Personal Expression: “Note to Self”

CBS This Morning has a programming feature called “Note to Self” in which a famous person is asked to write a note to his or her younger self. They vary in quality but all are revealing. The Story Corps Project, which you can hear on NPR’s Morning Edition on Friday, does something similar for ordinary people. They interview, record, and archive conversations with people about their lives. Some are inspiring. Some are heart-breaking. 50,000 Story Corps interviews are archived in the Library of Congress.

There are myriad ways to deliver personal stories. Biographies. Memoirs. Journals. Essays. Documentaries. Journals. Oral histories. Conversations. Some tell us about famous people and feed our curiosity. Others show us ordinary lives. Everyone has a story. Some are more interesting than others, but everyone has one.

As an expatriate, living in Saigon, personal stories were the currency of life. A foreigner doesn’t end up in a place like Saigon without a story. You don’t arrive there because you took a wrong turn on the freeway. When you meet someone new, your first question is almost always, “How did YOU get here?” I was fascinated by the stories in Saigon – expat and local. The people are from everywhere and people adventurous enough to end up in Saigon are almost by definition interesting.

Now that I’m back in the States I’m aware of the recent spate of memoirs, personal essays, Story Corps conversations and Notes to Self. They’ve got me thinking about personal expression and sharing stories. As an older person I’m not surprised by the impulse. It seems natural to want to leave a little record of yourself, as you grow older. I love words. But I’ve discovered this about myself – I’d rather write them than speak them – so that’s what I’m doing these days.

My friend and neighbor, Gery, is writing his memoir. He’s had an interesting life, but his audience is likely limited to family and a few friends. I’m interested in the art of the memoir, but my audience is probably even smaller than Gery’s. A few years ago, I told my daughter I was thinking of writing something “memoir-like,” and she came unglued at the prospect. She acted as if I planned to reveal some unseemly little family secrets. I was naïve then; I thought she might want to know more about me, but it wasn’t true. I was devastated then but I’ve grown beyond it. Her harsh reaction hasn’t dissuaded me at all. I’m writing like a crazy man. I’m not writing that memoir-like thing, but I know the events, people, and experiences of my life inform all of my writing.

This fall I’m participating in a Master Class in Essay at Richard Hugo House, the literary non-profit in Seattle. The very smart and funny young novelist Peter Mountford leads the workshop. There are 12 of us in the class and the personal essays are astonishing – courageous and accomplished. It takes an act of faith to step into space.

I hope you’ll take a minute and look at two excellent examples of courageous and inspiring personal stories: the first is a Story Corps interview with Retired Marine Corporal Anthony Villereal and his wife, Jessica.


The second story is artist Chuck Close’s Note to My 14 Year-old Self on CBS This Morning:

Chuck Close

There are so many ways to share and express ideas, memories, creativity, and experience. Some people write. Some people paint. Some play music. Some dance. Whatever the medium, try it, work it, explore it.

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