What kind of story are you writing with your life? Is it one of great passions and struggles or is it one of a humdrum quest for a better job and more security?
A good story needs a main character – that’s you. A good story needs a compelling problem and conflict. And by conflict, I mean risk, sudden twists and suspense. Your story needs them to be interesting. Is your story interesting?
We are all telling a story to future generations with our lives. We can look back in our own family history and see the preamble to our story.
Context and my story
I come from a family of doctors, but when I was younger, I heard stories about my great-great grandfather, Seth Barnes. He grew up like Huckleberry Finn, orphaned at eight, then running away from an abusive stepfather.
He lived as a street urchin on the streets of Cincinnati before stowing away on a riverboat that dropped him off on the muddy banks of southeastern Missouri. From there he learned to work on riverboats going up and down the Mississippi .
His hardscrabble childhood was just the start. He fought in the Civil War, returning to Missouri to make his fortune. As a young man, Seth began buying up property and starting businesses. He married and founded a town named after my great-great grandmother, Laura Martston.
Before he was done, he owned a railroad and thousands of acres and became very wealthy. But his story remained a sketchy one. I wanted to know the rest of it. What kind of man was he? How did he live his life? What were his passions?
The outlines of the story were fascinating. But stories need details and plot twists. For years I asked, “who was my great great grandfather?” and I mourned the fact that, if anyone had an answer to that, they were growing old and that the answer might die with them.
I talked to relatives about what records, if any, they had. But my search was fruitless. I thought about taking a road trip to Cape Girardeau to see what kind of information I might be able to dig up from the old libraries and records. But I knew it was too big of a project for me to undertake.
Until, this past year, a miracle happened. Out of the ether, a couple of second cousins of mine, Bonnie Bennett and Catherine Dwyer, got in touch with me with news: “We’ve been researching the life of great great grandad Seth for fifteen years and we’re publishing a biography.
I was flabbergasted. It was the gift of a good God who had heard my question and interpreted it as a prayer.
And now, I am writing the story of my life. Whether someone will ever put it down on paper remains to be seen, but this we know – to be compelling, it needs context. Would-be readers need to understand origins and relationships.
I am responsible for sometimes thousands of young people around the world. People want to know “who is Seth Barnes?” But to understand who I am, they need to go back and understand my family. And they need to understand the original Seth Barnes.
As an example, when I say that I feel called to protect and care for the orphans of the world, it may mean little. When someone understands that the organization I direct cares for many thousands daily in Africa, it means more. But when we place that in the context of a personal history where my great great grandfather Seth was orphaned at a young age and lived hand-to-mouth in the years preceding the Civil War on the streets of Cincinnati, then all of a sudden, you have invested my story with meaning.
My great great grandfather’s story is in a way universal. It is the fight against the pain of abandonment. It goes from the story of a fight for survival to the story of a fight to find love, to carve a town out of the marshes of southeastern Missouri, and to establish enterprises and a town where none existed.
It is a story of a man fighting his own inner demons even as he conquers new territories around him. It is the story of love struggling to find purchase in a new land.
To some the lists of properties and receipts that are included in the book will seem dry and irrelevant. But to me, they are context and put meat on the bones of the story of my life and roots.
So, I’ll repeat the question I asked at the beginning. What kind of story are you writing with your life? If your story were in a book, would it be a page-turner? What would the problem be? Would the conflict be interesting?
Too many start out like this: A boy has a dream. The boy goes to college to get prepared to work on the dream. He gets into heavy debt and puts dream on the shelf, gets a job to pay off the debt, then slowly begins to let go of the dream. As his life winds down, he reflects and has regrets. He wishes he’d taken more risks. He wishes he’d not compromised along the way.
It’s never too late to tell a good story. When your great great grandchildren read the story of your life, what will they think? Why not give them a real page-turner? Today is a good day to start working on it.