Living by the mainspring

Posted March 8, 2008 by Peg Thompson
Categories: Colorado, legacy, life path, life story, life story writing, mainspring events, making a difference, Minnesota, old age, personal history writing, war, World War II


P-38 aircraft

I had planned to finish the brainstorming series for this post. But reading the Rocky Mountain News this morning, I found two poignant stories, each about a man’s life being changed by an event whose impact could never have been predicted.

Everyone’s life story has moments of crisis, of decision, of happenstance that turn us off one path and onto another. Some of us have many of them; some only a few. But regardless of their number, they eclipse the mundane day-to-day, year-to-year unfolding of our lives. They contain the underlying energy that drives the unique quality of our lives and shapes our legacy. I call them mainspring events.

In writing personal history, these events need to be front and center, because they tell our readers so much about our character and values, and the decisions we make to live those out. They are essentially stories of the spirit, stories of big, often unexpected or unchosen things that happen to us (or that we choose) and how our core being responds to them. This is what our readers most deeply want to know about us.

Take a minute now with paper and pen and list some of these mainspring experiences in your own life.

Willam Britt

The first story concerned William Britt, a man who, when he was 25, got into a shoving match with another guy. The police were called and he was tagged for simple assault, the legal equivalent of a parking ticket in his jurisdiction. He was sentenced to an anger management class, probation and a fine. He went on to finish college and complete an advanced degree.

But when he began looking for a job, he was turned down again and again. He couldn’t understand it. It was only after several years that he learned the reason: the simple assault was being reported to employers as a misdemeanor. Now 37, he’s working as a security guard. And he’s working to change the Colorado law that’s keeping him in that position.

Fred Hargesheimer

The second story begins when Fred Hargesheimer, a native Minnesotan, was a pilot flying a P-38 over New Guinea during World War II. A Japanese fighter shot his plane down. But he escaped from the plane, his parachute opened, and he drifted down to a landing in a jungle. He wandered for a week, subsisting on the food in his survival kit. Then he survived another several weeks by cooking and eating snails.

Meanwhile, some native villagers were watching for him, having seen his plane go down. When they finally found him, they took him to their village and gave him food and a hut of his own, adopted him into their community, and hid him from Japanese soldiers. He stayed with them for 8 months until he was picked up by a U. S. submarine alerted to his presence by Australian “coastwatchers.”

He returned to Minnesota, got married, had three kids, and worked for Sperry Rand. But the people of Ea Ea, that village in New Guinea, never left his mind. In 1960, he returned to thank his benefactors. He was received with rejoicing.

Yet he still felt he needed to do more. Consulting with missionaries, he learned that the people of Ea Ea needed a school. He collected money from church and civic organizations and returned in 1963 to oversee the building of a school in a nearby central settlement. Eventually Fred and his wife moved to New Guinea for four years to work as teachers. He continued to visit every few years for the rest of his life. Recently, at the age of 90, he returned for his last visit, prompted by the villagers’ discovery of the wreckage of his P-38.

Time for reflection:

What stories in your own life are evoked by these mens’ stories? Take a few more minutes to reflect on the mainspring events that you recorded a few minutes ago. When you tell your story, these will be the wellspring, the source. Ask yourself: How would your life have been different if they had not happened? How has your life been guided and shaped by them?

Please use the comment form below to share your experience of mainspring events or anything else related to the post. Thanks!


The art of brainstorming: Part two

Posted March 8, 2008 by Peg Thompson
Categories: brainstorming, creativity, free-writing, life story, life story writing

Tags: , ,

Here is another technique to help you access the imaginative, creative, and unconscious part of your mind, to discover deeper memories and information for your personal history.

(Today’s post was graciously written by my personal history colleague, Lissa Forbes.)

Focused free-writing

Start with a simple phrase, something that comes to you in the shower, while driving, or walking down a tree lined path. Often it will be the result of reflecting on recent experiences, a movie you watched with your partner, a song you heard in the grocery store.

Try some of these:

Where does the music take me?
You can’t get off the highway until you get to the exit
What if my parents came home early?
If it hadn’t happened just that way …
The reflection in his tears …

In my experience, I start with a simple phrase and I often end up someplace very unexpected. In some cases, I end up dreaming and future projections are really more about dreams, but the essence is true. I call this “fictionalized truth.” Of course, to have your life story be totally accurate it may be necessary to include a lead-in paragraph explaining things or simply lift the bits that are true. But don’t let that stop you from writing whatever come from the inside because one line in your free writing exercise may be the nugget for you story.

An example: Write about what’s around the corner (example of a 20 minute timed focused free-writing exercise)

As I follow the winding creek, flanked by virgin powdery snow, I see it disappear into the horizon at a single point. I wonder, what’s around the corner? Initially, I can’t seem to get past the white tree trunks of the aspen trees, the tufts of short round brush, the setting sun, and the crisp evening air.
I stop and dream for a moment—as I round the final curve of the creek, the one that ended at a single point not long ago, I discover a quaint cottage nestled in the woods. It is surrounded by the bareness of winter’s fallen leaves, but I can imagine in spring the lush green foliage cloaking this haven. Then in autumn, the colors changing to red and gold. I approach the cottage to see if its appearance of abandonment is true. I knock. No answer. I turn the knob on the front door. It’s not locked. Pushing slowly, peering into the dark one-room building I find it completely empty. My imagination soars. This is perfect. Just the place I’ve dreamed of. A place I can write and imagine and create. A place my dreams will come true. I imagine the cottage is mine. I sit in a comfortable padded chair on the porch in the spring. A bunny rabbit sits statue-like for more than five minutes. I can’t imagine sitting that still for so long. A doe makes crunching sounds as twigs break underfoot while passing by. A raccoon comes almost to the front door looking for scraps.The sky is crystal clear. The creek gurgles as the water flows on its way somewhere. I am pleased. My first book, Write from the Inside, has sold 5000 copies in its first year. Simon & Schuster has contacted me to publish its debut on the big publisher’s circuit. And they’re requesting a second book! In addition, I’ve bought my new silver Toyota Camry with charcoal grey interior and a CD player installed so I don’t have to use a cigarette lighter adaptor. And best of all, I’ve taken in a new friend. A little chocolate brown terrier mutt. His name is Coco Puff. He curls up beside my chair, alerting me to passers by, both the two-legged and four-legged types. Yes, he’s my best friend. He amuses me, takes care of my by watching for danger, and comforts me when I feel lonely. But most of all he loves my stories and keeps me writing “Around the corner” is what dreams are made of and it’s vital to keep looking, keep watching, and keep noticing the details.

Timed focused free writing exercise by author of Write from the Inside: Dig for Treasures, Discover Yourself, Leave a Legacy, Lissa Ann Forbes, owner of The Elemental Press, speaker, author, niche publisher, and workshop facilitator in Lafayette, Colorado.

The art of brainstorming: Part one

Posted March 4, 2008 by Peg Thompson
Categories: brainstorming, creativity, Julia Cameron, life story writing, listing, surrender, unconscious mind




Photo by Gogler John


The creative process is a process of surrender, not control.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way


If we write personal history only using only what is in our conscious mind, our writing runs the risk of being superficial or boring. That’s because we’ve literally only engaged half our brain. The other half contains our creativity and our unconscious or no-longer-conscious memories.

I use three methods of brainstorming when I write. (They’re not original with me; I learned them by reading books and taking writing classes.)

Today’s brainstorming technique is “listing.”

I begin with a topic that I am interested in exploring. Often the topic comes to me in my daily experience. For example, my recent blog entry about childhood memories of playing in snow was triggered by going outside and unexpectedly seeing snow falling.

At the top of an 8.5 X 11 sheet of paper I write a word or theme. Then quickly—I don’t stop and think about it—I make a list of everything I can think of that’s connected to the topic, until I run dry. Using the example of snow, most people find that first listing all the obvious associations with snow (white, cold, flakes, skiing, etc.) gets those out of the way and frees the writer to find his or her own memories.

Today my list related to snow might look like this

Sledding on Albion Street

Playing with saucers at the canal

Big snowstorm when I was 2

Driving in blinding snow on the way back from college

Halloween blizzard

Armistice Day blizzard

Trying to teach Laura to ski

Skiing in the Boundary Waters

Skiing near McGregor

Sliding down a glacier in the summer on my raincoat

Making snowmen

Building forts

Johnny wrecking our igloo

Dad teaching me to drive in snowy conditions

Bill’s gift of cross-country skis

Blizzard in late April that I went through once in Denver and again in St. Paul

Snowball fights.

Rock in a snowball thrown at a car. Trouble!

Bad storm the day of Mary Kay’s birthday party.

I could go on with more associations, but by now you have the idea. Usually I come to a spot where I feel I’ve run out. But often if I just pause for a minute or so, there will be more. If not, I know I’m finished (for today).

Try this out and see how it works for you. Please send me a comment and let me know!

Aunt Jim’s legacy

Posted March 3, 2008 by Peg Thompson
Categories: legacy, life story writing, love, making a difference, personal historian, unconditional love

Love is a force that connects us to every strand of the universe,an unconditional state that characterizes human nature, a form of knowledge that is always there for us if only we can open ourselves to it.

Aunt Jim

Our lives are shaped by the people who love us. Often people write about family members in their life story books, not thinking about the others who have made a difference in their lives by loving them–perhaps a teacher, a member of the clergy, a neighbor, or someone they know only briefly . A personal history is deepened and becomes more poignant when we write about these people.

One of the people who loved me was my “Aunt”Jim. Her given name was Mary Jane; one day when she was 4 years old she declared to her family that from then on her name would be Jim. And so it was.

My mother met Jim in Denver while their husbands served in World War II, and they became friends. We had no relatives within a thousand miles, so “Aunt Jim and Uncle Ray,” and Jim’s sister “Aunt Dorothea” and her husband “Uncle Chuck,” and their kids were our extended family in Denver.

We Thompsons lived in a new housing development at what was near the outer edge of Denver at that time, and Jim and Ray and their kids lived in a Victorian-era house in the old part of town. I was fascinated by their house—its dark red brick, two stories, tall staircase, and cast-iron clawfoot bathtub and pedestal sink in the bathroom on the second floor. I loved the kitchen in the back with a heavy black stove that had been converted from a woodburner, and the screened porch. It was a different world for me.

My folks played poker (and later bridge) with Jim and Ray and Chuck and Dorothea every Saturday night for many years. They rotated among the three houses, and we kids were put to bed wherever they were playing. Of course we didn’t go to sleep right away, and one of the things that kept us awake was Jim’s laugh—which at the time we referred to as a cackle. Really it was more of a cackle combined with a hoot. It was completely uninhibited and whole-hearted. We would wait for her to laugh, and then we in turn would laugh. We couldn’t help it.

Jim was a visiting nurse most of her life, and she walked to work no matter what the weather. When she retired, she race-walked into her 70’s. She learned massage and became a yoga teacher. In these, she found new ways of sharing her healing gifts.

Love and acceptance were there for the taking with Jim. As an introverted child growing up in a rather reserved family, I always felt amazed when I was with her. I knew she was warm and loving, of course; yet the exuberance of it was always a wonderful new surprise. She was always transparently delighted to see me and would declared a loud and smiling welcome: Well, Peeeeeeg! How are you?

How would I be different today if my mother hadn’t met Jim? Unconditional love might be an abstraction. Welcome might be a conventional exercise in manners. Being truly oneself might feel impossible. Alternative healing might seem just too weird.

What I learned from Jim was only a minute fraction of her legacy. She gave her gifts of love and healing (which of course were intertwined) to everyone she met, and in her case that added up to thousands of people.

Reflections for stimulating memories:
Who outside your family chose to love you in a way that changed your life?

Who are the people you have chosen to love in a way that changed their lives?

Make a list, and write a little about each person.

Use the comment section to share your memories of people whose legacy enriched you…or anything else.


Child’s play

Posted February 20, 2008 by Peg Thompson
Categories: fun, life story, life story writing, personal history, personal history writing, play, snow, writing impasses



Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness
of a child at play. Heraclitus

One evening recently I had been engrossed in a book. When it was time to go to bed, I turned on the yard lights and let the dogs out, and was surprised to see that snow was falling, filling the air with large, fluffy flakes and coating the ground with glistening crystals. I stood quietly for a few minutes in wonder at the silence and beauty.

The next day I found myself remembering how I loved snow when I was a kid. We kids were experts at observing and discussing snow. If the snow was wet, we knew it would be good for snowball fights or snowmen (as we called them in those days). But was it going to warm up? Would our creations last?

The energy we threw into building a snowman or a fort, rolling up those heavy balls and lifting them up! But we thought nothing of it; we were strong. And we were full of pride when we were finished.

If the snow was dry and fluffy like it was the other night, we knew it was no good for snowballs. If a few inches accumulated, my brothers and I and other kids from the neighborhood would go to the Highline Canal, a large irrigation ditch a half-block from our house. (It’s empty in the winter.) We knew every spot where the bank had a slope rather than a drop-off, and we hauled our snow saucers to those spots. We would push and spin each other down the slope, trying to throw others off their saucers or get enough momentum to go part-way up the other side.

Writing about play adds a whole new energy to personal history–the energy of joy, freedom, and creativity. It can be a great topic to explore if you feel bogged down in “grown-up” memories.

I hope you will comment on this post and and your own stories to this discussion.

Reflections for stimulating memories:
What are your memories of playing in snow? Of playing in general? Who did you play with? Where did you go to play? Did you play games like dolls, baseball, or basketball, and/or did you just make up the games as you went along? What did you learn from play when you were a child?

Push off from shore

Posted February 11, 2008 by Peg Thompson
Categories: life story, life story writing, personal history writing, risk-taking

Do not fear to step into the unknown. For where there is risk, there is also reward.

Lori Ward

Last night we attended a retirement party for a much-loved minister and his wife of many years. There were many touching tributes and lots of humor, but my favorite part was his brothers (and others) telling in outline form the stories of his life. And there was one story that touched me deeply.

At the time of Bill’s graduation United Theological Seminary in Minnesota, he received a gift from his wife. It was a cross, on the back of which she had had inscribed the words “Push off from shore.” I was captured by this story. It told me a lot about her, and about their relationship.

Later I found myself wondering how I would tell my own life story if I chose the organizing theme: “push off from shore.”

I have pushed off from shore at what turned out to be critical moments–to name a few, leaving home and starting a new life a thousand miles away, changing careers a couple of times (depending on how you count it), moving my practice from Minneapolis to St. Paul (which was regarded as professional suicide at the time), taking on the role of whisteblower in my church, and most recently moving back to Denver at the age of 62. Some of these decisions seemed inevitable; others came in a flash of inspiration; and still others took place only after long, thoughtful reflection and conversation.

But there have also been times I mistakenly stayed ashore when it was time to push off–once in a work partnership, and once in a church. Those were times when I was was badly hurt and seriously disillusioned, but in time I learned some things about my tendency to overdo trust and loyalty that have served me well in the years since.

And there was one time when I had a very lucrative chance to go out on the water and I decided not to, without really knowing why–just because every time I thought about the offer I got a stomach ache.

Exploring themes like this can’t help but take your story deeper, and it may also give you a sense of what leads you’re following, what prompts you’re responding to, what inner currents carry you.

Reflection suggstion:Take a little time to look back over your life with the phrase “push back from shore” in mind. What shores have you left? How did you make those choices? How did they shape the rest of your life? What inner and outer places have you stayed with for a long time? What difference have they made in your life?

Millions leave a legacy

Posted February 6, 2008 by Peg Thompson
Categories: legacy, making a difference




Be sure to check “About.” It will make this blog make sense–or at least more sense.


No one can predict the future. All we can do is choose our contribution

to the circumstances which help shape the future.

Don Michael

Last night I attended a precinct caucus. It was complete chaos at first because there were at least two thousand people at a function that’s normally lucky to attract two hundred. The line outside the school reminded me of the serpentine lines at Denver International Airport. When we finally got in, the halls were gridlocked. Some people where looking at maps on the walls to figure out what precinct they were in, and what room their precinct would be meeting in. Others (like me) knew their precinct, but didn’t know the school–so directions to the lunchroom or the mini-theater weren’t at all helpful.

When I finally found the lunchroom, it too was packed. But slowly groups organized by precincts and precinct residents began to sign in. And at last the business began.

We all spent a lot of time standing around. At one point I looked out over those hundreds of people and thought, “I wonder if any of them are thinking right now about what a difference they are making? Do they realize they are part of a dramatic revitalization of our political system? When they think about “making a difference” will they count this night?”

Most of us won’t make a difference in any dramatic way. We won’t spend our lives living with the poor, or teaching inner-city children, or adopting special needs children, for example. Yet we will have a legacy of small choices, built up through every day of our lives. Going to a primary caucus on a winter night in 2008 is one of them.

Reflection starter:

At the end of the day sometime this week, review your day. Look for the tiny ways you received from others–a smile, help with a work project, a listening ear, for example. Then look for the tiny ways others received from you. Did your life shift at all from these encounters? Did your mood change? Did you learn something? Did you understand someone (or feel understood by someone) in some small way? Did you get a new idea? Did you find some new compassion for yourself or others? This is how legacy happens–moment by moment, choice by choice.