Little did Michael Tengwall know when he wrote his journal in the late 1700s that he would come to change my life with his words. You may think your stories aren’t that special, but you’re wrong. In today’s blog post, I’ve decided to share with you the ‘why’ behind my company, and how my story got started, all thanks to one man’s penmanship.
Great Storytelling is a Gift.
Not only to you, but to those who follow in your footsteps.
I know this to be true because my 6th great grandfather Michael Tengwall (1705-1777) left behind him a journal, written at the age of 60. In it, he tells the story of his life in incredible detail. Not only does it include his day-to-day life in small-town Sweden, but it also has an amazing recount of his travels. In 1738, he was appointed ship minister and destined to sail for Constantinople on the Naval Ship Sweden. After leaving his family behind to go above and beyond his call of duty, his journey took a dramatic turn when the ship foundered, and he became ship-wrecked off the coast of Cadiz, Spain. As I was reading about this horrifying experience, I was amazed at his resilience and courage. After losing many of his friends to the storm, he and a few others who survived were taken in by the locals, who graciously offered them housing, clothing, and food.
Fortunately, Michael was an educated man. He spoke Latin with ease, and was able to communicate his way around. There was one man in particular, Don Cesse, that Michael clearly bonded with despite their cultural differences. It was obvious that the mutual respect they had for each other translated well, and formed a lasting friendship. Sure, there were moments of despair as Michael doubted he would ever see his family again, but also moments of wonder as he explored the Spanish culture and spent time learning about their customs. After living in Spain for some time, his return to Sweden was arranged by the Consul in Cadiz, and he eventually made it home to the family who had presumed him dead.
What an amazing adventure, right?
I was so happy to find a first-hand account of my ancestor’s life. Michael knew how to write captivatingly, by describing the sights, the smells, the texture of different fabrics, and the sounds of the church bells in the large Spanish coastal town. It was all in the details, and they were what really drew me in as a reader. What was even more impressive was the balancing act he pulled off when writing this journal because not only did he describe his travels so well, but he also somehow managed to describe his everyday life back in Sweden with the same amount of enthusiasm. His trip was clearly a defining moment in his life, but it wasn’t the only defining moment. He poured his heart out in this journal, explaining how heartbroken he was when he lost his wife to decease, when his little son died in infancy, and when his daughter lost her life at the age of 6. He was surprisingly honest about how he “somehow found the strength to continue living through all the tragedy that had befallen him.” His words made me wish I could have met him. It was absolutely fascinating to see just how fast life can change, and how fast the world keeps changing for all of us.
Reading this journal changed my life.
I first found this story when I started researching my family history as a teenager, just over 15 years ago. My teacher had assigned us a family history project that we were to present in front of the class, and I realized that I knew very little about my family (beyond my grandparents who had already passed away), so I started searching for answers. At the time, I was so excited to finish high school and start the next chapter in my life, even though I had no clue what it would look like. I had not yet made the decision to come to America (that was a spur of the moment thing), but I could definitely sense that something was about to change.
When I read Michael’s journal, I realized that I wasn’t the only person (and certainly not the first) in my family to have a thirst for knowledge and adventure. My bigger dreams started to make sense, and it gave me a sense of belonging and confidence that I had never felt before. It made me fearless, and ready to see what would happen if I took a leap of faith. As you may have guessed, this newfound confidence completely changed the course of my life. Instead of staying in Sweden, I moved to Hawaii, met my husband, got married, moved to Chicago, started a family, and started my business – in the family history field. That’s what good story-telling does; it takes you on a journey and then comes full circle when you learn something new about yourself. Great storytelling inspires, and it changes lives. If Michael hadn’t written in his journal, I may not have been equipped with the same attitude towards life that I have today. And if that’s not a gift, I don’t know what is.
Recently, I saw down to read Michael’s journal again, and it got me thinking…
Can we all do a little better?
The level of storytelling my ancestor accomplished in the 1700s with just a simple pen was impressive, so imagine the storytelling we can accomplish today with all the tools we have available to us. We have word processors, dictation tools, beautiful bound journals, print-on-demand, digital photos, memorabilia pockets, archival storage, multimedia slideshows, smartphone video capabilities…If you think about it, there isn’t one story we shouldn’t be able to tell. But do we? Not so much.
As a photo organizer, I see the following scenario a lot: Thousands of photos. Few stories. “Who is the person in this photo, and what can you tell me about him?” is a question I ask a lot when I’m called upon to organize other people’s collections, and too often the answer is a shrug, followed by a “don’t know.” It seems that the digital revolution has somehow eclipsed our abilities to write things down. I want to change that. This is the why behind my company. Stories have played such an important part in my life that I have no choice but to try and preserve them for others.
Only You Can Tell Your Story the Right Way
I’m writing this to inspire you (and maybe even dare you a little) to turn your storytelling up a notch. Our families deserve better, don’t you think? I want you to think about how you can inspire your descendants to carry on your families’ stories. Only you can tell the story of your life in the right words, and someday they may completely change someone else’s life. Just like Michael’s did.
A simple place to start is to write down some captions on your photos (using an archival pen, of course). Even if your photos are in a digital format, there’s always a place for you to enter a description, no matter if you are organizing directly in your operating system, or with the help of a software. Why not take advantage of batch processing? Perhaps you could scrapbook more? or pick a few moments that were life-changing and write about them in detail? How did you feel? Why did you feel that way? What changed?
Writing your life isn’t necessarily about jotting down every single thing that has ever happened to you; it can be as simple as putting down a few sentences in a journal, or printing a photo book. Something is always better than nothing. And no, you don’t need to be ship-wrecked to start.
“My Story is Nothing Special”
I’ve heard a few people say that their lives are “nothing special,” and that makes absolutely no sense to me. Some of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever read have come from ordinary people, just like you and me. You don’t have to be glamorous or famous to tell your story. It will always be interesting to someone, and many of those someones will not be born for many years yet.
If you feel like nothing special has ever happened in your life, you’re wrong. Look deeper. There are many life-changing moments that take place on regular days, just like this one. I’m writing right now about how reading a 200-year-old journal changed my life, and how it made me more comfortable in my own skin. Today is nothing special, but I bet you it’ll be an interesting read 200 years from now. And just imagine how telling Michael’s journal would have been if he had had access to a camera (or a smartphone)! How I would have loved to see a photo of him and Don Cesse in Cadiz, or perhaps a selfie of him and his family… That would have been amazing!
Don’t Wait to Tell Your Story
My point is simple: get some stories down on paper, or really, in any format that you want. If you’re not a perfect writer, don’t let that stop you! I can promise you that your descendants will not care as much about grammar and style as you. Use voice dictation if you want. Hit record on your smartphone and just talk. You can also take advantage of your other talents. If you’re an artist, paint. If you’re musically inclined, compose. Just tell the story of your life somehow before you memory fails you and it’s lost to time. Use all the tools you have at your disposal, and believe that your story is an interesting one because I promise you that it is. I have decided to not be the weak link in my family tree, so I’m hoping you won’t be either… for the sake of our future generations.
Can we all do a little better?