Preparing to Write
Approaches to writing inform the finished product. You may choose to write in a "stream of consciousness" without any particular focus in mind. Or you might organize your writing around a particular theme. An advantage to choosing a theme is that it offers an entry point for personal reflection as well as discussion with others. Possible thematic approaches to the writing project include your spiritual history, your genealogy, the influences on your life, reflections on your homes and places, and your history of work and vocation.
Spiritual History Approach
Spirituality may be at the center of your life, whether you have held a single religious perspective during your life or explored many. Your spiritual life at twelve, at twenty, or at thirty, forty, or fifty was likely different from what it is today. You may have experimented with spiritual practices before you found right ones for you; perhaps you are still searching. A mid-life transition or crisis might have become a catalyst for you to define yourself anew. The search for personal identity, asking the question, "Who am I?" is often a central life theme, and it may even be what we define as our spiritual journey. You may have followed a path that has led toward a belief in God, or a path that led you towards agnosticism, atheism, or secular humanism. You may have come to the conclusion that the question of belief in God is not an important spiritual question for you.
Make a time line of your personal spiritual journey. In what religious tradition, if any, were you raised? Does your present belief system or spiritual practice grow strongly from those childhood roots or has it moved away from them? If you have changed your beliefs or spiritual practice, what led you to do that? Were there particular events or people who were catalysts for change in your life? Has yours been a journey of comrades, as in The Fellowship of the Ring? Who was your Sam? Your Gandalf? Or has yours been a solitary journey? Would you like your journey to have been different than it was? How?
You might view movies about people's spiritual journeys, such as Resurrection, Strangers in Good Company, Into Great Silence, It's a Wonderful Life, Shirley Valentine, O Brother Where Art Thou? and The Lord of the Rings.
One interesting thematic approach to Odyssey writing is to mine your family history. You may have boxes of family letters, documents, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, and journals. When your grandparents were living, you may have had conversations with them about your roots. Perhaps your parents shared family stories. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins may be rich sources for history and memories. Ask relatives if they are willing to be interviewed, being sure to ask permission to record the interviews if that is your intent. In advance of the interview, prepare a list of questions. What are the family mysteries or things you would like to know? If you have family photos including people you do not recognize, see if others can help you identify them. Ask relatives if they have letters from your grandparents or parents that they would be willing to photocopy or scan electronically to send to you.
Arrange your research material—documents, photos, interviews, and so on—chronologically, and voila! You have a rough outline for your Odyssey. Where there is a part missing in the story, contact people who might have the information you seek. Use the Internet to gather genealogical, historical, or cultural information. You might uncover some mysteries and you might solve some. For example, the author's father was in his mid 70s when he told her that he had had a twin brother who died at birth. Her mother and uncle barely spoke to their mother, her grandmother, for most of their adult lives, and none of their children know why.
When you write your story, you may decide to start as far back as you remember and work forward to the present day. You may choose to begin with a broad overview of your personal history, and then focus on an "era" or decade that was a turning point of particular importance. You may examine a decade at a time. Or you may prefer to organize your Odyssey another way. Be adventurous! Consider having someone in your family read your first draft and suggest additions from their own perspective and knowledge. You might view movies about family ties and remembrances, such as Avalon, The Namesake, Moonstruck, and The Grocer's Son.
People (and pets!) may have had great influence in your life. Brainstorm a list of your important influences: Who were your best friends in grammar school, high school, as a young adult? Have you had beloved pets? Have you had roommates, in college or in another living situation? What neighbors were you closest to? Which teachers had the greatest influence on you? If you went to camp, were there favorite campers or counselors? Who are your best friends now? How long have you known them? Who were, and are, your mentors? Who have your work colleagues been, and how have they influenced you, if at all? Who was the best job supervisor you ever had, and why?
Lovers and spouses always touch us deeply. It has been said that you can tell something about a person by those they love. Who was your "first love?" Remember the people you have loved, how you touched them and how they touched you. Recall the beginnings and endings of those relationships. Make a list of the gifts each of those people gave you. Do you still have some of these gifts? Are there unresolved elements in any of those relationships? Could there be a way to resolve them? Would you want to try?
Organize a list of influential people by decade. How did the people of each decade change or influence your life? Who, outside your family, has known you the longest? Have they seen you change or even reinvent your life? How? You may begin to notice "threads of influence." For instance, a high school teacher might have encouraged your interest in a subject, or even a career, then a college teacher might helped you with further encouragement, and even focus. A mentor or mentors may have actually taught you, or assisted you along the way. The author had one teacher, a speech teacher, who deeply influenced the course of her life by encouraging her to enter speech and debate competitions. You might view movies about friends, mentors and teachers, such as The Big Chill, The Right Stuff, Peter's Friends, Babette's Feast, I Never Sang For My Father, and The Turning Point.
Homes and Places Approach
Wallace Stegner, a 20-century American writer, historian, and environmentalist, wrote "If you don't know where you are, you don't know who you are." Some people have lived in dozens of places; others have lived in only a few. Revisiting homes and places can be a wonderful approach to Odyssey-writing. In your journal, make a list of all the homes you have lived in and all the places you have lived. How, and how much, did each affect you? Why did you move from one place to another? Have you lived outside this country? Where? How did living abroad affect your life? Have you lived in more than one state or region? Have you preferred older or more modern places to live? Why? Are you a country person? A city person? Is your heart moved by the ocean, or the forest, the mountains or the desert? Are you living now in a place that you love? What was your favorite place to live? Why? Describe your favorite place in your journal, writing both about the inside of your home and its surroundings. Try drawing a picture or a floor plan of your favorite room, or the view out of its window. You might view movies where the sense of place is important, such as Under the Tuscan Sun, Off the Map, A River Runs Through It, Nowhere in Africa, and Out of Africa.
Vocation and Work Approach
Has your employment been a vocation for you? A job? Or some of both? Some of us have worked for most of our lives, maybe staying in one position, maybe moving from one position to another to another. We may have enjoyed our work enormously (and perhaps still do!), yet have never felt a sense of calling, a sense that what we do for a living is our vocation. Others of us have a clear sense of calling and feel deeply intellectually, emotionally, and/or spiritually fulfilled by the work we have done.
How has work life been for you? If you have a sense of calling, write in your journal about roots of your calling and how you gained skill, marked accomplishments and found (or find) fulfillment. Did you have a role model in your vocation? Why did they inspire you? If what you did (or do) for a living has been work, rather than vocation, write about what you did or didn't enjoy about it, and how it fit into the rest of your life. If you have had a taste of both "work" and "vocation" in the ways you have earned a living, what do you perceive to be the difference?
In your journal, list every job you have ever held, from mowing the lawn or baby-sitting to what you do now, or did before you retired. Do you see a pattern? Did one job naturally progress to the next? Which did you enjoy most? From which did you gain the most? Did you stay in an unhappy or unsatisfying job over a period of time? Why did you stay? Is there some kind of work you would like to have tried? Could you still do so now? Might you give it a try? You might view movies where work or vocation is central, such as Patton, Being Julia, Frida, All That Jazz, Mr. Holland's Opus, To Sir with Love, From Mao to Mozart, and Immortal Beloved.
Constructing the Armature for Your Odyssey
If you have ever written a term paper, a thesis, or a speech, you've had some practice figuring out how to structure your work before you write. An armature is a framework or structure for supporting sculptures, as in building clay. It can also be the framework for other things, as in the structure of a piece of writing. Developing or constructing an armature before you begin writing will provide structure and direction to shape and guide your work.
As you plan your Odyssey, use separate self-adhesive notes to write a phrase for each event, person, or time period you want to include. Arrange the notes in the order in which you want to write about them. Look them over. Do you need to add any critical or connecting event, so the flow of your narrative will be smooth and seamless? Are there missing pieces? Will the Odyssey make sense to your listeners or readers? Add the notes you need, and re-order the notes if you need to. The outline you have created with self-adhesive notes is your armature, suggesting where and how to begin and how the flow can be creative, interesting and smooth. Now you are ready to write.