Tag Archives: Semester at Sea.

Preparing for Semester at Sea Voyage, Autobiography Writer Kevin Quirk Is Hungry for a Taste of Stockholm

It sounded like your basic outdoor food and music festival at first. Then I read on, and I began to see that “Smaka pa Stockholm,” or “A Taste of Stockholm” was something a good bit more enticing. Traditional Swedish dishes and exotic food from all over the world served by Stockholm’s top 25 restaurants, with chefs often dueling it out for most popular creation. Musical performances ranging from rock bands to soul to wandering minstrels to opera divas. And the crowds: more than 650,000 from all over Europe! The best news: it will all happen within the short window of time we happen to be in Stockholm in early June.

Okay, that’s one event that gets the big check mark in our family’s planning for our upcoming Semester at Sea Enrichment Voyage. I’m hungry for that Swedish and international food already.

As an author, ghostwriter, and personal historian who helps people write about meaningful and memorable life experiences, I’m fortunate that my wife Krista works for the study abroad program Semester at Sea (www.semesteratsea.org). Sometimes her work pulls her along on voyages to diverse ports of call all over the world, and sometimes my son and I get pulled along with her. Last year we spent four months on a round-the-world voyage that featured extended stops in Brazil, Ghana, South Africa, India, Singapore, China, and Japan. This year’s journey is closer to four weeks than four months, but after embarking in the UK, we still get to squeeze in visits to Oslo, Norway; Copenhagen, Denmark; Riga, Latvia; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Hamburg, Germany, in addition to that eating binge in Stockholm, Sweden.

We won’t have the time or the budget to sample every wondrous place in these European cities and countries. Many of our fellow travelers will head far out from our ports by train or plane to cover lots of ground laid out on on sight-seeing checklists. Our plans will be much more modest, which is totally fine with us. As travelers who have taken field trips to Ghana boating villages, India orphanages, South Africa home-building sites, Mekong River hostels, and a Shanghai public park where tourists seldom venture, we have come to understand that it’s not the names or the fame of the places you visit that matter, it’s the spirit and sensibility you carry with you when you’re there. Sure, we’ll remember walking the Great Wall of China. But we will remember just as vividly the taxi driver who delighted in stopping his beat-up vehicle time and again beside the plentiful fields of his native Dominica so he could slice off samples of the abundant fruits, vegetables, and spices growing there. I can still smell the cinnamon, still taste the sugar cane. And I can even more clearly see the image of pride in our new friend’s face as he showed off his island homeland.

This trip figures to be different; they all are. With only a day or two in most ports, and my wife’s job duties often keeping her on ship, we won’t be taking the same kinds of field trips designed to usher you into the heart and soul of a new land, to glimpse something deeper than what you’ll find in the tourist guidebooks. In fact, we’ve got our guidebooks out for quick reference and short-burst excursions. We’ll no doubt ride our share of city buses and river boats. Still, wherever we go, and whatever we do, I hope to bring that same spirit of discovery, an appreciation for both our differences and our commonality of people, a respect for how people in far-away countries live, and a curiosity for everything around us.

So we won’t be immersing ourselves in these new countries and cultures so much. We will mostly be sampling them…getting a taste. And when I come upon this Taste of Stockholm event, I fully intend to take as big a bite as I possibly can manage!

– Kevin Quirk, author of “Your Life Is a Book and It’s Time to Write It,” assists people of all ages, backgrounds, and cultures in writing meaningful life stories in his work as an author and ghostwriter of memoirs and autobiographies.

Memoir Ghostwriter Reminds Life Story Writers To Listen To the Book Idea They Feel Called to Write

I’ve been asked the question many times already by those who know me as an author, ghostwriter, editor and advisor who specliaizes in telling the most meaningful, life-changing experiences of our lives:

“When are you going to write your book about going around the world with Semester at Sea?”

I’ve offered varied responses: 1) Not yet, but maybe sometime after I get my feet firmly planted on land again; 2) Oh, I’ll probably start with some blogs (I’ve written one brief one) and see where I may go from there; 3) I’m not sure, but I’ll let you know when I do.

Now, still only a month after returning from 111 days at sea, I’m coming to a new answer: I might not be writing a book about sailing around the world at all, because it just may be that it’s not “my book” to write.

Oh, I’ve got stories I could tell: the cheetah thwarted by pesky birds in his attempt to hunt down some springbok on a South African safari; standing on dried and hardened human feces on a slave castle in Ghana; my mind swirling with Vietnam War images while listening to our boat engine supttering on the Mekong; Chinese men and women gathering spontaneously to sing patritic songs in a Shanghai public park that tourists seldom see; creating a walking routine on our cruise ship’s fifth deck with life boats shading out the glaring sun. But do I feel called to write a book about what I did and saw, how I felt about it, and how it might change me? When I ask that question to myself, the answer I hear is this: not this time.

I’ve heard the calling to write a memoir or life-story account at other times. When my wife Krista and I adopted our son Aibek in Kazakhstan ten years ago, I knew from the start of that experience that I would be writing a book about it all. When I was touched with awe and wonder by the first news accounts of the Miracle on the Hudson plane crash and rescue in 2009, I was sure that somehow I would write a book about the people who lived through it. And I have supported and encouraged hundreds of students and clients in honoring the call that they have heard to tell their entire life story or, as is often the case, the story of something dramatic and unforgettable that they experienced.

In my role as memoir ghostwriter, personal historian, and teacher of “Writing Your Life Story” classes, I assure them that the calling they may hear as only a whisper is quite real. When it comes, honor it. And don’t let anyone or anything get in the way. That’s what I tell them.

Sometimes, though, we have some life experience that we might think we should write a book about, or at least tell it in a detailed story as part of a memoir or autobiography. Often we hear the urging of others who say, “You’ve got to write a book about that!” But for whatever reason, we don’t share the same sense of urgency. It’s not a calling for us. And as I tell my life-writing clients and students, it’s okay to listen to that message too. It’s perfectly natural to sometimes know we could write about something but choose not to. Reasons will vary: timing, discomfort, a general disinterest. It doesn’t matter. It’s usually far more important, and useful, to notice what story you are called to write about and follow that trail. That’s the life story book theme, angle, or focus that will get you motivated to start your memoir or autobiography and provide you the foundation, or mission, to see it through. Let the other life story possibilities go, knowing that once you do heed the call to pursue what you most need to write, you may someday come back to that other idea with a different perspective.

With my Semester at Sea journey, my sense is that this expeience is someone else’s book – maybe many other people. Perhaps it’s the student from India who proudly led a “field trip” for students back to his home and family. Or the energized scholarship student conducting video interviews with people living in most or all of the countries we visited, asking them to share something meaningful that had happened to them. Or the countless students who would tell stories in our post-port reflections about the impact of witnessing poverty they had never imagined, or their gratitude for those who opened their hearts to these strangers traveling from afar. I know these students have had many a blog in them – I bet one or more has a full-fledged book brewing as well. I support them in going for it.

Similarly, I wonder if there might be a book floating around for an adminsitrator who had sailed around the world many times before but discovered something new and vital this time. Or the faculty member who embraced this first-time experience so whole-heartedly that she immediately decided to do it again. In my own household, I wonder if my wife may someday feel the pull to write a memoir about the contrast of sailing around the world as a student in 1979 and again now, a good bit later, as a staff member. And who knows what stories my ten-year-old son may feel called to tell someday, especially since he has already decided that he will sail around the world three more times at least!

If the calling to write a memoir stirs any or all of these Semester at Sea Spring 2012 voyagers I’m thinking about, or others, I sincerely hope they do indeed listen. And I will be eager to see what emerges in their life story accounts.

For me, I’ll keep listening. I’m heading to Cleveland later this week, and while others might suggest that the Clevelands of our daily life don’t carry the same potential for exotic aventure and life-stirring moments as Capetown, Beijing, or Ho Chi Minh City, I would say this: you never know. The calling to tell a compelling life experience in a memoir or autobiography can beckon us when we least expect it.

– Kevin Quirk, memoir ghostwriter, personal historian, teacher of writing your life story classes, and author of “Your Life Is a Book And It’s Time To Write It: An A-to-Z Guide To Help Anyone Write Their Life Story.”  Kevin is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), the Association of Ghostwriters, and the Association of Personal Historians.   

On My Semester at Sea Journey, I Will Remember When…

Three weeks ago, I returned from spending four months traveling around the world with Semester at Sea. I’ve finally got my land legs back and I’ve cleared most of the foam from my sea-clogged brain, meaning it’s at least more likely that I will keep the time and day of the week straight. Though I’m an author, ghostwriter and editor, and I teach classes and write books about the value of writing our most meaningful life stories, I didn’t write one word about this experience while I was gone.  I can argue that I was too busy keeping up with my primary job on the shipboard community: figuring out how to be a long-term substitute teacher/one-term home schooler for my 10-year-old son. Or I could admit that I simply decided I would wait…until the experience was over.

When I presented a seminar to lifelong learners on the ship, I suggested that they might ease themselves into writing about their own experience by responding to the simple prompt “I will remember when…” So I’ll follow my own advice here.

On this Semester at Sea trip I will remember when…Peterson stopped his cab at the outdoor market and came back with a large bunch of baby bananas and handed them to us in the back seat. It was a kind, uprompted gesture by our private guide for a second day of exploring the Caribbean island that tourism has passed by because of too many mountains and too few sandy beaches. He must have spent 10 minutes finding the bananas that were riope enough to eat in that moment, and I had consumed most of them within an hour.

As it turned out, this was only the first of more than a dozen spontaneous stops Peterson would make in the next three hours as he navigated the rough, mountanous terrain in his rundown taxi. Peterson, a 60-something native who explained to us that Peterson was his first name with a last name we couldn’t pronounce and might as well not try, knew this island from growing up outside the city in those lush and beautiful places where seemingly everything that could be eaten, used for herbs, or admired for its beauty grew in abundance. Peterson was not content to tell us what we were seeing around us. He was often compelled to stop and show us. He would come to a halt right in the narrow road, leaving us to wonder how cars approaching from behind or the opposite direction would avoid ramming us, get out, step confidently into a field, and hustle back with his catch: flowers of all variety, aloe vera, cinnamon, nutmeg.

“Rub it in your fingers,” he would instuct my wife, son, and me. “Tell me what you smell.”

He seemed equally delighted whether we correctly named it on our first try or if he stumped us. His joy emanated from the opportunity to share his world with people who had stopped by and seemed sincere about absorbing it.

For his final touch, he stopped by a field attended by a man he knew. After some discussion, he came back carrying the prize he most wanted to present.

“That is sugarcane,” Peterson said. “Have you ever tasted anything so sweet?”

No. And I could say that for the whole day. I had sampled the sweetness of an island I never would have stumbled upon on my own, served up by someone who lovingly presented it right in my hands.

– Kevin Quirk, personal historian and author of “Your Life Is a Book – And It’s Time to Write It: An A-to-Z Guide to Help Anyone Write Their Life Story”


Life Story Ghostwriter Uncorks A Jewel: This Message in a Bottle Was Found and Returned – 30 Years Later!

As a life story ghostwriter and teacher of Writing Your Life Story classes, one of my favorite exercises is to ask students to write about and bring in a “Memory Peg,” which can be any physical possession that has a story behind it. I’ve heard many vivid and unusual stories, including a stuffed moose head that served as one student’s family Christmas tree for 20 years.  But awhile ago I heard a Memory Peg kind of story from my wife Krista that just may top that one.

Here’s the story in a nutshell:

Back in 1978, an 8 year old boy, Matt Johnson, was sailing around the world with his parents and two sisters as part of the Semester at Sea study abroad program (www.semesteratsea.org). His father was one of the faculty teaching fully accredited courses to the college students onboard the 100-day voyage. The 15 or so “kids” that were children of faculty or staff had to use their imagination to find fun ways to pass the time, and when he wasn’t trying to catch sharks with meat coaxed from the dining hall crew or running around in forbidden parts of the ship Matt and his new friends were stuffing notes in bottles and casting them out to sea. (Perhaps littering was held in a different light then!) He was no doubt convinced, as kids would be, that someone surely would find one of his bottles and use the note inside to track him down someday.

And he was absolutely right. It just took more than 30 years to happen.

How? Well, it seems that a German woman named Connie and her British husband were vacationing in Barbados that winter. Connie’s eye caught a barnacle-covered bottle in the sand, and when she lifted it up she was quite surprised to learn that she literally had received the “message in a bottle” that we all hear so much about in movies and books. This one was very real, though, and she could clearly read the note (apparently the boy’s mom helped with the spelling). She was so excited that when she returned home she had the note mounted and displayed on her mantel. There it sat for years. “I’ll take it down and write to that boy someday,” she would say. Then she would forget.

Recently, she was cleaning out a drawer, found the note there, and decided she really ought to find that boy after all. “No way will you find him after all this time,” her husband said. But Connie was undaunted. The note included the detail about the boy being part of Semester at Sea, so she turned to my wife, the organization’s Director of Alumni Engagement. Using modern databases and info trails, they tracked down that “boy” – now 40 year old Matt Johnson with a family of his own. Imagine his surprise when he discovered that his message in a bottle was about to come back to him! And now he has a stirring Memory Peg story to tell his kids and everyone else in his life. In fact, Matt and Connie just shared their experienc eon NPR’s The Story (http://www.thestory.org/).

Do you have an unforgettable Memory Peg story you could tell right now? Or have you ever (fess up) written a note and stuffed it in a bottle that you cast out to sea? Did you ever fantasize about hearing from the person who found it? Well, you never know!

– Kevin Quirk, Life Story Ghostwriter 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” (www.yourlifeisabook.com)

Back to School Time Stirs Our Memories of New Beginnings in Our Lives

My son Aibek went back to school last week, and like many kids preparing for this annual new beginning he wasn’t exactly embracing it. In fact, on the cusp of third grade he came up with a very clear plan for how the world should run. “We should have nine months of summer vacation and three months of school!” he proclaimed.

There’s something about this back-to-school time of year that just naturally stirs not only creative innovations but lots of mixed feelings: excitement, curiosity, sadness, anxiety, disorientation. Gowing up in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts in the ’60s, I remember having all of those feelings – sometimes all at once. They would most churn up on Labor Day because we always started school the Wednesday after the holiday. So on Labor Day especially I understood that in one way or another, I was plunging into the unknown.

Sometimes that new beginning can be especially dramatic. My son and I spent the week before back-to-school on board the Semester at Sea ship as it sailed from Norfolk, Virginia to Halifax, Nova Scotia.  My wife Krista was part of the staff training and orientation preparing for the arrival of 650 students about to sail around the world for their Fall 2010 Semester program. “Your life is about to change” was the mantra that students soon would hear.

Isn’t that true to one degree or another for all of us swept up in the back-to-school spirit? Whether we are a student, a parent, a teacher, or just an observer of this late-summer ritual, we feel that sense of sailing off into the unknown. And whether the new beginning ultimately turns out to be fun or scary, or just a small change from what we had known before, we recognize that a new year has truly begun.

That’s why for years after my own school days, and before my son came along, I sitll carried that sense of late August or early Sepetmber as the real passage to the new year. The calendar could try to tell us that January 1 was New Year’s Day, but I was never fooled. The new year began when school started. That’s when the barometer would measure who I was, how I fit (or didn’t), and what I would be undertaking. That’s when we all would measure how one another had changed, whether it be the boy who grew six inches, the girl (or boy!) who sported a drastic new hair style, or the family that had moved out of town. So many of my prominent memories are wrapped around that time of year.

Is it that way for you? Does Labor Day and this back-to-school climate stir your memories of your own new beginnings tied to the school calendar? If you are writing your life story, or telling your life story to someone who is helping you to  preserve your memories in a memoir or autobiography,  you might find that focusing on back-to-school will just naturally bring poignant stories to the forefront. Quick, get them down before the New Year slips away!

– Kevin Quirk, Life Is a Book, Member of the Association of Personal Historitans and the Association of Ghostwriters