How Ordinary People Have Done Extraordinary Things: Two Students Learn Skills in “Writing Biographies and Histories 2016”

Dr. Robert Stockman, the Director of the Wilmette Institute, wrote that those who signed up for Writing Biographies and Histories 2016 (faculty, Thelma Batchelor, Roger Dahl, Robert Stockman, Adam Thorne) were a remarkable group of learners. Many of the thirty-two were planning to write either histories or biographies of people they knew. Their plans were very impressive, and he feels certain that some publications will result. But, more important, the learners were immensely supportive of each other. Several knew the subjects of the biographies and were able to provide personal reminiscences or names of people to contact. The result was a very warm, friendly, and enthusiastic course. From that group, the editors have selected two learners whose comments we share.

One of the Bahá’ís is from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and the other, from Kent Washington, USA. Both have much to say about the skills they learned and about the projects on which they are working. Heather Harvey, the Canadian Bahá’í, took the course for the second time in two years. She is working on a biography of her aunt, Winnifred Harvey, who claimed to be the one hundredth Canadian Bahá’í and was definitely the first Bahá’í in Ottawa. Heather says that “Winnifred was a tireless teacher, travel teacher, and administrator and spent the last twenty years of her life serving the Faith at the Bahá’í World Center.” Heather joined the course, hoping that “the encouragement and expertise” of the faculty and her fellow learners and the “structure” of the course would help her turn the story of her aunt into a biography. Lilly Human, the Bahá’í from Washington State and a recent graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in nursing, hoped to “fine tune” an article that her professor had encouraged her to publish. It is called “Emotional Health: A Compassionate Approach,” a piece about family history and mental illness and her plea for better medicine for those with mental health-issues and for more compassion for family members affected. Read on to hear what both learned in the course.—THE EDITORS

Heather Harvey reported that she completed “the first four chapters of the biography” of her Aunt Winnifred Harvey, although she is “not very satisfied with them.” Using learnings from the course on Writing Biographies and Histories, she outlined a number of things she now realizes will improve her work:

  • I should “show more, rather than tell.”
  • I need to “take care that each chapter builds on the one before and that the thesis is clear.”
  • “I also need to do more research.”

“My first goal was to pay attention to the virtues of carefulness, reflection, and excellence, and these were the ideals that continue to kept me on track.”

Understandings and Insights. Some of the understandings and insights Heather gained include recognizing over and over again thatgood, engaging writing takes time and lots of revision.” She also learned that an author’s first organization of her material may not be the right one. Thus she changed her “organizational system a couple of times.” As far as voice is concerned, she came to understand “that it is more authentic to write this biography with part of me in it, as I was present for some of these events, and the story of my research can add to the sense of narrative.”

Using Her Writing Project to Contribute to Bahá’í Community Life. Heather has used her emerging biography in a number of ways in her community life and has more in store. First, she gave a PowerPoint presentation on Winnifred Harvey and the beginnings of the Bahá’í Faith in Ottawa in June 2016 before she enrolled in the course. Second, she madea presentation based on the first chapter [of her biography] at a devotional gathering” in February 2017 with the title “What Happened in 1844 in Waterloo, Quebec?” Third, she planned “a presentation based on the same chapter as part of an evening at the Bahá’í Center on April 22” where the community showed “The Miller Prediction.” It will be called the “Canadian Connection.”  Finally, she plans to “keep plugging away at this book. Even if it is never published,” she wants to “complete it for the Ottawa community” and for her family.

Lilly Human’s take-aways from the course on Writings Biographies and Histories took a different turn, for she works full time and is very active in her community. Hence she has found her time “limited and precious” and has recognized that she is “not a writer by trade.” But she does plan to persevere and publish her article on emotional health. Yet the course has given her a new view about writing:

I was really impressed with how talented people in the class are. It validated how ordinary people have done extraordinary things by the grace of God and how people use their vocations to serve. It is moving to see clearly that our Lord wants all of us to really grow and prosper and achieve our potential. It was also interesting to read about professional biographers and the specifics of their stricter standards, as well as the methodology and intentions of biography, specifically religious biography. 

New and Improved Skills. Lilly explained her new and improved skills:

I really appreciated learning about biographical zoning and how it frames a life story. [Biographical zoning has been defined as the process whereby an individual or affiliated group claims exclusive privilege of particular biographical information at the expense of other biographical data. See Will C. van den Hoonaard’s article “Biographical Zoning and Bahá’í Biographical Writing: The Case of Rose Henderson” in Bahá’í Studies Review 12.1.] For example, I had heard of Carole Lombard, the actress, but until recently I never knew she was a devout Bahá’í and humanitarian and that she raised over $2 million for the war effort. Biographical zoning can fragment a life and not give one the sense of who the whole person was. Carole Lombard was not just an actress. She met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and, naturally, was quite impacted by that experience and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá prayed for her acting career and her success.

Changes in Values. Lilly noted a very important lesson about integrity in writing. She now sees “how easy it could be to honestly portray someone incompletely or inaccurately and how important it is to have good ethics and evaluate through the eye of truth, love, and respect, so that” one’s heart “is right as much as possible.”

Using New Skills to Grow Personally and Contribute to Community Life. Although Lilly does not plan to write professionally as a nurse, she has found ways to use what she learned in the course on writing biographies and histories:

  • “I have already talked to quite a few people about what I am learning and how meaningful it has been to interact with the other students.”
  • “I share the other students’ stories, and I think others appreciate hearing the various stories. We have a talented community.”
  • “I enjoy journaling because it helps me reflect and think more deeply, which, in turn, helps me process experiences and make better decisions in my life. Thus I realize that I can use journaling as an opportunity to improve as a writer and communicator, and maybe that is enough.”

Indeed, as Lilly has noted, ordinary people can do extraordinary things. She and Heather Harvey are two such people.

Writing Histories and Biographies 2017 is scheduled for December 1, 2017 to January 18, 2018. Get started on your history or biography, and plan to sign up for the course.

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