The Bridge on the River Kwai Was My First Movie – Do You Remember Yours?

I’m not a big fan of YouTube, but the other day it proved very handy when I was seeking to respond to my 8 year old son’s persistent request. Many months ago he had asked me the name of the first movie I remember watching as a boy, and I recalled that it was “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” He wanted to see the DVD, of course, but we try to steer clear of violent war movies so I declined. “But Dad, can’t you just let me see a little bit of the movie?” he kept asking.

Ironically, while “The Bridge on the River Kwai” had a real impact on me when I saw it with my whole family at a drive-in theater in the late 1950s, I never saw it again. Not on video, not on DVD, not on a  rerun on some TV movie channel. I did remember the basic plot line, though: those British soldiers being ordered to build the bridge by their Japanese captors and the sustained drama over whether it would or would not be blown up in the grand finale. I especially remembered that whistling tune that once you hear it a few times you doubt you’ll ever get it out of your mind. So, I figured, maybe I could find a clip with just that whistling and no bloodshed.

Sure enough, YouTube delivered. My son and I watched on my computer as the British soldiers marched in whistling that song in perfect harmony. After thanking me for finally sharing this snippet of my first movie, he turned to me an hour later and said, “Dad, I can’t get that whistling tune out of my head.” I smiled. An event in my early life experience had come full circle. I was even moved to do some research about “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, and that tune. I learned that the song’s title was “Colonel Bogey March” and that it did have words to it. In fact, during World War II, the British had changed the lyrics to fill it with disparaging remarks about Hitler. I haven’t told my son that part yet.

This experience reminded me that most of us who are devoted to telling our life story have an engaging story to tell about the first movie we remember seeing or that had any impact on us. The story might be all about when we first saw it, or it might focus on a follow-up experience from more recent times, as it did for me.

So give this a try as an entry for your life story book. Begin with the following phrase and write for five minutes on:

“The first movie I remember watching (or that had an impact one me) was…”

Tell me what this spark triggers for your life story book.

- Kevin Quirk, Founder of Life Is a Book (formerly Memoirs for Life), Member of the Association of Personal Historians

2010 Elections Can Stir Personal Remembrances of Elections Past to Enliven Our Life Story Book

I remember the smile from my 90-something life story client when I asked her about her earliest memories of elections. Because her father had been a local elected official in their small Midwestern city, she had many vivid reflections. They all had one focus: candy.

“As a young girl I loved going with my dad to all the county fairs and other public events during election time,” she said. “He always brought a lot of candy to give out, and I made sure I always got the most, and the best chocolates! If we had not gone out for awhile, I would ask him: ‘When are we going out campaigning again?’ ”

So as the leaves begin to turn each October and the media is awash with the latest local, statewide or presidential election news stories and ads, I regularly invite students in my Writing Your Life Story classes to share memories of elections gone by. Recently a woman who had been the wife of an elected official wrote about how she could never share with others how she had voted because of her husband’s public position. She had a confession: she secretly voted the opposite of his vote to balance things out!

A male student remembered as a child listening to his dad rant and rave about FDR – even though he voted for him every time. A woman recalled her father’s dilemma in the 1960 election: he was a devout Catholic (as was JFK) and a devout Republican. How could he vote against either Kennedy or Nixon?

In another class, a woman fought tears as she described the details of that day as a young girl that she was able to meet and briefly speak to Harry Truman.  A moment later, a woman sitting across from her blurted out, “I had the same kind of experience when I got to meet Ike!”

As you seek to capture your own autobiography or life story in a book, either by yourself or with a personal historian, you may be tempted to keep politics out of the picture. You don’t want to offend others, right? Of course, it’s your life story book – if you do want to get up on your soap box and proclaim your most passionate opinions and attitudes about political issues of yesterday or today, you have every right to do so! But even if that’s not your style, I would urge you to sift through what may be very lively and poignant stories that relate to poltiics: the stories about your personal experience with campaigns and elections that you either observed among family members or were an active part of yourself. You may well discover that some of your most engaging stories for your autobiography or life story emerge when you write your first thoughts to the Story Spark that begins:

“The first election that I really paid much attention to was…”

- Kevin Quirk, Founder of Life Is a Book, member of the Association of Personal Historians

As a Guide to Writing Your Life Story, My Most Important Job Is…Getting You to Do It!

As founder of Life Is a Book and a personal hstorian, I have been helping people write their life stories for 15 years.  I assist ordinary people from all over the country, and the world, in putting together autobiographies and personal history books that share their most meaningful life stories in my role as ghostwriter, biographer, or personal historian.

There are many parts of my job, whether I am teaching, coaching, or doing complete interviews and writing of a life story book. But I have found that the most important and valuable part is simply to get people to do it!

Why? Because we have so many perfectly logical reasons why we can’t possibly write a book about our life, or why we can’t go on if we get stuck.

First, the idea of writing a book can sound so intimidating. Aren’t life story books supposed to be LONG? How would I ever find that much to say about MY life? Well, Bill Clinton’s My Life might have run 957 pages, but there’s nothing that says your book can’t be full and complete at ten percent of that size. The book you write about your life story may turn out to be 200 pages, or 50 pages, or no thicker than a packet of tax forms – and much easier and more enjoyable to fill out! I bet that if I sat down with my digital tape recorder and began asking you questions about your life today, you’d be amazed at how much you really have to say.

Yes, but what about time, you ask? You don’t have the time or inclination to hunker down in your office, den, bedroom or coffee shop and stare at a blank notebook or laptop screen for five hours a day, or five months of the year, right? You don’t even have time to sit down for interviews with a personal historian like me? Well, I’m here to tell you that writing a book about your life need not wear you down or keep you up at night. And I can almost guarantee you that when you’re done, when you’re holding the book about your life in your hands or looking at it on some new techno marvel, you’re not going to feel drained. You’ll be too excited about showing your new baby around!

“Okay,” you say, “even if I do sit myself down to write this book about my life, how on earth will I ever get it published? Don’t you have to rich or famous to do that?” Well, it’s true that most of the memoirs or autobiographies you find in your favorite bookstore are written by celebrities, although a growing number of no-name folks are maneuvering their way into the club. But those are just the life stories published by commercial publishers, the corporate giants who dominate one side of the industry. The good news for the rest of us is that they’re not the only game in town. Did you know that there are now many more books self-published or independently published than those published by the “real” publishers? And thanks to modern technology and limitless new options, you may publish a book that looks as good as anything in Barnes and Noble for less than the cost of a new computer system. Your book will last a lot longer too.

Maybe you haven’t thought nearly that far ahead. Maybe your stumbling block sounds something like this: I don’t have anything really interesting to write about. My life has actually been pretty ordinary. Oh really? Try telling that to your family members who heard about this idea of yours to maybe write a book about your life. They know what interests them, and they’re your target audience. They’re eagerly awaiting all those “ordinary” stories, from why you always got good (or bad) grades at school, to your most unforgettable holiday or birthday experience, to your decision to start a family (or not to).

Natalie Goldberg, author of an excellent guidebook on memoirs called Old Friend from Far Away, has been inspiring ordinary people to write about their simple memories for decades. She once said that “We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded…{We are} the carriers of details that make up history.”

So now you may be thinking, Well, maybe I do have some of those life details to record, but I’m just too young to tell my life story. You can’t write your life story until you’re at least 70 or 80, right? That’s what a 30-something mother of two young children in one of my life-writing classes at the University of Virginia School of Continuing and Professional Studies believed when she signed up. Then she looked around the classroom. “I hope no one is offended,” she said, “but I thought I was going to be surrounded by, you know, old people. But now I see the median age here must be closer to me than my grandmother.” Everyone laughed, especially the grandmothers.

You don’t need to have lived a long life to have something important to write about to begin your autobiography or personal history. You only need the desire to share something important about the life you’re living.

And to those who think they’re too old to start writing their life story, because you just can’t remember what happened when you were younger, I’ll just say that I’ve worked with clients from 19 to 94. And that 94 year old, who still worked thirty hours a week, amazed herself at what she was able to recall about her childhood…with a little respectful prodding.

The truth is, the desire to write the story of our lives cuts across all ages, geographic regions, and socioeconomic levels. It’s a universal urge, and it goes back at least to the days of Native Americans gathering in sacred circles to share their stories. Somewhere inside us we know that writing a book about our life will bring real value to those we love, and to others who may read it, while enriching our own lives along the way.

And today, with our families spread apart and our busy cell phone-laptop lifetsyles, the need to tell our stories is stronger than ever. We hunger to find meaning, to make connections, to feel known. Email and social networks just don’t replace the warmth and closeness of gathering in the living room with our extended families to recount and savor the everyday stories of our lives.

Everywhere we look, we see some new social forums reminding us that the phenomenon of telling our everyday stories is reaching a tipping point. There is a growing Write Your Life movement out there, and people from New Hampshire to New Mexico are finding themselves part of it.

So can you. You can decide to write the book of your life, along or with help from a personal historian. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written a lot, a little, or not at all. If you’re writing it yourself, let me remind you that even if you’d never call yourself a “writer,” you are. My dictionary defines a writer as: “a person engaged in writing books” or “a person who commits thoughts to writing.” Kind of fits, doesn’t it? I would just add that if you recognize that life is a book, you are fully qualified to writing yours – today!

And if you still don’t feel right calling yourself a writer, call yourself a delivery person. You are going to take the stories of your life, the details that make a simple portrait of who you are, and deliver them to those who care about you or what you may have to say to them. You are doing something important. You deserve to give yourself full permission to do it.

And while you certainly will want to do your best to make it all sound clear and encouraging, you do not have to master the craft of writing to put together and publish your life story. That right is yours simply by living your life and wanting to share it. Your loved ones are not waiting to hear from Hemingway; they’re waiting to hear from you. So repeat after me:

I have a story to tell.

I can tell it in my own way.

- Kevin Quirk, Ghostwriter of life-story books and personal historian through Life Is a Book, member of the Association of Personal Historians, and author of the new book “Your Life Is a Book – And It’s Time to Write It: An A-to-Z Guide to Help Anyone Write Their Life Story”

Sully Sullenberger's Movie Could Inspire Us to Write Our Own Dramatic Life Stories

As the co-author of the inspirational book Brace for Impact: Miracle on the Hudson Survivors Share Their Stories of Near Death and Hope for New Life, I also write blogs for our book’s website. Here’s one I just posted last night when I heard the news about Sully Sullenberger attracting a movie deal for his story in executing that improbable landing with the Miracle on tthe Hudson:

http://braceforimpact.hcibooks.com/2010/09/30/will-sully-sullenbergers-movie-shed-light-on-how-his-life-has-changed-since-the-miracle-on-the-hudson/

Ever since that awe-inspiring event on January 15, 2009, Sully has had much to teach us – about being prepared for challenging moments, about putting our skills and our wisdom to the best possible use, about staying calm in a crisis, about being humble and crediting others. The movie about his life story and his actions that day certainly can teach us even more about all of that. It also has the potential to illustrate what to do when a dramatic life experience changes our life in a signficant way. I learned a great deal about that from the passengers of the Miracle on the Hudson flgiht in my work on the book Brace for Impact. Their profound life changes continue to extend out in ripples of gratitude, appreciation, meaning, and hope all around them.

Few of us have lived through moments quite so dramatic as Sully bringing that crippled jet down on the Hudson River, although I must admit that in teaching my life-writing classes for ten years I have heard some stories that rank right up there! But most of us have lived through something that indelibly changed us: a brush with death, a moment when everything came together just right, an unlikely and unexpected feat at a critcal moment.. When we write about those experiences with openness and heart, and we search for and share the meaning of how those moments changed us, we have the opportunity to teach and inspire so many other people today – especially younger people.

So don’t be bashful. Tell us what you did when a little bit of Sully Sullenberger was coming through you, and show us how it changed you.  We’ll bring our own popcorn.

- Kevin Quirk, Life Is a Book