Good Stories, Meaningful Lives

(Zoom Xplore Talk: October 01, 2020)

NOTE: Each week I’ll post a condensed version of my CMU Xplore session remarks, in case you were unable to log in or unable to attend. In each Zoom session, I’ll address both broad life-writing concerns (the WHY) as well as specific considerations of the writing craft (the HOW). The Writing Craft lessons will be posted separately. For this lesson, you will find my comments on the Writing Process in “Going with the Flow.”

Session 1

I’m Larry Danielson and it’s my pleasure to welcome you to “Life Sentences: Writing for Yourself and Others.” Hello to those of you I know well…and greetings to you if we’re meeting for the first time. This is a CMU Xplore course and, as you know, we’re doing things differently this year. Instead of meeting face-to-face in a classroom, we’re gathering here via Zoom.

One of the challenges of teaching with a computer tool like this is that it can become a three-ring circus and sometimes the lions may get out. It may be an adventure. For most of us, this new approach entails a “learning curve.” My wife Myra will be working with me throughout the course and she’s looking after the technical side of things. If you post CHAT messages or questions, she’ll try to monitor those and alert me as our session goes forward.

You have my e-mail and phone contact information through my previous e-mails. Given the public nature of the web, I’ll not repeat them here. Much of the resource material that I’ve developed for this short course can be found on the web site.

If you contact me by e-mail, please include “Life Sentences” in your subject line so I am certain to spot it and give priority response to your message.

Much of the resource material that I’ve developed for this short course can be found on this web site:

Here you’ll find a variety Writing Activities and Writing Craft lessons. The Writing Activities section is as complete as I can make it for this course delivery. The Writing Craft lessons will continue to evolve with new information being added each week.

Introductions: Often, at the start of a session like this, we take time to introduce ourselves. That’s important to building a sense of community.  But with 30 participants, it could use up much of our first session. Given our advantage of being on-line, we will use an alternative approach. I invite you to send me an e-mail with at least a brief introduction and I will compile a document to share it back. That way, each week, when you see someone’s name on the screen, you will have a sense of who the person is.  I will send you details after today’s class.

I will also invite you to let me know what you hope to get out of these sessions—your hopes, desires, expectations for learning in the course. When you decided to invest the time, you were anticipating something and it will help me to know what that is. 

Before next week I’ll review your comments and then try to cover what’s most relevant for you. 

Larry’s Zoom Introduction

I am well acquainted with some of you. I’ve shared by e-mail some personal details—a short biography. I’ll comment now briefly on my professional life and why I agreed to teach a course like this.

I worked in child-care / social work at the start of my career and then re-trained as a secondary school teacher. I taught English Language Arts at Garden Valley Collegiate in Winkler for nearly 20 years. 

Officially there are six language arts—reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing and representing. All are important, but I had a special heart for writing—perhaps because I found it so hard and puzzling when I was young. 

I mentored many young people as they developed as writers and I’m gratified to see many of them now using their writing skills in their own professional work—editing newspapers, writing books, publishing journal articles, and so on.

In retirement, I’ve spent much of my time writing—playwriting, ghostwriting a novel for a European leadership trainer, dozens of newspaper articles, and a few high-level grants for our city. I spent a couple of years writing an on-line course for MB Education. I’ve also worked with about a dozen people, advising and editing as they wrote about their lives.

I’ve come to believe, quite passionately, that it is important for each of us to reflect on our life experience, distill such wisdom as we’ve gleaned, and share it with others for such value as it may have to them.

As I said, I spent my entire teaching career at GVC in Winkler. But during the last ten years, I was one of the early pioneers in on-line learning…and as a presenter I had the opportunity to travel coast-to-coast meeting with other pioneers.  

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many people—students and teachers—now have been forced into on-line learning and for some it’s been the source of much frustration. Certainly it’s a different kind of learning experience, but I deeply hope you also will find it can be a good one. I’ll say more about this in a few minutes.

“Life Sentences” Course Introduction:

I presume you’ve already read the course description and know that I don’t expect you to be rich, famous or extraordinary, only that you have a willingness to recall and record some of your life experiences and to reflect on their meaning.

The kinds of writing that I invite you to do fall into three broad categories:

1) Writing for Discovery: Most of the personal writing that high school students do is “Writing for Discovery”—they have most of their lives ahead of them so it is appropriate that they explore their identities, their dreams and desires and who they hope to become. 

Such questions of identity are still important for us. We ask in our retirement years (our elder years) :“Who am I now, at this age and stage of life?”  Instead of talking about our “life goals and ambitions,” and who I’m going to be “when I grow up,” we are more likely to be looking back, assessing our achievements, thinking about some of the key turning points, the highs / the lows, and, in general, summing up our years.

2) Writing for Wholeness: For us, another kind of writing probably is more important. “Writing for Wholeness” integrates the wide variety of experiences that we’ve known and helps us to discern the connecting threads and perhaps some overall pattern. 

3) Writing for legacy: The third type of writing is the most public one: “Writing for legacy”—the record we choose to leave for others.  Just as we create legal documents like a “Last Will and Testament” and pass on property and valuables to those we love, so we can pass on some of the wisdom we’ve gleaned and the heritage we value. 

Besides these six Zoom sessions we will have together, I will share on my website much of what I have to offer you. At you will find my guidelines for the Writing Activities and also for some of the Writing Craft lessons.

Course Aim & Objectives

When teachers plan and prepare courses, we are mindful of certain design principles, including the objectives and the overall aim. You may not care a lot about this but I’ll mention them briefly. (If you’re interested, you will find more detail on this web site).

First is the Aim: “Learners will recall, record, and reflect on meaningful life experiences.” Basically, that’s the starting line, the finish line…the bottom line. 

As you participate in these Zoom sessions, and as you use the Writing Activities and the Craft-related lessons, it is my hope that you’ll remember experiences from your life, that you’ll write down at least some of them, and that you’ll think about their meaning. 

The course objectives are of two types: 

  • As you would expect in a writing course, there are ones relating to “Writing Knowledge.”
  • Less obvious but most important are those relating to Personal Growth. 

When it comes to “Personal Growth,” none of us is starting from scratch. I hope that some of what we explore might be new to you, but we all bring to our learning a life-time of experience and a mix of formal knowledge and street smarts.

I’ll highlight here four of the “Personal Growth” objectives for the course: 

  • that you will gain confidence using on-line resources and become more aware of its potential for us as elder learners
  • that you’ll think of yourselves as writers (that you can say “I am a writer,” and not feel that it is ‘fake news’)
  • that, as we proceed, you will understand your life as a meaningful story
  • that you’ll know how your writing can leave a legacy that will be valued by family, friends, and others.

Course Title / Sub-title

A comment about the course title might also be in order. “Life Sentences.” It has a judicial overtone. Most of us would not want to receive a “life sentence,” even if it doesn’t mean incarceration for the rest of our days. (Typically, in Canada, it is 7 to 25 years, depending on the crime).

For some, writing can seem like an unending punishment. You do “slow time,” confined to your cell, staring at the wall and trying to stay sane. 

Charles Colson, in his memoir Life Sentence, wrote about his confinement. Colson had been a special assistant to President Richard Nixon and for his criminal involvement in Watergate activities, he was sent to prison. There he underwent religious conversion and in time challenged the “lock ‘em and leave ‘em” approach. 

So that’s one sense of my title—the cell-blocked writer, caught by the Corrections guards, who feels locked up and left. “How did I get myself into this mess?” and “Where’s my ‘Get out of Jail’ card now that I need it?”

Fortunately, there is another much more liberating sense for the title. It refers to sentences about our life and sentences that give us life. We know the inspiration we find in lines of poetry, in Bible verses, and in most things that are well said. It’s a joyful experience to have good sentences arise within us or to come as an insightful gift from others. When we speak well, write well, and listen well, sentences about life can be sentences that give us life.

We also have a subtitle: “Writing for Yourself and Others.” We tend to think of writing in terms of an audience, of conveying a message to someone else.  Obviously “Writing for Others” is important, but so is “Writing for Yourself.” It can lead you to greater self-awareness and a better sense of wholeness. Most of the Writing Activities in this course can be shared with others, but they may be most valuable to yourself. 

On-line learning and Self-Direction

Before we look specifically at the content of this course, I’d like to comment briefly on how we’re doing it—this on-line, digital approach to learning.

Like many universities, CMU made the decision some weeks ago to move the Xplore program for seniors on-line, using this Zoom video-conferencing software.  As we head into the Second Wave of the Coronavirus pandemic, I commend them on their concern for our safety. And I commend you on your willingness to adapt to change.

Generally, the recent reaction to on-line learning has been a negative one. We tend to focus on the differences, on ways that it is not the same as in-class, face-to-face learning. And, if we’re honest, there has been loss. We miss the social dimension of in-person gatherings—greeting each other with hugs and handshakes, smiles and nods of the head, sharing jokes and friendly jibes. 

As well, the sudden plunge into the on-line world has been messy, as innovation usually is. 

  • Globally, we should’ve been better prepared for the pandemic. 
  • Educationally, we should’ve been more ready for the shift to on-line learning. What we are doing now is not new. It simply hasn’t been adopted by the “mainstream.” This on-line approach will not go away…but it does need to get better.

Several weeks ago I read the remarks of a university student leader in Saskatchewan, where all courses are on-line this year. She said: “I wanted an institution where my professors are informed and I can learn from them. Now it’s kind up to me to teach myself. My professors are unfamiliar with the technology and they’re learning alongside of me. I didn’t sign up for this.”

I sympathize with her frustration, but I don’t agree with her.  Our goal in learning should be to become more independent and self-directed (to teach ourselves) and we should celebrate being part of a community of learners, one that includes our teachers. 

We hear in the news how more and more people now are working from home and that’s likely to be a permanent change. Businesses are finding that it is faster, better, cheaper.  Using information technology, they are doing things differently and they are doing different things. You don’t hear much about it in the news but years ago the corporate world shifted to on-line learning.  So, you can feel good that you’re learning like a corporate executive.

Challenging as it may be, I’m excited that we’re doing this together—on-line. Though there is loss, there also is gain. We’ve already mentioned safety. 

  • We have more flexibility in location. We can join in from a variety of places: in this class we have participants from B.C., Alberta, Illinois, and from a variety of places in Manitoba. And we do it with a reduced “ecological footprint.”
  • We can meet people with similar interests who live beyond our immediate locale, one’s we might not encounter in other ways.
  • We can return to the website lesson materials as often as we desire; we don’t need to depend on rushing to take down everything in our notes.
  • Perhaps most importantly, we are learning in a new way—one that is more independent and self-directed. That fits who we are as older adults…and as writers.

For those of us who are older, this approach offers a special opportunity. We may not be able to travel as easily or as often. But here we can learn from the convenience of our home. I helped to pioneer on-line learning at the secondary level starting 25 years ago. This is the “future” that we anticipated; I didn’t expect that I’d get to be part of it. So I am excited, as well as anxious as we try to “get it right.”  We’ve been using the classroom approach for centuries, so we’re all pretty familiar with it. This, by contrast, is quite new, and we’re learning as we go, all of us together. 

I can say this, with confidence: Never before in history has a motivated learner had such rich resources available so accessibly, so abundantly, and so affordably. To me, that’s cause for celebration!

Overview of the Course: Three Basic Parts

Now, let’s talk about the course. I can sum it up in one sentence: “

‘Life Sentences’ is about the Why, the What, and the How of life-writing.” 

The course has three corresponding parts. 

1) The Zoom Sessions:

These Zoom sessions are the first and most obvious part. In our six times together, we will explore some of our motivations and reasons for writing about our lives.. 

If you started life on a farm as I did, you may know what it means to “prime the pump” and get the water flowing.  I hope that these Xplore sessions might do that for you—get your memories and ideas flowing and fill your pool with reflections.

  • Good Stories, Meaningful Lives 

This is the focus of our session today, and I’ll say more about it in a few minutes.

  • 2020 Vision

The spotlight in next week’s session will be on “writing for discovery.” When we are young, this is a primary focus in our personal writing activities. At present “discovery” is not our exclusive interest, but it still is important to ask ourselves, “Who am I now, at this age and stage?”

  • Restorying our Lives:

We now look back on years filled with experience, but sometimes our lives feel fragmented and disconnected. “Writing for wholeness” can help us to integrate our memories and feelings and to change our lives by changing our story

  • A Call from the Future:

After we are gone from this stage of life, each of us will be remembered. This session deals with “writing for legacy’—sharing with family and friends, with members of the next generation—some of the challenges we’ve faced, lessons we’ve learned, and wisdom we’ve gleaned in our life journey. 

  • Keeping Time

When we really enjoy what we’re doing, we talk about ‘having the time of our lives.’ This session considers how we think and write about time, especially as we come to our latter days and the climax and resolution of our life story 

  • Ways of Being

Writing also can be a meditative act, an evocative way to go within and beyond ourselves, seeking greater Presence and becoming more fully human.

The American poet T.S. Eliot said, in one of his Four Quartets: ”We shall never cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know the place for the first time.” It may be, when we have concluded these Zoom explorations, you will feel we’ve arrived where we started, and I hope that you will know it in a new and fresh way.

2) The Writer’s Craft: 

The second part of our “Life Sentences” course deals with the Writer’s Craft. In each of our sessions, I’ll spend 15 to 20 minutes talking about specific writing concerns—e.g.

  • the writing process
  • the need for a scene
  • character and conflict
  • the variety and power of sentences
  • ways that stories are structured, and
  • dialogue and description

3) The Writing Activities 

The third part of the course is the Writing Activities, and they invite three actions from you—to recall, to record, and to reflect.  Officially, there are a dozen choices, but if you count all the options, there are probably more than 50 potential activities. And I think there are enough prompt questions to keep any of us writing for several years.

Easy Entry

Life Questions

Sentences That Give Life

Letters Never Sent

My Tribute

Living with Gratitude

Travel Narrative

Moderate Challenge

Ethical Wills

Turning Points

How My Mind Has Changed

Ambitious Exploration

My Faith Journey 

My Spiritual Testament 

My Memoir

On this website, you’ll find detailed guidelines for each of these writing activities.

When I set out on a hiking trail or a canoe route, I like to know what kind of challenge I’m in for—how easy or difficult will the route be? 

I’ve tried to identify the challenge level for the Writing Activities using three categories: Easy Entry, Moderate Challenge, and Ambitious Exploration.  What makes some of the activities more difficult than others is not so much their skill level as the time needed. So, even if you are a beginning writer or an infrequent writer, don’t hesitate to consider a Testament, a Faith Journey, or a Memoir if you can invest the time.

For writers who are less experienced or confident, I’ve tried to provide plenty of scaffolding in the activities to support you.  But with the number of options and the amount of detail, you might feel like you’re drinking from a firehose. Please don’t let it intimidate or overwhelm you. Think of the Writing Activities section as a sandbox where you grab a toy, almost at random, and set out to play and have fun.

For more experienced writers, if you already are underway with a writing project, please give that priority. Don’t let my suggested Writing Activities distract you or divert you from your agenda.  You’re welcome to scan them and scavenge any useful ideas; some of the questions with various writing options might trigger ideas of how to add depth or breath to a piece you’re working on.

Since we only have six sessions together, I have not oriented this course to work on a full-length book. Yet, if that’s what you’re working on, most of the web-site guidelines and much of what we talk about can be relevant to such a project,

I often think of the words of another poet, Theodore Roethke, who wrote: “I learn by going where I need to go” (‘The Waking’). I think that’s true for most of us in our writing. There is much we can learn from others, but ultimately we need to be self-directed, taking charge of our own learning and writing. Others may share their ideas or opinions, but no one else “knows best.”

Your Time for Writing: Rather than spend a few minutes during each Zoom session trying to write individually, I’ll encourage you to set aside at least 20-30 minutes after a session— or in the interval between our sessions—and simply write. 

  • It might be a reaction to some of the things I’ve shared during the session. 
  • It might be a response to one of the Writing Activity questions. 
  • It might be an independent memory or reflection, but whatever the topic, give yourself the time to recall, record, and reflect. 

Good Stories, Meaningful Lives

All of us have read stories of various kinds, and I am sure we have at least an intuitive sense of what a story is. We tend to think of it as something to be found in a book, or a movie or a play. At the start of this course, I invite you to take the idea further and to think of your own life as a story. 

We are created beings; not all is chaos. Story gives our lives good order: we have a beginning, a middle, and—at some time as yet unknown to us—an end. Between the time of our arrival and that of our departure, we also have an interesting “Life Story.” 

I’ve never had psychoanalysis, but I’m told that the analyst’s task is to help patients turn their lives into meaningful stories.  This is a writing course, not therapy, but at the outset our aim is to understand our lives as good stories and to use writing to help make them more meaningful.

Of course, such ideas aren’t new. You’ve probably heard about “Story Theology” and “Narrative Therapy.”  During much of my teaching career, we talked about “Learning by Story,” about how students could learn most effectively by situating their lives in a meaningful and coherent story. 

The challenge for many learners now is that we live in a world filled with competing stories, some of which serve other interests and not our own.  For example, every day we are bombarded with advertisements that tell versions of the Consumer Story—that our lives are not complete, that we do not have enough “stuff,” that we need to “shop til we drop,” indulge in more entertainment, and—to really be satisfied—embrace someone else’s lifestyle (perhaps that of a celebrity or one of “the rich and famous”). 

Writing about our lives—whether with the activities of this course or other ones that we devise—can help us to step back and remember the richness, the goodness, the completeness of our own unique story.

Another challenge, in our post-modern society, is a declining belief in a “master narrative”— a grand story, a ‘God story,’ or whatever we call it—one that helps us to connect our lives to something larger, to a sense of the Transcendent. Without it, we are left with an existential struggle to find meaning, purpose and direction in our lives.

I find intellectual and spiritual hope in the words of Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and novelist. In his memoir Sacred Journey, he contends that “life itself has a plot” and that “the events of our lives, random and witless as they generally seem, have a shape and direction of their own,” and they “are seeking to show us something, lead us somewhere” (95).  

Buechner suggests elsewhere that it is God speaking into our lives. We don’t need to look for the epiphanies and revelations of the traditional Grand Narrative.  If we really listen, we will realize that all of life is holy and that in the ordinary, personal circumstances of our lives the “still small voice” [1 Kings 19:12] is calling us to meaning, purpose and direction.

You may choose any one of the Writing Activities—or another one of your devising—and it can lead you to a deeper understanding of your life story, of how you have told it in the past and how you might wish to tell it in the future. 

Parts of our story may have become corrupted, perhaps by a materialistic pursuit of HAVING or by an obsessive preoccupation with DOING. We may need to edit and revise those parts of our story in order to discover the true abundance, achievement, and awareness that come in the ways of BEING.  

And so, we start with this notion of our lives as a “good story” and explore how writing about it, even in its most ordinary moments, can help us to live more meaningfully.