write a good story (I give a graduation speech and live to tell about it)

Public speaking is not something I’ve ever enjoyed (and that’s putting it lightly).  But for some reason I agreed to speak tonight at the eighth grade graduation of a group of students that I taught in third and fourth grade.  I’m posting the text of my speech here so that my mom (whom I forgot to tell about said speech until today; sorry, Mom!) can read it.  Although blog readers can’t see the slide show that accompanied my speech, you are at least able to click on links instead.
———————————————————————————————————-
  Louis Zamperini
  Zach Sobiech
Good evening, staff, family, friends, and graduates. Thank you for inviting me to speak, and thank you letting me stand down here (on the floor facing the stage/back to audience) so I can pretend you’re the only ones listening. When you were in my third and fourth grade classroom, my favorite part of the day was any time I got to read you a story, so I thought that would be a great topic for this evening. Stories have the power to help us learn, connect, find common ground, and write better stories ourselves.
Since the day we were born, each of us has been writing our life story. Most professional writers have editors to critique their work, ask questions, and motivate them to create the best story possible. And even though most of us have never had our writing published for pay, we have access to the best “Editor” ever (named God) to help us write our life story. I don’t know about regular editors here on Earth, but ours never forces us to change anything we’ve written or are about to write. He has a plan and a vision for our lives, but it’s our choice to follow His lead or do our own thing.
There are two main types of stories: fiction (made-up, fake, imagined) and nonfiction (true, real-life).
Fiction writers have the advantage of creating an entire story from their imagination—they can control what the characters do and say in response to events in the plot, and if they don’t like it they can erase or hit ‘delete’ and start over. Writers of fiction can use coincidence to make their story follow the path they like best.
Nonfiction writers don’t have that freedom—they have to tell the story exactly as it happened. In nonfiction stories, the truth of pain and suffering are mixed with joy and hope. Truth sometimes gives us a miracle, but it doesn’t guarantees a happy ending. As we write our own life stories we have no control over the other characters; the events of the plot can be influenced somewhat through our choices, but overall, we have no say in the problems and unexpected events we encounter. We do, however, have a choice in how we respond.
Our Editor uses the troubles that come our way to help us grow, learn, and draw closer to Him. In fact, James 1:2 says that we are to “consider it pure joy . . . whenever [we] face trials of many kinds.”
The focus of most stories is a large problem that the characters need to solve. However, most of the story takes place in the moments that lead up to the problem; the overall scope of a story is written in small, seemingly insignificant moments. Every time we post something on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, we’re writing our story. When we interact with the elderly couple we pass in the grocery store, the underdog in the school hallway, the members of our family, we’re writing our story. When we choose how to spend our time, our money, our efforts—we’re writing our story.
How we choose to write all of those small moments prepares us for the big ones. The small moments form our character, which determines how we’ll respond in times of adversity. In the words of Charles Spurgeon, “A good character is the best tombstone. Those who loved you and were helped by you will remember you when forget-me-nots have withered. Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.”
So how do we write a good story? What makes a good story? The essential skill is to spend time every day with our Editor and listen to what He has to say. If you do nothing else, you must do that.
Something else that good writers do is study the style and technique of other quality writers. As we write our life stories we can look at the lives of other people to learn and be inspired. Briefly we’re going to look at two life stories that I’ll never forget. My words can’t really do either story the justice they deserve, so I’ll just encourage you to read or watch both of them sometime on your own; they’re well worth it.
I first heard the story of Louie Zamperini last summer when I read the book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. (I wrote a review of the book here.)  Louie turned 96 in January of this year and is still going strong. When you read the story of his life it sounds too spectacular to be true—it’s easy to understand why there is talk about making it into a movie. At age 14 Louie was bullied, tormented, and headed for a life of crime. He had a reputation for causing big trouble in his Torrance, California neighborhood. He also had a reputation for speed—he ran so fast that he was rarely, if ever, caught. His brother, Pete, saw this as an advantage, and pushed Louie into competitive running, appointing himself as his coach. The combination of Pete’s strict coaching and Louie’s natural talent turned him from bad boy to hometown hero. Throughout high school in Torrance and college at USC, Louie became the top runner in the country for his distance, accumulating wins, setting records, and developing a reputation for tenacity and perseverance. He made friends easily and thought the best of everyone.
In one race he finished ¼ of a mile in front of the next closest runner. At the NCAA Championships, he was poised to be the first man to break the four-minute mile. Despite being warned by another coach that some athletes were looking to take him out of the race, he was boxed in by runners who used their cleats and elbows in an attempt to sabotage him. When he finally fought his way out of the trap to win, he finished with an impaled toe, slashed shins, a cracked rib, and a time of 4:08.3.
After traveling to Berlin to compete in the 1936 Olympics, Louie returned home with a 7th place finish in a race that was not his specialty and was fully expected to take gold in his best event 1940.
World War II derailed those plans and Louie headed into war as a bombardier in the Air Force. After being a part of several crucial bombing runs in the Pacific, Louie and his crew crashed into the ocean while on a search and rescue mission for a missing plane. Louie, and his pilot, Phil, survived the crash and existed for a record-breaking 57 days in an inflatable rubber raft with very few supplies. They outlasted shark attacks and strafing by an enemy plane, only to be captured by the Japanese and sent to slave labor camps.
During Louie’s 2.5 years in various camps he, like all of the other prisoners, endured starvation, illness, and forced labor until the Allies liberated them. Louie’s experience was particularly horrific as he was targeted by a corporal known as “The Bird” who physically and emotionally abused him continually.
After the war Louie returned to the United States, married, and quickly spiraled downward. Consumed with anger, he turned to alcohol to relieve the terror of his panic attacks and flashbacks. He was consumed with hatred for “The Bird”. His wife, in a final attempt to save his life and their marriage, convinced him to attend a Billy Graham crusade. The message he heard there softened his heart, and he accepted Christ as his Savior, dedicating the rest of his life to spreading the Good News. He ran a camp for troubled boys, served as a minister, and spoke to schools, churches, and groups all over the country for minimal speaking fees. He continues living life to the fullest, taking up skateboarding in his 80s, snow skiing into his 90’s, and frightening his neighbors by climbing into trees with his chainsaw in hand.
Decades after Louie’s story began, 14 year old Zach Sobiech of Minnesota was diagnosed with osteosarcoma—a rare bone cancer that usually strikes children. A little over a year ago in May of 2012, shortly after his 17th birthday, Zach’s doctors told him that he had, at best, one year to live. After hearing his prognosis he resolved to be remembered as “. . . a kid who went down fighting, but didn’t really lose.” To deal with his own feelings and relieve the burden that his friends and family were carrying, Zach began writing songs.
The release of his song “Clouds” on YouTube sparked a wave of incredible events after it went viral—to date the song has 7 million views. Zach and his family established a children’s cancer fund for osteosarcoma research, with all of the proceeds from his songs’ downloads benefitting the fund. In the days after his death last month on May 20, “Clouds” hit #1 on itunes. Director Justin Baldoni filmed a documentary of Zach for his “My Last Days” series; as of Tuesday it had 9 million views on YouTube.
When Baldoni presented Zach with a video of celebrities lip-synching his song, “Clouds” he said, “I was not expecting to meet a 17 year old that would change my life . . . This stuff’s [documentary, songs, etc.] not happening because you’re dying, it’s really because of the way you’re living.”

And, that’s the reason that both Louie and Zach’s stories are so powerful—they both understood that, in Zach’s words, “You don’t have to find out you’re dying to start living.” They didn’t set out to have their stories make the bestseller list or go viral on the Internet. And they didn’t float through life, then encounter cancer or the Japanese, and suddenly become positive, hopeful, courageous, and faithful. They lived life to the fullest and learned to be all of those things and more in the small moments before their life’s plot took an unexpected turn. In living and dying they embody the words often attributed to John Wesley that say, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

So, graduates—you each are in charge of a story that only you can write. Talk to your Editor every day, study great life stories, live well in small moments and big ones. The world is waiting to hear your story—make it a good one. Thank you.

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One thought on “write a good story (I give a graduation speech and live to tell about it)

  1. Wish I had heard this in person, it was great and inspiring but then that is why the students choose you in the first place. You have always been an inspiring person and not only to them but to all of us who have had the great pleasure of meeting you and the chance to get to know you. Great Job Wendy!

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