The Ripple Effect

The author in Costa Rica, circa 1986.

Photographs convey an immediacy that compels us to respond. A photo can transport us back to a precise moment more rapidly than words. But words — journal entries, letters, hurried notes — take us beyond simple visual memory. Words have the power to replay history, stirring recollections of who and what we were along the timeline of our lives.

I was reminded of that recently when I uncovered a snapshot stuffed in a file of my old news clips from Central America. The picture, a casually composed Polaroid, gives little away. The only clue to where or when the picture was taken is scrawled across the bottom: 1986, El Pueblo. How the group knew each other and what brought us together in that particular bar is left to the viewer’s imagination. I knew the photo was taken in San Jose, and could still identify the group. But it was the scrap of a story clipped to the photo — a grad school assignment written years after I left Costa Rica — that brought those years tumbling back.

Seated around a wooden bar table, leaning against each other and across a stained plastic mat, the six of us look happy. We were friends of a sort, brought together in a strange and difficult place where we lived and worked for a brief time and then moved on. When I look at the photo all these years later, I am almost fooled into thinking we were the best of friends. In truth, I was never a part of their group, a select few bonded by one overriding memory that forever defined their friendship.

It was death that brought them together. The bombing made news around the world not so much for who died, but for who didn’t. The narrow escape of Eden Pastora, a Nicaraguan revolutionary turned rebel fighter, filled the column inches. The brutal death of an American reporter, wife and mother of an eight-year-old boy, was judged less newsworthy. But in San Jose, Linda Frazier’s murder left a long shadow; not just over her grieving family, but over the Costa Rican paper she was a part of — the paper where the six of us first met.

My mother would often recount the story of how I took a job on that paper, stepping in after a woman reporter was killed. She saw my decision as rash and a testament to my daredevil temperament. She was partly right, as mothers often are. But what she didn’t understand was why I wanted to work there.

The paper was run out of a ramshackle colonial house in central San Jose. It was painted Pepto-Bismol pink and housed an assortment of stray cats, a family of rabbits and a crew of underpaid, young journalists. We loved it, knowing we were at the heart of a big story — a guerrilla war bankrolled by Washington and fought along Costa Rica’s northern border. Journalists from media outlets around the world would drift in to write about the Contra insurgency, hiring us to book interviews, translate or take notes at press conferences. “Fixers,” they called us.

It was one of those fixer jobs that first brought me to the Nicaraguan border. We travelled up river along the San Juan for hours, passing near the rebel camp where two years earlier, a bomb exploded at a news conference killing seven people, including three journalists, one of them Linda. Night had fallen by the time the reporters assembled, packed into a wooded shack on stilts above the muddy river. Pastora had just begun answering questions when the bomb went off, sending shrapnel in all directions.

Despite the trip, despite coming so close to that reality, for me the tragedy remained a distant event. And when the others would recount the long night waiting for news of friends that lived or died in that ill-fated press conference, when they would mull over every detail and obsess about the identity of the still-unknown bomber, I would only listen…

When I saw Pastora’s obituary last month in The New York Times I thought of my time in Central America, and my writing of events there. Not long after the snapshot was taken, I interviewed Pastora. By then he’d abandoned his war against the Sandinistas, but still reveled in telling tales of his adventures — the dangerous, wild life he led as a revolutionary hero, Contra guerilla and finally, shark fisherman. It’s the back story to a photo that truly resonates, the complicated stuff that we can’t see. And it’s those stories that cause a ripple effect, evoking in us wave after wave of deepening memories.

The author in Managua, Nicaragua.

Remembering What Matters Most

I ’ve done a lot of thinking about my own mortality these past few months, in the thick of the pandemic. Like most people, I’m not easy with pondering my own demise, and even less comfortable planning for it.

But I’ve discovered that thinking about death has forced me to consider what matters most in life: family, friends and long-held passions.  It’s been an unexpectedly comforting meditation, unearthing old memories, untold stories and life lessons I’ve picked up over many decades. It struck me, not for the first time, that while we often define our lives by the material treasures around us, it’s the life lessons we learn, the wisdom we gain and the stories we pass on to the next generation that truly define our legacy.

My musings got me thinking about ethical wills, a particular kind of storytelling where the focus isn’t on the timeline of a life, but the values that bind us together.

The ethical will has been around since Biblical times. In fact, there’s a reference to the tradition in Genesis 49 when a dying Jacob calls his sons to his tent, determined to give each of the 12 some very specific advice.  

One of the most famous early ethical wills, written in the 11th century, comes from a Spanish doctor, Judah ibn Tibbon. The document, which runs over 50 pages, is packed with detailed advice for his son Samuel on an slew of subjects, from telling him to study medicine and the Torah, to ordering him to honor his wife. Apparently eager to leave no stone unturned in Samuel’s life, the anxious father even spelled out how his son should care for the family library:

Never refuse to lend books to anyone who has not the means to purchase books for himself, but only act thus to those who can be trusted to return the volumes. Cover the bookcases with rugs of fine quality and preserve them from damp and from mice, for your books are your greatest treasure…

Modern ethical wills have come a long way from those ancient scrolls. To start, they come in curiously creative packages — films, digital recordings, handwritten letters, illustrated books, a collage of beloved photos, a laundry list of ideas — and can be addressed to anyone the writer thinks should read them. I heard of one case in which a young mother, diagnosed with terminal cancer and longing to leave her two daughters her best advice, bundled together a packet of letters for each girl to read on the most important days of her life — 21st birthday, graduation, wedding, becoming a parent.

Recognizing the emotional clout of ethical wills, lawyers are increasingly adding them to their estate planning toolbox too. As the Vermont attorney William Deveneau explains:  

For the most part we leave the decision to write an ethical will up to the client, but we do tell them that if they want their values, life lessons and advice to be passed on to the next generation, they need to put it in writing or it’s unlikely to ever happen.

This is especially true, Deveneau says, if there’s potential for a quarrel when the legal will is read.

If there’s the possibility that the [legal] will might infuriate people, I suggest including an explanation. I’ve found that explaining the values and emotions behind the decision can help soothe conflict among the descendants.

Sometimes an ethical will goes well beyond a family legacy, posing instead as a speech that powerfully addresses the writer’s hopes and dreams for the next generation. In this month of cancelled graduations, I’m reminded of Steve Job’s poignant commencement address at Stanford. Standing before the Class of 2005, believing in that moment he’d survived cancer, Jobs bequeaths the graduates his lessons on life. Emotional and inspiring, the man who changed the tech landscape forever told the crowd that coming close to death had forced him to look at what was most important in his life. Don’t settle, he urged them, do what you love.

…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition…

The speech ends, as any will should, learning from the past and looking toward the future: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

Beating Boredom In Lockdown

Diary Pages, Michelle Phillips © Peter Beard

A friend of mine emailed me an article today on cleaning house for the coronavirus. Armed with sprays and wipes I vigorously scrubbed all the high-touch surfaces I could think of while trying hard, as instructed, “not to be neurotic about it.” Fifteen minutes into my manic marathon, my stress levels rising, I shelved the wipes and reached for tea and shortbread. I was gonna need a better project.

Hunkered down at home, we’re all scrambling to find ways to get through this crisis and maintain our sanity, our spirits and our sense of self. And while being stuck inside is hardly an opportunity any one of us would have wished for, it does give us time to do things we might never have considered. Sure there’s binge-watching Mad Men or re-reading Jane Austen, but for me neither stretches the boundaries of novelty. And as the world spins wildly around me, I’m not inclined to file photos or organize my kitchen cabinets. So let me suggest a project that will set your imagination free, throw you back into the past, or jolt you into the future. A project that’s all about you: creative writing.

One of the first and best books I ever read on the subject, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, talks about writing without any expectations, “to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination.” Let go of your paralyzing constraints. What will people think? How do I begin? My spelling is terrible! And instead, dive in:

  • Forget your computer, use paper and pen. There are plenty of options: a repurposed notebook, a yellow legal pad or a brand new journal, if you want the thrill of getting a package delivered.
  • Find a private space and commit yourself to a few minutes, a half-hour or even an hour.
  • And as Goldberg says: Don’t get logical, don’t think … lose control.
  • She offers a wonderful array of starter questions to get you going, among them, begin with “I remember,” small memories or big, just keep going.
  • Write about the street you grew up on, the walk you took this morning, your first love, a meal you cooked, going home.
  •  Stephen King’s masterful writing memoir, On Writing, advises that the most interesting story lines can be conjured asking “what-if questions.” He writes: “What if vampires invaded a small New England village (Salem’s Lot)? … What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog (Cujo)?
  • Of course not all of us have the King’s strange, you might say tortured imagination, but letting your own thoughts wander unrestrained can kick off some fascinating ideas.  What if a virus shut down America? …. Maybe not.
  • Finally, there is visual journaling – the new rage.  Surrounded by artists most of my life, including a son in art school, I’m not surprised the world at large has adopted the idea. These are essentially diaries with both images (usually drawings or collage) and words. They can take the structured, often stiff, task of keeping a journal into a whole new imaginative realm, tapping into your creativity in an entirely different way. Be inspired and don’t let your inner critic get in the way, you might find the process liberating and fun.

If nothing else, letting your creative side run free might take your mind off the world outside the window. Remember, some of our most treasured writers were witnesses to the toughest times.

Diary Pages, Khadija and ’78 Diary © Peter Beard

Top Tips For Love, Or At Least How To Write About It

Groom tenderly touching his bride's bare back.

At first blush, writing about romance may seem as easy as, well … falling in love. It isn’t, even for the hopeless romantics among us. At The Story Project we have the lucky advantage of penning the stories our clients tell us. It’s not up to us to devise romantic plot twists, adorable “meet cutes,” or emotional grand declarations. That’s best left to the Hollywood RomCom writers.

Our job is the not-so-small matter of coaxing couples to talk (yes, it’s mostly the men that duck for cover). And then there’s the challenge of writing a story  — from first glance to “I do” — that captures the essence of their romance.

As a Valentine’s Day gift to the wanna-be romance novelists among you, or just those of you inspired enough to compose a truly personal card this year, here are some of our best tips for writing about love:

Soldier embracing his girlfriend upon his return from combat.
(Photos Peter Crabtree)

— Steer clear of clichés. “It was Kismet” or “we fit together like pieces of a puzzle” are as old as the hills (excuse the cliché) and read that way.

— Write in your own voice. Any attempt to parrot Jane Austen’s genius, or for that matter, Danielle Steele’s sauciness, reads like what it is: a stale imitation.

— The “meet cute,” Hollywood’s name for a charming, sometimes ironic way for a couple to meet, is one of the most used tropes in film. It’s also one of the most difficult to write. Skip it. A first encounter doesn’t have to be adorable or embarrassing to grab your readers’ attention. Sometimes reality works fine. I once asked a colleague how she met her husband. “We met in the office,” she said shrugging at the dullness of it. “We hated each other. It took two postings and three countries before we fell in love.” You gotta ask: how did that happen? There’s usually a good story behind every match, even if it’s not the made-in-Hollywood variety. Ask around if you need some inspiration.

— Search for words that really express the sentiment you’re trying to convey. Her “twinkling” blue eyes and his “amazing” physique are not exactly descriptive. Then again there’s this: “The elevator whisks me with terminal velocity to the twentieth floor.” Terminal velocity? Ugh, but the author made a gazillion bucks from it. See 50 Shades of Grey.

— Trust yourself. Consider what you really want to say and be brave. Putting it out there takes courage, but then again, so does falling in love.

If you need more inspiration, keep an eye out for The Story Project’s upcoming Short-Take telling a clients’ love story, True North: A Love Story in Five Maps, posting on our website (with permission) this coming week.             

Have a Happy Valentine’s Day!

The Arctic Convoys: Navigating My Father’s Untold History

Convoy crossing the Atlantic, 1942 (Courtesy The Library of Congress)

On a recent Sunday, snow whirling outside, I scoured the house for something to read, hoping to curl up with a good thriller. Tucked in among a motley collection of still unpacked titles — picture books, college texts and weighty political tracts — I discovered a dog-eared copy of HMS Ulysses, the classic adventure story of combat in the North Atlantic. Captured by the cover image, a World War II cruiser steaming through stormy seas, I began to read the yellowed pages. This was my father’s war. The treacherous routes drawn up on the book’s nautical map would have felt familiar to him. And as I traced those journeys it struck me how little I knew of his harrowing years at sea and the memories he carried with him into old age.

The novel follows the fortunes of a merchant convoy’s terrifying voyage to Russia’s Arctic outposts and the deadly game of cat-and-mouse they play with Nazi U-boats and bombers. Hardly the kind of narrative I regularly devour. So I was more than a little surprised to feel the wave of longing and regret the story triggered.

It was the vivid descriptions that moved me: mountainous rogue waves and Arctic temperatures of -60 F, clouds of frozen sea spray and torpedo explosions bunched together in rapid-fire succession — three hits in three seconds — that ripped and shredded metal, catapulting sailors into the icy waters.

Dad as a young man

Through it all I pictured my dad. A ship’s engineer, he survived 30 voyages across the Atlantic, including four missions to Archangel and Murmansk. He was my son’s age, 26 years old, when he sailed those deadly waters, running the North Atlantic gauntlet to Russia. More than 800 ships, 40 convoys, followed that route between 1941 and 1945, risking everything to deliver supplies to the Soviet allies. Of those, over 100 never made it home, marking it as one of the most dangerous duties of the Second World War.

When we were kids my father shared few tales of his adventures in the Merchant Marine, shrugging off that time as the long-forgotten past. Near the end of his life he sometimes talked of a Christmas Eve when the crew watched helplessly as a nearby tanker was torpedoed, its sailors burning to death in oily Arctic waters. But mostly he kept those horror stories to himself.

There was one scene he’d tell us kids, often with a gruff laugh: “It was late night and I was on deck having a smoke. We still didn’t have our orders. I hoped we might be headed for Scotland, maybe get to go to shore, drink a warm beer, dance with a girl.”

Off Montauk

Standing in the biting wind, braced against the ship’s heavy pitch, he offered a fellow sailor a cigarette. The two men peered into the winter sky, searching the stars to plot their voyage. It didn’t take long to calculate. “So much for Scotland,” the sailor said, tossing his cigarette over the stern. My father sighed as he trudged back to the engine room and his duty. “It’s Murmansk. Again,”

As a child, my take away from the story was that my father could navigate from the stars. As an adult, I find myself considering all that my father left unsaid. What was he thinking as he stared out into the darkness, facing the certainty of piercing cold days and countless nights without sleep, the possibility of Arctic storms, and the unremitting fear of sudden and violent death? I wish I’d urged my father to tell me the story of those remarkable days. I wish I’d recorded his adventures and documented his memories, decoding how they shaped him in later life to pass on as a gift to future generations.

Maybe it’s the missed chance of witnessing my father’s story that’s made me passionate about telling other people’s histories. I’ve seen firsthand that the stories left untold are forever lost, and that those told second-hand are corrupted in the retelling, each time with more lapses and more inaccuracies until finally, drifting from generation to generation, they simply fade away.

Talking to people about their lives — hearing their remembrances, often deeply personal and emotional — is an extraordinary privilege. It’s a privilege that is now my work. The job begins with listening, but it’s in the writing that a unique theme emerges and personal histories are woven into a larger story. A timeline for a life can be constructed, but it’s placing our life stories in the crowded arc of human events that gives them meaning for future generations and adds an invaluable dimension to our own family story. It’s those stories that we cherish most and hope to pass down to our children and grandchildren.

— Caitlin Randall

Sun and sea: the sailor at home