I just got off the phone with a woman who’s thinking about starting to write her life story. But she’s not sure she should spend time on herself, because as she put it, “I haven’t done anything unusual. How can I write a whole book about nothing?”
Something I once told my “Composing Self” college students jumped to mind. I assigned the students a photo essay project, to create a collection of nine photos and nine pages of prose, about anything that represented themselves. This wide expanse of possibility had some students frozen. To help them determine how, or if, their lives reflected meaning, I gave them this homework; I gave the woman on the phone today the same suggestion.
Write down what you believe is important to you.
Then go about your day.
Focus on a few things that catch your attention. Study them. Jot them down. Photograph them if you like.
Return to your belief list.
Maybe you really aren’t doing anything unusual. Or, are you putting your body where your heart insists your values lie?
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat until you discover how your experiences do align with your beliefs. Or, if they don’t make a plan to make it so.
This is all you need to do and everything important to write, right your life.
I’m sharing this prompt with you because in September, 2020 it seems essential to be intentional with our actions. Of course the idea of writing a personal belief statement isn’t original. There are religious creeds, artist’s statements, and political movement manifestos. All are essentially statements about what directs a person’s behavior, their lives.
One of the most beloved and enduring public declarations of this practice is collected at “This I Believe: A public dialogue about belief – one essay at a time.” On the site you’ll find thousands of entries from a wide range of well-known figures, yes, but the majority of these essays are from ordinary people trying to discover their beliefs through the action of writing. One of my favorites, “Thirty Things I Believe,” was written in 2009 by Tarak McLain in honor of his 100th day of kindergarten. Some of his beliefs are:
I believe everyone is weird in their own way.
I believe people should not give up.
I believe love is everywhere.
While writing a personal belief statement isn’t new, the idea of using a personal belief statement to organize and focus a life story, is unique to my story coaching approach. I’ve come up with a name for this type of project. “Write, Right My Life.” When I work with clients we aren’t strictly writing memoir, not straight forward autobiography. I’m helping humans focus on writing the life elements that show how each unique individual led, and is leading, their “right” life.
When people come to me, ordinary people who “haven’t done anything unusual,” it’s important for us to discover together how “nothing” lives have really amounted to everything.
From a photo of an ice cream truck, I urge forth the story of a childhood summer ritual of chasing ice cream trucks with siblings and parents, cousins and grandchildren during family reunion weeks. I believe in spending time with my family.
The way Saturday afternoon drum jam sessions reflect a lifelong obsession with music passed from grandmother to daughter to grandson. I believe I must make something beautiful every day.
The Polaroid photography scavenger hunts that are part of every road trip become one chapter on travel. I believe in paying attention to what is new.
Try writing out your personal manifesto. Focus on what you really believe. Then check in with your actions and see how aligned they are with your beliefs.
As for what I believe, here are a few things:
I believe in anticipation and reflection.
I believe in trying again.
I believe in trying again and again and again after that.
I believe in myself.
I believe in you.
I believe in the deepest center of all humans there is at least a flicker of goodness capable of flaring and spreading at any moment.
May you find a little time to write, right your life this week.
If you’re more interested in what it looks like to Write, Right My Life – how long it takes, how much it costs, if you’re too old to begin, or too young – check out the Frequently Asked Questions page.