What if you were given 120 seconds to put your life story onto a DVD? I say 120 seconds - two full minutes maximum - because communication professionals say a DVD that attempts to tell a story should be no longer so an audience won't fall asleep or miss the point. But maybe, just maybe, having so little time in which to encapsulate one's life could be seen as a good thing. There would only be room for the high points vs. the low points, the happiness vs. the sadness, the successes vs. the failures.
I've been asking myself this question as I watch the process of creating a DVD to tell the story of Chimney Park, the enchanted forest behind the library on Floyd Street. The board that's charged with developing and maintaining the park as a venue for passive play, peaceful contemplation and discovery - I among them - has decided that now is the time for an interpretive piece that will explain the park's history, its current uses and the plans for its future. It's got to be compelling enough to attract donors who can make hopes and dreams for the park come true. On the drawing board are, among other things, plans for accessible paths that will open up the woodland to young and old alike who use wheelchairs, walkers or canes to get about. The inspiration for the park was to get more people, especially children with special needs, into an outdoor setting for all the benefits that nature bestows, to correct a "nature deficit disorder" in this country's children, according to author Richard Louv in "Last Child in the Woods." But I digress.
When it comes to telling the stories of our lives, I sometimes question whether any one of us would be able to tell our own story. We are so busy living our lives that having the time to witness them or assess them is simply not possible. Others are far better witnesses to our lives: the families into which we are born, the families we create, the friends we gather around us, neighbors in community, school, church or workplace. Even our enemies have a take on us that should fit somewhere in the telling. Each of us has a dark side we usually don't admit to ourselves and certainly not to others.
Yet with all these possible witnesses, is there one single person who has the full picture of the lives we lead or, in the end, the life that we lived; one impeccable source who could chronicle completely a life from birth to death? Is there anyone who could tally the good we've done, the achievements, the accomplishments, the successes, while at the same time properly evaluate and acknowledge our sins of omission and commission?
For generations, we have gathered pieces of our lives in shoeboxes or albums filled with photos no one is likely to want when we are gone. (Today, I suppose photos and videos of moments in our lives could live forever in a digital never-never land confined to an electronic device that fits in the palm of one's hand.) We can point to engraved plaques or trophies or framed certificates that give proof of life for select moments in time. We are far more likely to have mementoes that bear out our successes, our small victories, and our achievements than anything tangible that gives record of where we might have failed. But the stories of our failings, when we had to pick ourselves up and start over again, are critical to the full picture.
In recent years, I've begun to question the validity of autobiographical memoirs, unless they are written by persons with a lifetime history contained in public records. For example, I simply loved Pat Conroy's memoir of playing basketball at The Citadel called "My Losing Season," but throughout it, I wondered whether he could actually remember dialogue from 40 years ago, and play-by-play action of every game his senior year. A few years back, an author named James Frey wrote "A Million Little Pieces" purporting to be the story of his life as a drug addict and inmate. Very quickly, he was forced to admit he had altered significant details with a little fictional sleight of hand and was taken to the proverbial woodshed by an icy Oprah Winfrey, duped and angry after making it her book club selection.
If your goal were not to cross Oprah Winfrey, exactly how would you tell your truthful life story in just two minutes in front of a videocam with sound rolling? What would make it compelling to an unbiased observer?
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.