I’ve been asked the question many times already by those who know me as an author, ghostwriter, editor and advisor who specializes 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 sputtering on the Mekong; Chinese men and women gathering spontaneously to sing patriotic 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 experience 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 administrator 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 adventure 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.