As you plan your life story book, you’re most likely going to include some account of your work or career path, or your spouse’s career history. You’re going to tell your readers something about the jobs you have performed or positions you have held, and you’ll probably tell some stories to shed light on some of your achievments, setbacks, rewards, frustrations, and characters you met along the way.
I’d like to offer a new twist you may want to try as you set about capturing that work life in your personal history.
Draw a line that symbolizes your history, or your spouse’s history, in the realm of work and career. You get to choose whether it’s a horizontal or vertical line, how long the line goes, and what color to draw it in.
Notice what your line looks like. Is it a straight trajectory, representing a smooth and consistent profession? Does it point up and up, but then slip back down, maybe way down, before leveling out again as a symbol of your successes and failures? Is it more of a curved line? Or does it seem to be full of zigs and zags, going every which way, with no clear center point on the horizon?
It’s always fun when my students in my Writing Your Life Story and Autobiographical Writing classes try this exercise. We discover all sorts of variations in our career lines. I’ve seen some straight lines, with accompanying stories of a long and steady career as a teacher, a sales rep or manager, an attorney, a nurse, a military officer, an engineer, and even a Broadway actress. Many students express a great deal of grtaitude for the opportunity to have identified, pursued and fulfilled a career in their chosen field.
For many other students, though, the line is anything but straight. Students explain their path of working in three, four, five or more arenas, and often they’re still adding to their list. I recently had one student who was celebrating his 70th birthday and, after nearing retirement from his fourth profession, he was wondering out loud, “I wonder what career is next?”
Many women reflect back on a journey where they transitioned from a stay-at-home Mom to a teacher, or from an attorney to a stay-at-home Mom. And it’s alwasy moving to hear a woman proudly proclaim that her one career was to raise her children, and we all get a laugh when we see that the line she drew to capture that endeavor is not close to being straight anyway!
I’ve certainly had my share of zigs and zags. I started out as a sportswriter, reporting on the fortunes of college basketball titans North Craolina and Duke. When I left journalism after 12 years, I worked on the support staff of a non-profit, then pursued a couple of Masters degrees that led me to part-time counseling, teaching composition to college freshmen, and then moving into the world of books as author, gostwriter, edior, and book coach. Along the way I found the role that often stirs the most passion: teaching classes on writing your life story. That’s the short-form version. My complete line, though, would also need to weave in assorted work that included a stint at a homeless shelter in San Francisco, substitute teaching in inner-city schools in Oakland, and conducting telephone political surveys. I could tell you a lot of memorable experiences about those three work ventures!
At some checkpoint of my stops and starts I remember reading a term thar resonated with my experience: “the crooked-line path.” Heath Frost, a colleague who counseled women and men on finding their right livelihood, used it to reassure us that it’s actually quite natural to move along on a work and life path that may not look very straight to others, or to ourselves. Of course, the “crooked” here by no means refers to being dishonest or unethical. It just means we may often find ourselvs changing directions and changing our minds as our work and career needs and wants dictate.
So, do you have a few work and career zigs and zags to share with the readers of your life story book? Did you or your spouse re-align your career route once, twice, several times? Do you have some very unusual zigs and zags on your road? Have you worked at some jobs that you’d rather not recall, but if you did you might find some funny or even zany stories waiting to be recalled?
As you unearth the raw material for your autiopbiography, memoir, or personal history, I invite you to spend some time exploring or just playing with not only the career line-drawing but the story-telling of the many parts of your life story that involve the work you have done. During today’s troubled economic times, your examples may help inspire or just reassure younger people who are very quickly coming to grips with a growing reality: the straight-line path of work and career that may have the norm long ago is simply not available for many people today. But, you can remind them, following a path of zigs and zags can still turn out to be fun, rewarding – or just something they will love telling others about someday!
- Kevin Quirk, Founder of Life Is a Book (formerly Memoirs for Life), Member of the Association of Personal Historians