Telling Your Tale

Your story is powerful, but only if you tell it

By Jennifer Owens

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.

For many, this quote by Maya Angelou provides inspiration to share our personal stories. When I read it, though, it sounds painful and overwhelming and discourages me from putting pen to paper or fingertips to keypad.

With all due respect to the amazing Ms. Angelou, I prefer a more positive spin on this quote: “There is no greater joy than sharing the stories inside you.”

Storytelling, especially about your own life, gives you the freedom to bring your values and experiences to life, to reflect on the meaning and impact of important events on your life’s path, to uncover the causes most important to you and to leave a written account of your journey that can be shared with friends and family now or after you are gone. And let’s be honest — if someone is going to tell your story, wouldn’t you rather have that someone be you?

I’ve spent years in my role at the Central New York Community Foundation helping people to document their personal stories and preserve their legacies. Inherent in this job is the most fundamental and difficult hurdle we have to clear — getting people to see and appreciate the value of their life experiences. But if we can agree that your story matters, it’s time to get around to telling it.

To help you get started, here are seven tips for sharing your story:

1. There is no time like the present. Time waits for no one, so start writing down your stories today. While it is helpful to have some distance between events and your reflection on them, putting the first words down on paper is the most important step you take in a journey to document your story.

2. Write like you speak. You know that smile that comes across your face when you get a text from a friend, or an email from your cousin, and you can almost hear them saying it? The words that you use and the tone with which you write can be as important as what you say. With that in mind, take care to let your personality shine through in your own writing.

3. Don’t worry about what others will think. It’s tempting to take the social media approach to personal history writing, sharing only the good and flattering parts of our lives. But is this interesting? Stories without conflict or adversity are a major snooze.

Life is full of complexity and difficulty, and describing how you came out the other side of these trying times is what makes life stories captivating. Give someone the chance to learn from your mistakes and to see the real you.

Honesty best policy

4. Write your truth. It seems like truth is going out of style, but I suggest that you help bring it back. Of course, every story you tell about your life is told from the only perspective you know — yours. Memories are tricky and colored by our own perception, but try to be truthful. Giving readers a look into your version of events can give them a glimpse through your eyes.

5. Consider working with a partner. Accountability isn’t just for gym workouts and New Year’s resolutions. Finding someone else who wants to document his or her story can provide motivation to keep you on track. This partner can also give you a chance to share your writing along the way to get feedback and prompt questions that can guide you to a better final product.

6. Start with great questions. Don’t let an inability to figure out what to write stop you from doing it at all. There are several helpful resources available to prompt your work. One of my favorites is StoryCorps’ Great Questions at https://storycorps.org/participate/great-questions/. Spend a few minutes with this list of questions and you’ll be inspired to write in no time flat.

7. If you go digital, be diligent. Who hasn’t lost an important note or accidentally deleted a computer file that you invested time preparing? The moment you realize that you’ve lost something meaningful is a terrible one. If you’re working on the computer, save and backup your files. Even just email yourself the files on a periodic basis or copy your written work and put it somewhere safe.

Remember, this writing can be done just for you — like journaling — or to eventually share with others. Many people even find this process helpful prior to deciding on the focus of their charitable giving or legacies.

Oftentimes, the recording process uncovers passions for causes they had not yet considered. And we know that capturing stories makes our community stronger, builds pride in our region and keeps the memories of generous people alive forever.

To learn more about options for sharing your story and preserving your charitable legacy, contact Jennifer Owens at jowens@cnycf.org or visit 5forCNY.org.

Jennifer Owens is senior vice president and chief development officer for the Central New York Community Foundation.