Monthly Archives: February 2009

No One Dies Wishing They Had More Shoes.

peak-experienceNewsflash: Spending money on things will not make us as happy as spending on experiences. This is the conclusion of recent study conducted by Ryan Howell, an assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. You can listen to Professor Howell in a 7 minute  interview here on NPR.  According to SFU’s February 7 press release, the study, “demonstrates that experiential purchases, such as a meal out or theater tickets, result in increased well-being because they satisfy higher order needs, specifically the need for social connectedness and vitality — a feeling of being alive.” Professor Howell explained in an interview,

Purchased experiences provide memory capital. We don’t tend to get bored of happy memories like we do with a material object…it’s not that material things don’t bring any happiness. It’s just that they don’t bring as much…You’re happy with a new television set. But you’re thrilled with a vacation.

This study got me thinking. It brought to mind some of the great experiences in my life – being a volunteer teacher in Ghana for two years, snorkeling over a coral reef in Tobago, meeting my partner 35 years ago and volunteering at Victoria Hospice every Tuesday morning.

I was particularly struck by the studies link between long term happiness and social connectedness. For me, this again speaks to the importance of  helping people record and preserve  their life stories. Whether we’re sitting down with a family member, friend or neighbor, we are not just collecting stories. We are connecting with people and in the process bringing a little happiness into the world.

What are some of your great life experiences?

Photo by Ben Tubby

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Ten Great Links to Help With “Pesky” Grammatical Stuff.

grammarI’ve a confession to make. I’ve never been great with  grammar. Maybe that’s why I work primarily in video ;-)   I’m sure some of you more keen- eyed grammarians have spotted the odd blunder or two in my posts. However, when I do write major pieces I always rely on a good editor to polish my work.  There are many talented editors out there and if you’re looking for someone, I’d highly recommend Stephen Evans, The Freelance Editor.

For those of you who prefer to work on your own, here’s a great list composed by the Online Education  Database:  150 Resources to Help You Write Better, Faster, and More Persuasively. The following list is excerpted  from their section on English Language Skills.

  1. English Grammar FAQ: A simple and easy-to-use list of common English language problems and how to solve them. This list was compiled through an extensive archive of postings to alt.usage.english by John  Lawler, Linguistics, U. Michigan, Ann Arbor.
  2. 50Tools to Increase Your Writing Skills: Offered by Poynter Online, these tips are clever and wise. Although Poynter is geared toward journalists, this list is geared toward any writer.
  3. Gender-Fair Language: This short guide will help you to avoid gender-specific discrimination in your writing and speech.
  4. Grammar, Punctuation, and Capitalization for Technical Writers and Editors: Although this comprehensive guide is geared toward technical writing, its easy-to-use format and easy-to-understand explanations  would benefit any writer.
  5. Guide to Grammar and Style: Written by Jack Lynch, this site provides grammatical rules and explanations, comments on style, and suggestions on usage that Lynch put together for his classes.
  6. Guide to Grammar and Writing: Choose from several modules that will help you to determine how to structure your writing. The Capital Community College Foundation sponsors the Guide to Grammar and Writing.
  7. Hypergrammar: The University of Ottawa provides a heavily linked explanation to all things proper in English grammar. This is a comprehensive one-stop shop for structure, spelling, and punctuation.
  8. Style Guide: This guide is based on the style book which is given to all journalists at The Economist. It provides hints on how to use syntax, metaphors, punctuation, and more.
  9. The Elements of Style: William Strunk, Jr. wrote the classic reference book for any student and conscientious writer. Bartleby.com offers the entire book free online.
  10. Verbix: Did he lay or lie? Which tense should you use? If you’re confused, this English conjugator will help you to determine how to use verbs in the proper tense. You can also Ask Oxford if you’d prefer.

Photo by Margaret Vincent

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The Life Story Quote of The Week

lifestory-text

Ultimately, the richest resource for meaning and healing is one we already posses. It  rests (mostly untapped) in the material of our own lifestory, in the sprawling, many-layered “text” that has been accumulating within us across the years.

Restorying Our Lives: Personal Growth through Autobiographical Reflection by Kenyon, Gary M., and William L. Randall (1997)

This is one of my favorite quotations. I used it last week to conclude a workshop on “Life Stories as Healing” that I gave for group of palliative care workers. Life stories are much more than just a chronicling of a life lived.  Our stories also have the capacity to heal the soul.

Photo by Denis Collette

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Put Some “Zip” into Your Next Video Life Story.

For some professional polish or a light-hearted touch, consider using some royalty free stock footage in your next video life story. I found a great list of stock footage sites that Apple – QuickTime assembled.  These providers charge a fee for downloading clips, which ranges from $10 to $60 and up.  For more information click here.

If your  budget is really tight be sure to check out The Internet Archive. They have over 2,000 public domain films and they’re all free!

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Get Up And Go Talk to Somebody!

conversation

The latest issue of Utne magazine arrived in my mailbox yesterday and I was immediately drawn to an excerpt from a recently published book, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the 21 st Century by Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz.  The authors write:

Americans in the 21st century devote more technology to staying connected than any society in history, yet somehow the devices fail us:  Studies show that we feel increasingly alone. Our lives are spent in a tug-of-war between conflicting desires – we want to stay connected, and we want to be free. We lurch back and forth, reaching for both….

The significance of this increased aloneness is amplified by a very different body of research. There is now a clear consensus among medical researchers that social connection has powerful effects on health. Socially connected people live longer, respond better to stress, have more robust immune systems, and do better at fighting a variety of specific illnesses.

The author’s insights reinforce the  importance of story gathering.  By sitting down with a parent or grandparent and recording their stories we begin, in our own way, to break down the isolation and loneliness that has become endemic in our society. Our electronic gadgets have their place, but they can never replace the meaningful connection that comes from sharing our tears and laughter with those we love. What’s more, being socially connected improves our health!  So put down your telephone, shut off your computer and go talk to somebody.

Photo by Don Brubacher

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The Life Story Quote of The Week

silence

It often shows an excellent command of language to say nothing.

~ Karol Newlin

I tried to find out who Karol Newlin is but had no luck.  Maybe someone out there can enlighten me – I’d love to know more about her. Anyhow, I like this quote because I was reminded of the power of silence in a video interview. I always tell rookie interviewers to be very conscious of the pauses and silences and to avoid filling that space with more talk.  Sometimes a person needs to pause to think about what to say next.  Sometimes the silence comes after an emotionally charged moment.  Saying nothing can speak volumes.

Photo by Karen

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A Valentine for You.

wild-geese

To all of you who drop by my blog and for those who linger a while, here’s my Valentine for you. Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets and her poem Wild Geese is a treasure. When I have those days when I’m feeling lost or confused or alone, this poem comforts me. I hope that it will do the same for you.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Photo by He and Fi

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What’s The Difference Between Memoirs, Autobiographies and Life Stories?

My mom far left with her sister, mother and brother

My mom far left with her sister, mother and brother

I must admit that I haven’t given much thought to the finer distinctions between life stories, memoirs, autobiographies, and personal essays until I came across Sharon Lippincott’s fine blog The Heart and Craft of Life Writing .  In a January post she loosely defines an array of life writing approaches:

  • Lifestory — informal vignettes of specific memories and events written from a personal perspective. There is no right way to go about it. They can be as informal as a journal, as impersonal as a document, or as insightful as memoir. They can be rough drafts or highly polished. They can stand alone or be incorporated as elements in a longer work. They are the perfect place for a beginner to get started.
  • Memoir — a highly personal account of a specific period of aspect of life. Memoir emphasizes personal reaction and interpretation as much or more than events. It generally implies more literary focus and polish and may evolve from a collection of lifestories.
  • Autobiography (chronicling) — an overview of your life, generally written in chronological order. The focus tends to emphasize events and circumstances more than personal observation and interpretation.
  • Journaling — a repository of raw thoughts, memories, and insights. A tool for discovering insights and documenting and recording events. Journaling is highly personal and there is no right way to do it.
  • Documenting — memorabilia that genealogists treasure like a birth and marriage certificates together with constructed documents like a time line of your life, an account of a specific event including details. Many autobiographies serve to document the details of a life. These documents often serve as supplementary material for other writing.
  • Personal Essay — the other end of the line from documenting … or maybe not. Essays document insights, beliefs, opinions, and interpretations rather than facts. An ethical will is a type of personal essay.
  • Poetry and music — valued and time-honored forms of expression….

I like Sharon’s list and would add a couple of other categories to what I call Life Narratives. Family histories are another form of narrative.  I  define them as a work that covers a span of a person’s life and includes details of other family members such as parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters. Certainly Scrapbooking, which has become the choice for many who want to capture their family story is another form of Life Narrative. I know some who have used Quilts to record stories -  the most famous of which is the The Aids Memorial Quilt.

What I find wonderful about all these ways we can capture our stories is that it reveals the richness of possibilities. So if you’re struggling trying to think of how to begin your story, maybe knowing that you don’t have to go the traditonal route will spur you on!

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How to Write a Life Story People Will Really Want to Read.

avid-reader

If you want people to enjoy reading your life story then consider these 6 tips to better writing. I guarantee it’ll put a little “zest” into your prose.

  1. Keep your audience in mind. Don’t think you have to write a best seller. Your book is for family and friends. They’re the ones who will really enjoy reading about your life. If you think you’re writing to be published you’ll get all “cramped up” and your natural style will suffer.
  2. Be authentic. Write the way you talk. This follows from what I said above. People want to hear your authentic “voice” coming through the writing. That’s what makes it real to them. If you try to emulate the style of a best selling author you’re likely to produce something affected, unintentionally funny and ultimately unreadable.
  3. Touch people’s hearts. Make certain that you tell your readers what you were feeling not just what you were doing. For example,  “ The night I caught the train East I felt a mixture of excitement and sadness. I was leaving home – a young man of twenty-two, bound for two years in Africa as a volunteer. As the train pulled out of the station, I can still see my mother’s face awash in tears.” This has more emotional impact than writing, ” I caught the train East, heading for a two year assignment as a volunteer in Africa.”
  4. Use all of your senses. When you’re describing a particular event or scene bring your sense of taste, touch, smell, sight and  hearing to enrich your writing. For example, “Every Monday my mother baked bread. Even today, the  aroma of freshly baked bread brings back vivid memories. I’d hover round those golden brown loaves, just out of the oven, waiting for my mom’s permission to cut myself a piece. When they had cooled, I’d hack through a still warm  loaf -  slather a slice with butter and  chomp down. It was pure heaven!” This is far more interesting than writing, ” My mother baked bread once a week. It was one of my favorite treats.”
  5. Keep your focus. Make sure you don’t ramble off topic. It’s a sure way to  slow down your story. Let’s say you’re writing about your first job. Don’t halfway through start describing a vacation you took with a friend – unless there is some direct link to your work.
  6. Vary your sentence length. Take a look at one of your paragraphs. Are all your sentences about the same  length? This makes for tedious reading.  Aim to have a variety of  sentences – short, long and medium. As they say, variety is the spice of life!

Here are three books you might find useful:

Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir by Lisa Dale Norton

Legacy : A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence

Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach

Photo by Tarzan

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The Life Story Quote of The Week

ghost-town-movie-poster-1

Your story, it’s not boring and ordinary, by the way. We just get the one life, you know. Just one. You can’t live someone else’s or think it’s more important just because it’s more dramatic. What happens matters, maybe only to us, but it matters.

- from the movie Ghost Town

If you haven’t seen Ghost Town you’re missing a terrific movie. I urge you to pick it up and take a look. What struck me about this bit of dialog I extracted, is how many people think of their lives as boring and ordinary. And they’re not.  In the twenty-five odd years  I’ve been interviewing folks, I’ve yet to encounter a life that hasn’t been interesting. As human beings we all deal with joy and suffering, success and failure, love and loss. How we each cope with life’s challenges is endlessly fascinating and ultimately illuminates our shared human experience.

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