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Tips, guidelines and principles: How to write a personal history your posterity can't put down

Published: Thursday, Feb. 21 2013 5:30 a.m. MST

Elder W. Craig Zwick and his wife, Jan. Elder Zwick is a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

LDS Church

The year was 1967. Young Elder W. Craig Zwick was serving in the Argentina North Mission when his mission president, future Apostle Richard G. Scott, assigned four missionaries to open the work in Southern Bolivia. They traveled north by bus, train and horse to the San Juan de Oro Valley, where they helped establish The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the sleeping little villages of Quiriza, Chacopampa and Chifloca, Bolivia.

One of their daunting assignments was to secure a site and build a meetinghouse. Elder Zwick, who came to the mission field with experience in construction, said he drew up the chapel’s blue prints on 8.5-by-11 sheets of paper while riding a bus from Córdoba, Argentina, to the Bolivia border. A prominent site in Quiriza was obtained with the help of some of the community members, and they moved ahead with the overwhelming project. The missionaries actually used rented burros to haul materials, including lumber, cement, steel, window frames and plaster over a 20-mile mountain pass, often in inclement weather. Once the adobe walls were in place, it took all the manpower available, combined with great faith, to hoist and pull a heavy eucalyptus beam into place at the top of the building, using hand woven ropes made from llama hair. When the project was completed, Elder Zwick recorded in his missionary journal that the chapel stood as a sentinel over the valley.

Constructing the first LDS Church-owned meetinghouse in Bolivia was a foundational, testimony-building experience for Elder Zwick, now a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. It’s one of several personal life experiences that he and his wife, Jan, have shared in their book, “More To Your Story: Discover the Powerful Experiences You’re Already Having.” They hope their true stories, written to teach gospel principles, impact their posterity, as well as provide encouragement and insight for others wishing to record their own life experiences.

“Life is filled with these types of teaching and learning moments, and we believe it is impossible to overestimate the influence our own stories can have on us, our children and future generations,” the Zwicks wrote in the book’s introduction. “But if we and those we love are to benefit from these moments, we would be wise to ‘Treasure up … the words of life’ (Doctrine and Covenants 84:85), write them down and frequently recount them — thus making them part of our family lore and heritage.”

Elder Zwick, along with Utah author Lee Nelson, recently discussed the key elements of writing a compelling personal history and shared a list of useful tips and guidelines for those who want to record something meaningful for their family.

Simple stories, powerful principles

You need not be a professional writer to tell your stories and learn from them, Elder Zwick said. Simple stories and experiences that are honestly shared can affect others in a variety of positive ways. While many may see their life as uneventful or mundane, Elder Zwick suggests considering a situation, challenge or unique opportunity from your life, then asking three questions:

1. What did I learn?

2. Why was it significant to me?

3. Therefore, what?

“There is power in teaching true principles the same way we learned them,” Elder Zwick said. “The purpose of all of us in mortality is to learn through our experiences, whatever they may be. Stories infuse our life with meaning. We are here to learn from our experiences. … For the experience to be meaningful to you, it needs to be verbalized or written. … Until you speak or write about it, it doesn’t have power in your life.”

Once an experience has been identified, don’t get too hung up on details or flowery words, focus on the feelings that were felt, Elder Zwick said.

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