Mark Twain – Lessons of How to Tell Your Life’s Story

I just listened to today’s broadcast of National Public Radio (NPR)’s program Fresh Air (one of my favorite radio programs). One of the interviews today was of Robert Hirst, director of the Mark Twain Project (University of California, Berkeley) April 21, 2010 marked the 100th anniversary of Twain’s death. According to Twain’s wishes, his autobiography, written in the later years of his life, was not to be published until at least 100 years after his death. Hirst talked about the unique way Twain (real name Samuel Clemens) wanted to write his autobiography.

From the NPR report: Twain knew early on that he wanted to write an autobiography, but his first efforts to put his story on paper failed. He attributed his troubles to trying to follow a chronological calendar; a plan that, he wrote, “starts you at the cradle and drives you straight for the grave, with no side excursions permitted.”

Then, in 1904, Twain hit upon the right way to tell his story. “Start at no particular time of your life,” he wrote. “Wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing that interests you for the moment; drop it at the moment its interest starts to pale.” Naturally, he couldn’t resist a comic hyperbole, adding, “It’s the first time in history such a method has been discovered.”

Twain hit on a great point. Most people who think about capturing their life’s stories get bogged down with how to do it and in what order it should be done. Twain’s “wander at your free will all over your life…” approach takes a lot of pressure off the process. In other words, just say what’s on your mind when it’s on your mind! And these days, you don’t even have to write it down. Just talk into a digital recorder or sit in front of a video camcorder and start talking.

It just might even be fun to do! As Twain himself puts it, “You will never know how much enjoyment you’ve lost until you get to dictating your biography,” he wrote. “You’ll be astonished at how like talk it is and how real it sounds.”

Twain recorded a massive amount of his life’s story. The first volume is now available (a second volume is due to publish shortly). But as the Chinese proverb states, “The longest journey begins with a single step.” We don’t have to be a brilliant writer like Mark Twain to begin recording our stories. We just have to start stepping! And remember, with Mark Twain’s method, “side excursions” are permitted!

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