When surfing family history boards on Pinterest (my second-favorite frivolous online activity), I frequently come across a re-posting of an an exercise that has been around for years (since about the mid-1990s I think). This exercise challenges you to write a life "history" in one hour. There are variations of this theme, but most give a list of things to write down while awaiting imminent zombie apocalypse (or if you just happen to have a spare hour on a Sunday afternoon).
My issue with this exercise is not the time limit imposed. (In fact, I think forcing oneself to complete something staggeringly complex in a very small amount of time has a laser-focusing effect that can be very helpful, whether your destruction is imminent or simply postponed.)
My problem with this particular exercise is what it tells you to write about in that hour.
Really? You only have an hour to speak (or forever hold your peace) - and you're going to list the names of your elementary school teachers?
Of course, most people aren't really under the gun when writing a one-hour history. The point of the exercise is to get something down in a short amount of time, and I'll agree that something is better than nothing.
But if an hour is all you have, shouldn't that "something" mean something?
The classic variation of this one-hour life history exercise usually starts with writing your name. Check. Granted, that's pretty important, because how frustrating would it be to find a scrap of notebook paper in a two-hundred-year-old time capsule containing the poignant last thoughts of a great-great-great-great-someone -- and not have any idea who it was? (Trust me, I know this from experience.)
After you write your name, and your parents' names, the rest of the exercise is mostly concerned with lists. List your siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles. List all the schools you have attended and the names of your teachers. List the jobs you have had. List the places you have lived. Blah blah blah.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with writing all these lists on a life timeline in preparation for writing stories later on. But that's not what we're doing here, is it? If I have only one hour to write about my life; I'm not going to waste it on boring lists.
The $60K question: If you were to die tomorrow, what would you want people to know about you?
All kidding about the zombie apocalypse aside: if this is the only life history you ever get around to writing, make it count! I would give my right arm (aak) to have even a few words from any of my (not-walking) dead. And if I were so lucky, I'd rather have a good story. Or a sermon. Or a warning. Or anything more interesting than a day-by-day weather report. One of my ancestors wrote a newspaper article in 1880 about building a "hot bed" (a kind of a greenhouse; get your mind out of the gutter), and even that gave me more insight into her life than a list of her favorite pets.
So, then, what to write as the clock is winding down?
Here are a few questions to shake you up:
- What is the most important thing that has ever happened to you? why?
- Do you believe in God? why? why not?
- What is your biggest regret?
- Who would you like to apologize to?
- What have been the guiding principles of your life? (Okay, that's a list, but don't forget to say WHY)
- How do you feel about your spouse? Your children?
- What do you wish you could change about your life?
- What wisdom or warnings do you have for future generations?
- What is your biggest regret?
- What gives you the most joy?
Challenge: take an hour and write about something important to you.
If it helps, imagine that there's a zombie at the window. Or that you might be struck by lightning tomorrow. (Hey, it could happen.) Think about who might read it, and how you really want to be remembered. If that's all you ever have time to write, at least you will have left behind something worthwhile.
See this post for more thought-provoking questions.