The Greatest Story You’ve Ever Lived

The Greatest Story You’ve Ever Lived

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”


The Socratic epigraph above strikes me as a little harsh; every life has value. However, for that very reason, I hope to convince readers of Driftless Now to record your precious memories and reflect upon their meaning. Why should you keep a journal, write letters, or tell your story in the form of a memoir? What are the obstacles to doing so, and how can you overcome them? How might Driftless Now help you to get started?

 I have a good memory; why should I bother to take notes?

Have you ever awakened from a “cool” dream, only to have it evaporate from your memory in minutes? That’s sort of how memory works. Even some of the most important moments in your life may fade with time. Do you recall your eldest child’s first words? How about those of your second child? What if that second child were to ask you, years later, and you could find her first words in a journal you had kept? Would that make the effort of keeping a journal worthwhile?

Photos help to evoke memory, of course, and sharing stories orally with friends and loved ones cements relationships. But listening studies show that we remember only about half of what we hear, and after two days have passed, that retention rate is down to 25%. A couple of years ago, I got to thinking about the day—fifty years earlier—that my father passed away—certainly a traumatic event for a young boy. I telephoned my three siblings about their recollections of that day and found that we had four very different versions of that life-changing event. Obviously, none of us had recorded the details of Dad’s death, so we will never know the “real” story. Committing the important events of your life to words on paper or a secure electronic medium can bind them in time for future generations, and even for your future self.

“Who cares about my stories?”

Well, most immediately, your loved ones. The stories of your life are the greatest gift you can bequeath your children and grandchildren. How much would you treasure a collection of stories your mom, dad, or a grandparent had written about their childhood, their thoughts and feelings growing up, falling in love, welcoming you into the world, and describing their work and family life? Imagine your joy at finding a stack of love letters, tied with a ribbon, that your parents exchanged when they were courting!

Second, you will enrich your own life through reflection on the people and events that shaped it. A major task of retirement is to examine your life—to recall the triumphs and tribulations you have faced and analyze their impact on the person you are today. Part of that process is to recognize that we have all made mistakes. Casting light on the shadows of your own life, you may confront that young person you once were, understand the forces acting on him or her, and forgive. By articulating your thoughts and feelings in this way, you can figuratively wrap your arms around your younger self—and heal.

“So, you’re saying that I should wait until I retire to start?”

Absolutely not! As the examples above suggest, record your life as you are living it! Your life, and the lives of your loved ones, are important—important enough to capture in words when events are fresh, so you get those words right.

“Yeah, right—I’m working eight hours a day, shuttling my kids to a dozen different activities, and trying to grab a few hours of sleep. How am I supposed to find time to do all this writing?”

A few suggestions: 1) A journal need not look like Victorian literature. A few words about key events should take no more than five or ten minutes. Compare that to the time you spend clicking links on Facebook! 2) When you email, text, or Facebook a friend or loved one about a significant development in your life—not the “amazing” chocolate cake you had for dessert—keep a copy in a folder. Back up that folder, in case your computer goes haywire. 3) Consider typing (or handwriting!) letters on actual paper. The recipients of such correspondence may be shocked, but they will undoubtedly read and retain such precious documents. 4) When you eventually do look back on the notes and letters in that folder, reflect on the significance of the details you have recorded and how they may have shaped your life and the lives of your loved ones. 5) Make that folder—your memoir—available to those loved ones with whom you wish to share it.

“What has any of this to do with Driftless Now?”

An interview with Driftless Now might be just the nudge you need to work on those memoirs. It might stimulate you to record other details of your life, perhaps with help from a child or grandchild.

“What kind of stories are you looking for?”

Everyone has a story. Growing up in the Driftless Area, you undoubtedly recall humorous or poignant anecdotes that would interest our readers. Perhaps you are involved in a renewal project in your town that could inspire other people the area to follow suit. Maybe you “march to the beat of a different drummer.”

In an earlier post to Driftless Now (“A Transplant’s Impressions of the Driftless Folk,” August 4, 2019), I claimed that people hereabouts are smarter than denizens of my native Chicago. The basis for that tongue-in-cheek claim was that urban corporations tend to pigeonhole employees into specialized roles, whereas rural life demands greater flexibility. Just to survive, a farmer must be a scientist, accountant, mechanic, and so much more. To develop that broad skill set, he or she taps into parts of the brain that may lie dormant in a corporate “cubicle squatter.”

Many examples of multi-talented, “Renaissance” women and men have come to my attention as a teacher and writer in the Driftless Area.  John Bruni, architect, philosopher, world traveler, and mountaineer, is one such man. Bruni, of Hub City, Wisconsin, mounted an expedition to Mount Everest in 1983 and canoed the Mississippi River at age 75. Kathy Kuderer, author of Down a Country Road with the Amish, combined her background as a farm girl with the skills of a diplomat and adroit business acumen to bridge the gap between her Amish neighbors and English customers in Ontario. Randy Durst, farmer/poet of Yuba, Wisconsin, describes the full range of human experience in his observations of the creatures and land on his farm. Harvey Baumgartner, former construction foreman, mule packer for the Forest Service, and cowboy, has authored two books: a memoir of life in his off-the-grid sod house in Elroy and a daily journal of the 1983 horseback trip he and his wife took from Wisconsin to Wyoming with their two pre-school children. I plan to share stories of these, and many other interesting folks with readers of Driftless Now. Will my quest for fascinating stories include your own?

“There’s nothing interesting about me.”

Many students in my English composition classes at Madison College have raised that objection when asked to introduce themselves. However, as the semester progressed, and students submitted their essays, I found myself enthralled by their accounts of personal tragedies and triumphs, travels, and adventures. If college students have experienced so much at their tender age, consider how much more life has presented you!

“I’m not a writer.”

You need not be a professional author to record your stories. An attentive listener can ask questions that draw out the details that turn your sketchy memories into a fascinating autobiographical essay. That’s what I enjoy doing—the reason I contribute to Driftless Now. For example, my recent publication, Patriotic Expats: Former G.I.s Describe their Lives in Germany, consists of interviews that started with a few structured questions and then took on a life of their own, as the subjects recalled stories from their lives. My job during the interviews was simply to listen and take a few notes. The work of turning those notes into cohesive exposition came later.

If interested, please contact me at robertdaypotter@gmail.com to get started.

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