.
The panoply of people who want me to help them tell their stories all share common desires and inhibitions. They ask similar questions. “Is there a story here, and is it good? Will you be the author, co-author, or ghostwriter? How long will it take? How much will it cost? What will it look like when it’s bound and published?”
I respond first with Socratic method, starting with a single question that with proper emphasis becomes three.
“Why write your story?”
“Why write your story?”
“Why write your story?”
I have perused, tackled, and sometimes beaten these questions nearly to death. For me, writing is a cathartic art and a skill that pays some bills. I also share at least three deeper motives with those who seek my help in writing their lives.
1. We need to communicate. We believe that life is better when we communicate well. Living beings have a need to be understood, and generally we’d rather be understood and disagreed with than be agreed with but misunderstood. I help others communicate so that they can be understood. I teach others that good communication requires a clear message, respect for the intelligence of one’s audience, and an ability to anticipate how they’ll respond.
2. We want our accomplishments to last. Folks who have dedicated their lives to creating – a business, a philosophy, an artistic masterpiece, a better mousetrap – rightfully hope that their creations will outlive them. And the rest of us hope so too, so that we can stand on the shoulders of giants. The timeless book in which you write your life is not just another creation – it is the ultimate creation that breathes long life into all of your other creations.
3. We believe we are the authors of our own lives, but we know we need the help of co-authors. Barriers between the mind and the page may inhibit the original author’s storytelling. Sometimes we’re too close to our own lives to see them clearly. Sometimes we need others to spark our memories. Employing a team of professional co-authors, ghostwriters, and bookmakers liberates folks to focus on higher-level dreams and reflections, which it is the team’s task to polish and deliver. The right team will not hijack your authorship but instead enhance its veracity. You’ll know the right team when you can trust them to steward your story with as much care as they would steward your life itself.
About the Author
Carolyn Davis is a professional editor, researcher, and librarian. Her publications include How to Write Persuasively Today, “Jumping in Tandem,” in Contemporary American Women: Our Defining Passages, and “Do You Want to Be an Anthologist?” in Writing and Publishing: The Librarian’s Handbook. Carolyn in a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, and she has just completed her first novel and working on her second.
I’m told my first word was cookie, but I’m betting it was, rather, a series of these six little blockbusters all strung together: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
My father was a crime reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin, and I was a proud daddy’s girl. (Sorry, Mom, I’m sure that was really annoying for you.) I entered his world at age seven by learning to hunt and peck on the khaki-colored Olivetti manual typewriter that dominated my dad’s wood-paneled den. Whenever I was permitted, I accompanied my father to work at the newsroom of a building known as “The Roundhouse,” headquarters of the Philadelphia Police Department. While swinging my legs from a battered office chair and eating donuts, I listened and learned from the cadre of seasoned reporters that were my dad’s peers.
By age 12, I surmised I would become a writer. An extrovert, I loved talking to the adults in my small-town neighborhood where dogs still ran free and my sister and I captured fireflies on hot summer nights. I regularly visited with our neighbors, collecting accounts of family weddings, a husband’s business trip to Cleveland, and other “news.” The gift of truly listening — combined with a genuine curiosity and love of storytelling — foreshadowed a journalist in the making.
My writing career blossomed during journalism school at American University. I somehow fell into the plum role of rock and roll reviewer and interviewer for my college newspaper. As an intern for a major national news service, I published a dozen stories during my senior year. (Thank you, mentors.)
Post college, at age 22, I returned to Philly and became the junior member of a two-person staff for a jewelry trade magazine. By age 24, love of story, a strong work ethic, and respect for my craft fueled me into a position as managing editor of a New York City advertising magazine.
One shiny gem from my dad: “There are no small stories.” I believe this tenet fervently, particularly as it applies to the writing of family histories, personal biography and corporate histories. Everyone’s story matters, and each individual offers something valuable in telling that tale— the good, the bad, and (maybe) even the ugly. In a world where celebrity gossip seems to rule the day, it’s gratifying to share honest, sometimes gritty, stories about real people finding love, falling down, getting back up, winning the day, and overcoming the defeats of everyday life.
Poet John Mark Green has written, “Scrape away the rust from these jaded eyes
and let me see again the wild wonder of life; to know in joy and pain what a miracle it is to feel anything at all.” Is John Mark Green speaking to you? Perhaps.
What’s your story, and what’s the wisdom and wonder you want to pass on to those who love you — and perhaps to people who don’t even know you yet (think great-grandchildren)? It would be my privilege to curate your story with you in a spirit of collaboration, cultivation, and authenticity.
In my freshman year of college, I was officially diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, its symptoms providing the soundtrack to my life for as long as I could remember. Yet, thanks to a miscommunication with the therapist I’d been seeing, I didn’t actually learn of my diagnosis for three more years. When the truth finally came out—that I had a word, a label, to communicate my experience—it was like the sky opened up and I could see constellations for the first time. It didn’t come as a surprise; rather, it confirmed the existence of what I’d known was there all along.
Growing up with undiagnosed OCD, it was difficult for me to explain my feelings, behaviors, and experiences to others, because my brain was programmed with a type of logic that made sense only to me. How do you communicate the nuances of something you’ve lived with so long that it’s become normal for you? Decoding my mental processes and translating them into language that other people would understand was an undertaking that took about twenty years for me to get right. Diagnoses can only articulate so much, and developing my own vocabulary for why I do the things I do (and why my OCD makes me do them) made it so much easier for my family and friends to understand me.
Having the language to articulate something is a precursor to others’ understanding of it, and I know firsthand just how difficult it can be to communicate your unique definition of “normal” to other people who define it differently. Finding the right words to express what we want to express is a difficult, lifelong process. My goal as a life-writer is to communicate your experiences, thoughts, and feelings in a way that is both understandable and resonant, while staying true to your intentions for sharing those parts of yourself in the first place. I’m here to help you find your “right words.” Everyone wants to feel heard, seen, understood, and validated. It’s my job to make that happen for you.
Outside of life-writing, I am a poet and freelance writer originally from Long Island, NY. I received my Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from UMass Amherst, and attended SUNY Geneseo in upstate New York for undergrad. I am also the author of two poetry chapbooks, Heart Float (Bottlecap Press, 2017) and Going to Ithaca (Ghost City Press, 2017). My special interests are mental health and brain chemistry, the body, mortality, and storytelling mediums that blur the lines of literature and art as we understand them, like film, comics, and video games. I currently live in western Massachusetts with my fiancé, our cat Harvey, and some local wildlife who occasionally wander through our yard.
Joseph Anthony Rulli
Joseph Anthony Rulli
I am a transplanted Hoosier, born in South Bend and have been living in Chicago since the fall of 2006. A 1987 graduate of the University of Notre Dame (BA, History) and a 1992 graduate of St. Meinrad School of Theology (MDiv), I’ve taught Social Studies, Religion, Philosophy and History at the high school level while serving in three Catholic parishes as a priest in Indiana.After suffering a major emotional breakdown, I entered a six-month psychiatric program which resulted in my leaving active ministry. I began writing as a career shortly after this, upon my arrival to Chicago, my second city. I’ve had two short stories published in journals and one story in an anthology under my pen name, Terence Byrsa. My first stage play was performed in the spring of 2016. In the non-fiction area, I’ve written numerous articles and reviews for two Chicago-based online journals. I had, for a brief time, an electronic tour book on the sites in Chicago related to the Haymarket Affair of 1886. This morphed into my first print book being published in 2016 by History Press/Arcadia. I’m currently working on a second book for them, due out in mid-2019.
Writing has been a life-long passion of mine which saved my life while I was institutionalized. I honed my skills of self-reflection and articulation on the written and digital pages of journals and in my fiction-writing. When I got to Chicago, I decided to write under a pen name, freeing myself from the inhibitions of internal and external censorship. While playwriting is my passion, I’ve rediscovered my dormant gift for non-fiction, left unused since college. As an author of fiction, I love transforming bare facts into creative and entertaining prose. These two different expressions, fiction and non-fiction, have worked well for me. I can take the spoken word, transcribe it on the page and create a readable, accurate account of an event.
One of my personal projects is to collate a series of recorded conversations I had with my paternal grandmother in the late 1980’s. She was born in 1900 in southern Italy and immigrated to Indiana in 1928, having lived six years under the fascist government of Benito Mussolini. The goal I have for this project is a memoir-based staged work, capturing the emotion and passion of her personality and working with a director in translating that to performance by a single woman or a few actors. I have seen this done on two occasions in Chicago – one-woman and two-actor performances that bring out the life/lives of the subject(s) through anecdotes as well as with projected images throughout the play.
The key to writing a memoir or any memory-based work is to bring the information to life by touching on the human emotions from which the story comes. Solid writing in any genre gets its strength from the foundation of our shared experience, and it’s in this vein that I seek to write.
The District of Columbia is mostly a city of transients who come to work for the government. There aren’t many native Washingtonians, but I am one. I grew up during the turbulent 1960s and ‘70s, as our nation lost its innocence: The assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the DC riots fueled by King’s killing, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal all saw to that.
As a child, I was blissfully unaware of most of this. I rode public buses at 7, loved my best friend Tina fiercely, and logged countless hours on my trusty bike, with its of-the-era banana seat. My older sister was a card-carrying hippie and my twin brother Barry had profound special needs. I learned, at 10, the intricacies of caring for him.
My mother was my soft place to fall as I navigated the complexities of growing up. She and I spent sticky summers at the pool where I played Marco Polo, drank Shirley Temples, and had a tight friend group. During the school year, she registered me for Smithsonian Institution classes, where my creativity and love for history and art blossomed.
My father was a NASA scientist, but also a gifted writer and storyteller. I credit his way with words to his mother Mary, a County Cork, Ireland native who came to America at 16 to work as a domestic. Can you imagine? She was creative, irreverent, and quirky, and I’m happy to hear we share these traits.
I attended college in Boston, became obsessed with punk rock, and built a family of wonderfully creative peers. I again immersed myself in museums: The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum dripped with Renaissance masterpieces, the Louisa May Alcott House was a refuge, and the Institute of Contemporary Art exhibitions showed me that the design envelope should be pushed.
Later I enjoyed working in publishing and public information at small and large nonprofits. After two years of juggling nighttime classes with work as a Public Information Officer, I earned my MA from Tufts University. I had also married Craig, a consummate New Englander, and we decided to move to Asheville, North Carolina after one too many heinous Boston winters. We immersed ourselves in our new community, restored two historic homes, and had our children, Colin and Louise.
We waited to become parents and shortly into the adventure, we encountered a monumental obstacle. When the kids were 3 and 5, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was, hands down, the most terrifying challenge I’ve faced. I never thought I’d acknowledge that any good came from this trial, but we learned about our considerable resilience, how loved we were, and what’s truly important (as well as what doesn’t matter one bit).
I’ve always appreciated the simple pleasures – a steaming cup of coffee, a hearty laugh with a friend, a brilliant sunset. I hope to continue loving, learning, serving other survivors, and treasuring my damn fine, complicated life for many years to come.
My first journal’s cover is wrapped in pink fluff. I’m still embarrassed of this fact, but for many years growing up, pink was undeniably my ride-or-die. I had pink walls and pink bathroom counters. I even demanded we paint my great grandmother’s beautiful, antique wood dresser pink from top to bottom. Begrudgingly, I compromised on painting it white with pink trim.I filled my furry, pink journal with scribbles that are mostly indiscernible. I wrote my name over and over again, trying out cursive and bubble letters. I wrote in very frank terms how our home, Florida, was “too sweaty” and how dogs “have scary mouths.” But I also recorded my milestones: finishing first grade, making new friends in second, and losing those friends in third. Things started to get tough, although on the upside, I was getting better and better at articulating those feelings. It’s still a little hard to read my entries from fourth and fifth grade.For my twelfth birthday, I received the saving grace of my middle school years: a pastel purple journal sealed by a tiny silver key. Then, I started writing music, and my one journal expanded to three notebooks filled with poetry and chords. High school felt centuries long. I was broken up with and starred in musicals; I read Saturday for the first time, discovering my favorite author, Ian McEwan. All of this is documented in pages and pages of my own handwriting, archived away for nights spent reminiscing about adolescence.
But I want to stand still in the summer of 2016. I often go back and look through my college writings to find these very two months. Working at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I was desperately homesick, trying to make the best of what should have been the greatest experience of my life. Instead, I missed my mom and warm summer breezes. I wrote this:
stone city lit by pale light
until far too late
but silent much too early
closes echo from clipped
footsteps plodding along
with mere ferocity
sparkling rain gathers
around the garbage left
alongside cobbled stones
nine at night as quiet
as three in the morning
i’ve never felt more ease
and loneliness in one place
Every time I return to my scrawled pencil-markings, I remember this moment, sitting on the upper deck of a bus. On the way to the university library from my flat, it poured cold rain, and I had left my umbrella in some easily overlooked place. And I feel the damp bus seat and see the rain pattering against the bus windows. I remember the ease of the city, and the sting of loneliness.
Life-writing is more than just recording a memory. It is capturing a moment so distinctly that you remember the you that sat on that bus. And while I have been life-writing my whole life, I am truly just getting started. Wherever you are in your life, you are ready to reflect on your legacy. You’ll thank yourself later.
I began life writing when I was in second grade. Our elementary school had just bought a paper binding machine for our library, and it could be used to make small books with black plastic spiral binding on the outside. I could barely wait for our next assignment as a class: writing a book. We held brainstorming sessions so that each student could think of a story to tell. My friends wrote about talking goldfish, baseball stars, and aliens. But with all the wisdom and egotism a seven-year-old could muster, I decided to eschew fiction and write an autobiography. That tiny book took me almost a week to finish (including the stick-figure illustrations of my birth), and it was the first biography of any kind that I had written.
It wasn’t the last. Through the years I’ve spent writing for various publications, a significant portion of my work has been writing profiles and biographies of community members and public figures. I’ve written about veteran teachers, politicians, national political operatives, academics, activists, university administrators, and a host of other personalities—each with rich, storied histories that brought them to a complex and fascinating present.
In the process, I have conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with the subjects of these projects and the people in their lives. I have consistently seen that the most revealing facet of a person’s life is the relationships they build with colleagues, friends, and family. One of my core aims as a life writer is to catalogue the impact that my subject has had on those people as well as the way they are viewed by their peers. Equally important to the lives we lead are the lives we leave behind when we go. Part of my mission is to capture how my subjects fit into the mosaic of humanity that they occupy in their day-to-day existence.
I’m currently an undergraduate at the University of Michigan studying writing, political science, and history. The reason I have a passion for history is that I get to study the enthralling stories of the people who have, over thousands of years, shaped our world into what it is today. But I know that the subjects of history courses are merely the most noteworthy figures we’ve recorded. In reality, almost everyone has experienced personal stories as complex and engaging as any ancient emperor or philosopher.
I see life writing as the practice of fleshing out these stories and exploring them to their fullest emotional extent—ensuring that the nuance and influence of each is preserved. It’s a rare opportunity to plumb the moments, people, feelings, and happenings that are of deep personal importance to us because those are the things that influence our lives the most, no matter how trivial they may seem to a casual observer. They’re fascinating to read and write about because of their raw emotional resonance. There is perhaps no greater pursuit than to capture such a human experience in its entirety. This is the realm where I hope to write for you.
When I was six, I broke my arm falling from the monkey bars at the neighborhood park. That summer, my arm was in a cast for two entire months. That same summer, I read Harry Potter for the first time. The books enhanced the magical aura of a six-year-old’s summer and I, dubbed the “Iron-Armed Warrior” by playground friends and wearing my favorite princess dresses, ran around brandishing my cast like a shield, imagining myself fighting alongside the Golden Trio. When the cast came off at the end of summer and school began again, my warriorprincess summer left no physical mark except for a slight misalignment of my elbow bones. However, even now, I can still recall the dull thuds of foam swords knocking against my cast and the exasperated voices of parents telling us to be careful. I would always treasure that magical feeling of being small but unafraid, injured but still invincible…Fast forward, to the summer in which I turned eighteen, when I fell off a rented bicycle with broken brakes. That summer day, under the sweltering sun, on the uneven roads next to the Hangzhou lake, I ruined my favorite shirt – the white one, with a koala on the breast pocket. I got three stitches on my brow and the scar from the accident was captured in all my birthday photos. I had been biking during my graduation trip, with adult supervision hours away but with my friends right beside me. When summer ended, college took my friends and I different ways, but no matter how much distance is now between us, I never want to forget the warmth of their hands, holding mine at the hospital; their raised voices, arguing with the bike-stand owner at the police station; their tearful laughter, when I chided them for being more worried about my injuries than I was…I have never been scared of falling and fear has never stopped me from challenging myself. Considering my lack of physical coordination, that may not be something I should be proud of. A scar on the bottom of my right foot marked the time I jumped down from the raised bed in my dorm room, instead of using the stairs, during my first week of boarding school; dark bruises on both of my knees remind me of when I tripped during a 800-meter running competition and fell so hard I walked with a limp for over a month…Each one of these little scrapes and bruises my clumsy self have collected over the years tell a story. No matter how insignificant they may appear to others, I value each one as they serve to remind me of who I used to be: the things I’ve experienced and the people I’ve met, the mistakes I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned. It is my own experience with life-writing that have helped me capture and preserve those little details within my memories which would otherwise have been lost. Whether or not these memories hold practical value, or if they are just pieces of nostalgia, I use writing to make sure I never forget them – all the stories making up my life that I just can’t bear to part with.