It was a song I had not heard or thought about for many years, and yet there it was playing over and over in my mind. The song is Both Sides Now, written and recorded by Joni Mitchell and made more popular via the version sung by Judy Collins, and it had come floating across my brain during my class “Writing Your Life Story” through OLLI at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
As you may recall, the singer is reflecting on clouds, love, and life, and how each can be seen in completely different contexts. Love is this, but it is also that. Life looks like A, but it can also look like Z. It is our lens, our perspective over time, that shapes our view and our attitude as we observe it.
The song memory was prompted by what I was witnessing in the sharing of stories from a group of students who were especially eager and committed to giving voice to what really mattered as they sifted through 60, 70, 80 or more years of experiences. On this day, we happened to witness a number of stories that touched upon the tougher stuff of life. We heard stories about childhood households darkened by alcoholism and abandonment, stories about grappling with depression, stories about the loss of loved ones in the long ago or more recent past, stories about the struggles of caring for an elderly parent. The writing that brought these stories to life was clear, strong, poignant, and powerful.
Each time one student was courageous enough to paint a vivid oral picture of hardship or difficulty, I could see the door open a little wider for others who had similar stories just waiting for permission to burst through the gates of life writing. I also recognized that it would be helpful to offer one of my “equal time” talks. Often in my Writing Your Life Story classes I hear a run of stories that are all about the happy times of our lives. In the middle of all those positive images of Sunday dinners with a kind, loving family as well as fun and adventurous vacations, I remind other students that if they’re really wanting or needing to write about and share with the class stories about the tougher stuff in life, their stories are just important for us to hear, too. Looking at life from “both sides now” when we write our life stories helps us all to see and ponder the many dimensions to our experiences.
So I explained this to my class, only with a different twist.
“So here we are, hearing the powerful words of life’s struggles,” I said. “Well, usually I hear a lot of happy stories and I have to remind other students that it’s perfectly okay if they find themselves writing about and wanting to share with the class their stories about the harsher parts of life too. But with YOU folks, I need to turn this around. I want to remind everyone in class who may be writing about the happy parts of life, it’s perfectly okay to write and share your stories too. In fact, we need to hear them!”
Everyone laughed. They understood. And the truth was that as our Writing Your Life Story class went on, we were weaving together a beautiful blend of dark and light, of love and loss, of hardship and triumph. And those students who were telling the hard truths about alcoholism or depression or loss or struggle were at the same time illustrating an uncanny ability to see those experiences from a different perspective. The tough stuff was also about perseverance and trust and forgiveness and wisdom. Looking at life from both sides now? You better believe it!
If you are in the process of writing your own life story, perhaps there is a message for you here. It’s not only okay but quite possibly beneficial to give voice to the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the successes and the failures. Welcome the full panorama of the landscape of your life. Show it to us in all its shapes and colors.
And maybe, as you write from both sides, you will discover something to add to the words of Joni Mitchell. She whimsically concluded that after looking at both sides through her perspective gained over time that she really didn’t know love or life at all. There’s certainly truth in that point of view. And yet could there also be truth in asserting that when we look at and write about both sides of our own lives, we might really come to know, and appreciate, our life better than we thought possible?
– Charlottesville, Virginia-based ghostwriter and personal historian Kevin Quirk has been helping men and women of all ages and backgrounds write the most meaningful stories of their lives in memoirs and autobiographies for more than 15 years. He is the author of Life Is a Book and It’s Time to Write It: An A-to-Z Guide to Help Anyone Write Their Life Story.