This I Believe: Writing a Creative Personal Essay

Essay: "do what you love" by tony hawk.


Sample Essays From This I Believe: Massachusetts

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A person believes various things at various times, even on the same day. At the age of 73, I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction, as a mode of truth-telling, self-expression and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness. The special value of these indirect methods of communication—as opposed to the value of factual reporting and analysis—is one of precision. Oddly enough, the story or poem brings us closer to the actual texture and intricacy of experience.

In fiction, imaginary people become realer to us than any named celebrity glimpsed in a series of rumored events, whose causes and subtler ramifications must remain in the dark. An invented figure like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary emerges fully into the light of understanding, which brings with it identification, sympathy and pity. I find in my own writing that only fiction—and rarely, a poem—fully tests me to the kind of limits of what I know and what I feel. In composing even such a frank and simple account as this profession of belief, I must fight against the sensation that I am simplifying and exploiting my own voice.

I also believe, instinctively, if not very cogently, in the American political experiment, which I take to be, at bottom, a matter of trusting the citizens to know their own minds and best interests. “To govern with the consent of the governed”: this spells the ideal. And though the implementation will inevitably be approximate and debatable, and though totalitarianism or technocratic government can obtain some swift successes, in the end, only a democracy can enlist a people’s energies on a sustained and renewable basis. To guarantee the individual maximum freedom within a social frame of minimal laws ensures—if not happiness—its hopeful pursuit.

Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything—from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms and their sub-microscopic components—seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and—may we even say—illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me.

John Updike won two Pulitzer Prizes for his series of novels chronicling the life and death of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. He was also a noted poet and essayist as well as a literary and fine art critic. Updike grew up in rural Pennsylvania and lived the remainder of his life in Massachusetts. He died in 2009.

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I believe in showing up. My mother avoided visiting her best friend, my godmother, as she died of lung cancer because she didn’t know what to do or say. Even when Berdelle’s family called to say it wouldn’t be long, Mom couldn’t go. She never said good-bye.

A few years later Mom died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. In the days surrounding her death, our small Minnesota town transformed itself into an ark that kept our family afloat. For weeks, people did the simplest things: vacuumed, brought food, drank coffee with my father, and mowed the lawn. It all mattered.

In 2003, my dear friend, Sally, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Like Berdelle, she was a nonsmoker. Like my mom, I didn’t know what to do or say. I did a flurry of research to learn all there was to know about non-small-cell carcinoma and considered training to become a hospice volunteer. Then my life partner reminded me to do what I already knew how to do: show up.

A group of Sally’s friends—she called us The Divas—made sure that someone was with her every day of the week. I was Sally’s Monday. Our days at the cancer center were filled with talking, knitting, and hilarity that often involved medical staff and other patients.

Back home, Sally had a list of projects. We sorted through scary accumulations of photographs, craft projects, cosmetics, old purses, wallpaper, stationery, scarves, flowerpots, books, mismatched linens, and schmaltzy knickknacks stashed in closets and cabinets. We went to the gym and cheered when Sally sustained one mile an hour on the treadmill for ten minutes. One day we traded in her car for a smaller model that everyone else drove after the cancer was in her brain. We went to the mall to buy pajamas for her husband’s Christmas present. We browsed through her favorite dollar store, dropped off the latest pictures of her granddaughter Emerson to be developed, took drives in the country so she could take pictures on her new camera phone, promising we’d figure out how to download them someday. Sometimes we sat in her living room and folded laundry.

Each visit ended with a game of freestyle Scrabble for which we made new rules as needed. I knew the end was near when Sally couldn’t organize her letters to be right side up and didn’t remember we could make a rule allowing upside-down words.

Sally died on December 27, 2005. We hadn’t had any deep conversations about dying and death—those were reserved for her beloved husband and children. With her friends, she was as much herself as she could be, and that’s what she wanted. She needed her friends to show up and do the simplest things. And we did.

Patricia James was born and raised in Northfield, Minnesota, and now lives in Haydenville, Massachusetts. A longtime member of the Rittenhouse Writers Group in Philadelphia, Ms. James has just completed her first novel.

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I believe in life. I believe in treasuring it as a mystery that will never be fully understood, as a sanctity that should never be destroyed, as an invitation to experience now what can only be remembered tomorrow. I believe in its indivisibility, in the intimate connection between the newest bud of spring and the flicker in the eye of a patient near death, between the athlete in his prime and the quadriplegic vet, between the fetus in the womb and the mother who bears another life in her own body.

I believe in liberty. I believe that within every soul lies the capacity to reach for its own good, that within every physical body there endures an unalienable right to be free from coercion. I believe in a system of government that places that liberty at the center of its concerns, that enforces the law solely to protect that freedom, that sides with the individual against the claims of family and tribe and church and nation, that sees innocence before guilt and dignity before stigma. I believe in the right to own property, to maintain it against the benign suffocation of a government that would tax more and more of it away. I believe in freedom of speech and of contract, the right to offend and blaspheme, as well as the right to convert and bear witness. I believe that these freedoms are connected — the freedom of the fundamentalist and the atheist, the female and the male, the black and the Asian, the gay and the straight.

I believe in the pursuit of happiness. Not its attainment, nor its final definition, but its pursuit. I believe in the journey, not the arrival; in conversation, not monologues; in multiple questions rather than any single answer. I believe in the struggle to remake ourselves and challenge each other in the spirit of eternal forgiveness, in the awareness that none of us knows for sure what happiness truly is, but each of us knows the imperative to keep searching. I believe in the possibility of surprising joy, of serenity through pain, of homecoming through exile.

And I believe in a country that enshrines each of these three things, a country that promises nothing but the promise of being more fully human, and never guarantees its success. In that constant failure to arrive — implied at the very beginning — lies the possibility of a permanently fresh start, an old newness, a way of revitalizing ourselves and our civilization in ways few foresaw and one day many will forget. But the point is now. And the place is America.

Andrew Sullivan was born in England and educated at Oxford and Harvard. At age 27, he became editor of The New Republic, a position he held for five years. As a writer, commentator and blogger, Sullivan addresses political and social issues, and advocates for gay rights. He currently writes for The Daily Dish.

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I believe in the power of the unknown. I believe that a sense of the unknown propels us in all of our creative activities, from science to art.

When I was a child, after bedtime I would often get out of my bed in my pajamas, go to the window and stare at the stars. I had so many questions. How far away were those tiny points of light? Did space go on forever and ever, or was there some end to space, some giant edge? And if so, what lay beyond the edge?

Another of my childhood questions: Did time go on forever? I looked at pictures of my parents and grandparents and tried to imagine their parents, and so on, back through the generations, back and back through time. Looking out of my bedroom window into the vastness of space, time seemed to stretch forward and backward without end, engulfing me, engulfing my parents and great-grandparents, the entire history of earth. Does time go on forever? Or is there some beginning of time? And if so, what came before?

When I grew up, I became a professional astrophysicist. Although I never answered any of these questions, they continued to challenge me, to haunt me, to drive me in my scientific research, to cause me to live on tuna fish and no sleep for days at a time while I was obsessed with a science problem. These same questions, and questions like them, challenge and haunt the leading scientists of today.

Einstein once wrote that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” What did Einstein mean by “the mysterious?” I don’t think he meant that science is full of unpredictable or unknowable or supernatural forces. I think that he meant a sense of awe, a sense that there are things larger than us, that we do not have all the answers at this moment. A sense that we can stand right at the boundary between known and unknown and gaze into that cavern and be exhilarated rather than frightened.

Scientists are happy, of course, when they find answers to questions. But scientists are also happy when they become stuck, when they discover interesting questions that they cannot answer. Because that is when their imaginations and creativity are set on fire. That is when the greatest progress occurs.

One of the Holy Grails in physics is to find the so-called “theory of everything,” the final theory that will encompass all the fundamental laws of nature. I, for one, hope that we never find that final theory. I hope that there are always things that we don’t know — about the physical world as well as about ourselves. I believe in the creative power of the unknown. I believe in the exhilaration of standing at the boundary between the known and the unknown. I believe in the unanswered questions of children.

Alan Lightman is an astrophysicist and novelist teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Einstein’s Dreams and A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit. Lightman and his wife, Jean, started the Harpswell Foundation to help disadvantaged students obtain education in Cambodia.

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I believe in the ingredients of love, the elements from which it is made. I believe in love’s humble, practical components and their combined power.

We adopted Luke four years ago. The people from the orphanage dropped him off at our hotel room without even saying goodbye. He was nearly six years old, only 28 pounds and his face was crisscrossed with scars. Clearly, he was terrified. “What are his favorite things?” I yelled. “Noodles,” they replied as the elevator door shut.

Luke kicked and screamed. I stood between him and the door to keep him from bolting. His cries were anguished, animal-like. He had never seen a mirror and tried to escape by running through one. I wound my arms around him so he could not hit or kick. After an hour and a half he finally fell asleep, exhausted. I called room service. They delivered every noodle dish on the menu. Luke woke up, looked at me and started sobbing again. I handed him chopsticks and pointed at the food. He stopped crying and started to eat. He ate until I was sure he would be sick.

That night we went for a walk. Delighted at the moon, he pantomimed, “What is it?” I said, “The moon, it’s the moon.” He reached up and tried to touch it. He cried again when I tried to give him a bath until I started to play with the water. By the end of his bath the room was soaked and he was giggling. I lotioned him up, powdered him down and clothed him in soft PJs. We read the book One Yellow Lion. He loved looking at the colorful pictures and turning the pages. By the end of the night he was saying, “one yellow lion.”

The next day we met orphanage officials to do paperwork. Luke was on my lap as they filed into the room. He looked at them and wrapped my arms tightly around his waist.

He was a sad, shy boy for a long time after those first days. He cried easily and withdrew at the slightest provocation. He hid food in his pillowcase and foraged in garbage cans. I wondered then if he would ever get over the wounds of neglect that the orphanage had beaten into him.

It has been four years. Luke is a smart, funny, happy fourth-grader. He is loaded with charm and is a natural athlete. His teachers say he is well behaved and works very hard. Our neighbor says she has never seen a happier kid.

When I think back, I am amazed at what transformed this abused, terrified little creature. It was not therapy, counselors or medications. It did not cost money, require connections or great privilege. It was love: just simple, plain, easy to give. Love is primal. It is comprised of compassion, care, security, and a leap of faith. I believe in the power of love to transform. I believe in the power of love to heal.

This is the first time Jackie Lantry, a part-time hospital clerk in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, has written about her experiences with adoption. She and her husband have adopted two girls and two boys from China. When Jackie asked her children what they believed in, they said “family.”

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Years ago, while watching a baseball game on television, I saw Orel Hershiser, pitching for the Dodgers, throw a fastball that hit a batter. The camera was on a close-up of Hershiser, and I could read his lips as he mouthed, “I’m sorry.” The batter, taking first base, nodded to the pitcher in a friendly way and the game went on.

Just two words, and I felt good about Hershiser and the batter and the game all at once. It was only a common courtesy but it made an impression striking enough for me to remember after many summers.

The blood relatives of common courtesy are kindness, sympathy and consideration. And the reward for exercising them is to feel good about having done so. When a motorist at an intersection signals to another who’s waiting to join the flow of traffic, “Go ahead, it’s OK, move in,” and the recipient of the favor smiles and makes a gesture of appreciation, the giver enjoys a glow of pleasure. It’s a very little thing, but it represents something quite big. Ultimately it’s related to compassion, a quality in very short supply lately, and getting scarcer.

But look, let’s not kid ourselves. It would be foolish to hope that kindness, consideration and compassion will right wrongs, and heal wounds, and keep the peace and set the new century on a course to recover from inherited ills. That would be asking a lot from even a heaven-sent methodology, and heaven is not in that business.

It comes down to the value of examples, which can be either positive or negative, and it works like this: Because of the principle that a calm sea and prosperous voyage do not make news but a shipwreck does, most circulated news is bad news. The badness of it is publicized, and the negative publicity attracts more of the same through repetition and imitation.

But good can be as communicable as evil, and that is where kindness and compassion come into play. So long as conscionable and caring people are around, so long as they are not muted or exiled, so long as they remain alert in thought and action, there is a chance for contagions of the right stuff, whereby democracy becomes no longer a choice of lesser evils, whereby the right to vote is not betrayed by staying away from the polls, whereby the freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, and dissent are never forsaken.

But why linger? Why wait to begin planting seeds, however long they take to germinate? It took us 200-plus years to get into the straits we now occupy, and it may take us as long again to get out, but there must be a beginning.

Writer Norman Corwin has been called the poet laureate of radio. His 1945 production, On a Note of Triumph, about the end of World War II in Europe, is considered a radio masterpiece. A major figure in the golden age of radio, Corwin died in 2011 at the age of 101.

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I believe in the infinite variety of human expression.

I grew up in three cultures: I was born in Paris, my parents were from China, and I was brought up mostly in America. When I was young, this was very confusing: Everyone said that their culture was best, but I knew they couldn’t all be right. I felt that there was an expectation that I would choose to be Chinese or French or American. For many years I bounced among the three, trying on each but never being wholly comfortable. I hoped I wouldn’t have to choose, but I didn’t know what that meant and how exactly to “not choose.”

However, the process of trying on each culture taught me something. As I struggled to belong, I came to understand what made each one unique. At that point, I realized that I didn’t need to choose one culture to the exclusion of another, but instead I could choose from all three. The values I selected would become part of who I was, but no one culture needed to win. I could honor the cultural depth and longevity of my Chinese heritage, while feeling just as passionate about the deep artistic traditions of the French and the American commitment to opportunity and the future.

So, rather than settling on any one of the cultures in which I grew up, I now choose to explore many more cultures and find elements to love in each. Every day I make an effort to go toward what I don’t understand. This wandering leads to the accidental learning that continually shapes my life.

As I work in music today, I try to implement this idea — that the music I play, like me, doesn’t belong to only one culture. In recent years, I have explored many musical traditions. Along the way, I have met musicians who share a belief in the creative power that exists at the intersection of cultures. These musicians have generously become my guides to their traditions. Thanks to them and their music I have found new meaning in my own music making.

It is extraordinary the way people, music, and cultures develop. The paths and experiences that guide them are unpredictable. Shaped by our families, neighborhoods, cultures, and countries, each of us ultimately goes through this process of incorporating what we learn with who we are and who we seek to become. As we struggle to find our individual voices, I believe we must look beyond the voice we’ve been assigned and find our place among the tones and timbre of human expression.

Yo-Yo Ma created the Silk Road Project in 1998 to explore the cultural traditions of the countries along the ancient trade route through Asia. A cello player since age four, Ma has won 15 Grammy Awards. He lives with his family in Cambridge, Mass.

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This I Believe

Personal favorite essays from npr's "this i believe" series, recent posts, roll away the stone, man’s growth toward civilization – george leslie stout, all men are my brothers – james a. michener.

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April 8, 2015   Pearl Buck’s faith in humanity is so passionate and so genuine, her words could inspire even the most pessimistic maniac.   She explains that her faith in the inherent goodness of people is so strong and steadfast that she needs no other faith. The metaphor she presents is that of a flower struggling to […]

March 19, 2015 George Leslie Stout’s “This I Believe” essay is a response to conversations he would have “occasionally with a few scholars”, who conjectured that mankind, as a whole, had not improved, but devolved into a state that is today less human or “poorer” than years prior. Disagreeing, Stout passionately and inspiringly argued against these scholars […]

February 18, 2015

All Men Are My Brothers “In the most savage jungles of New Guinea, I have met my brother; and in Tokyo I have seen him clearly walking before me.” James A. Michener is a Pulitzer Prize winning author who was made famous after his novel, “Tales From the South Pacific”.  After campaigns in World War […]

This I Believe

Celebrating Four Years Of 'This I Believe'

April 27, 2009 • During its four-year run on NPR, This I Believe engaged listeners in a discussion of the core beliefs that guide their daily lives. We heard from people of all walks of life — the very young and the very old, the famous and the previously unknown.

Saying Thanks To My Ghosts

April 26, 2009 • Novelist Amy Tan hasn't always believed in ghosts, but as a writer she's had too many inspirations that she can't fully explain. Now, Tan embraces her belief in ghosts and the messages of joy, love and peace they bring her.

Life Is An Act Of Literary Creation

April 23, 2009 • Mexican-American novelist Luis Urrea used to think that simply being a good observer would make his writing better. But over time, he's come to believe that being a good writer and a good person comes from paying attention to the world around him.

The Art Of Being A Neighbor

April 12, 2009 • A few years ago, Eve Birch was broke and living alone in a dilapidated mountain shack. But a community of people befriended her, shared what little they had with her and showed Birch the value of neighbors uniting to help one another.

I Am Still The Greatest

Muhammad Ali John Lair/Muhammad Ali Center hide caption

I Am Still The Greatest

April 6, 2009 • To be the "Greatest of All Time," boxing legend Muhammad Ali says you have to believe in yourself. It's a lesson his parents taught him and it has helped him in fighting Parkinson's disease.

Dancing To Connect To A Global Tribe

March 29, 2009 • Matt Harding has been to 70 countries to dance — badly — in front of a camera, and videos of his travels have become an Internet sensation. Harding believes interacting with so many different people challenges him to understand what unites humanity.

My Father Deserves Spectacular Results

March 26, 2009 • Environmental activist Van Jones is a special adviser to the Obama administration. He says his dad, who died last year, would have gotten a kick out of seeing Obama become president. But his dad had high standards, and there is much more work to be done.

The Beatles Live On

March 15, 2009 • Macklin Levine was born more than 25 years after the Fab Four broke up, but at 12, she has a deep appreciation for Beatles music. "As old as the songs are, you can learn a lot about yourself from the lyrics," she says. And the Beatles help her remember her Dad, too.

Finding Freedom In Forgiveness

March 5, 2009 • Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was certain that Ronald Cotton was the man who raped her in 1984. But she was wrong. After Cotton spent 11 years in jail, DNA evidence proved his innocence. Now, the two have a friendship based on their belief in forgiveness.

Work Is A Blessing

March 1, 2009 • When he was 12, Russel Honore got his first job helping a neighbor milk 65 dairy cows twice a day. Fifty years later, the retired Army lieutenant general believes hard work helps build character, strengthen communities and promote freedom.

Seeing Beyond Our Differences

February 26, 2009 • Scientist Sheri White says that despite differences in size, shape and color, all humans are 99.9 percent biologically identical. White believes we should embrace our similarities and honor the differences that make each of us unique.

Historical Archives

Reflections on race: essays from the archives.

February 23, 2009 • Dan Gediman, executive producer of NPR's This I Believe, explores the archives of the original series hosted by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s. He says the essays shed light on the realities of segregation at the dawn of the civil rights movement.

Gediman explores the 'This I Believe' archives.

How to survive life's tests.

February 9, 2009 • Kendra Jones assigned her students to write This I Believe essays and decided that she owed it to them to write one of her own. Jones believes toughness, steeliness and even meanness have helped her throughout her life.

Our Awareness Controls Human Destiny

February 8, 2009 • In an essay from 1951 for the original This I Believe series, Margaret Mead says she can't separate the beliefs she has as a person from the beliefs she has as an anthropologist. She says that humans have a responsibility for the entire planet.

Thirty Things I Believe

January 18, 2009 • When Tarak McLain's kindergarten group celebrated their 100th day of class, some kids brought 100 nuts or cotton balls. Tarak brought a list of 100 things he believes. Now a first-grader, Tarak shares his top beliefs about God, life, nature and war.

Inviting The World To Dinner

January 12, 2009 • Every Sunday for 30 years, Jim Haynes has welcomed complete strangers into his Paris home for dinner. By introducing people to each other and encouraging them to make personal connections, Haynes believes he can foster greater tolerance in the world.

Pathways Of Desire

January 4, 2009 • Gina Parosa believes in letting her kids, pets and livestock make their own paths in life. But she also realizes that as a farmer and parent, she sometimes has to step in and set good boundaries — while still being flexible enough to change them.

This Is Home

January 1, 2009 • Majora Carter believes you don't have to move out of your old neighborhood to live in a better one. Carter was raised in the South Bronx and spent years trying to leave. But when the city proposed a waste facility there, she was inspired to fight for her community.

Health Is A Human Right

December 21, 2008 • As an infectious disease specialist, Dr. Paul Farmer has traveled the planet to organize and provide medical treatment for people living in poverty. He believes good health care is vital but just the first step in creating a world free of all human suffering.

A Priceless Lesson In Humility

December 15, 2008 • When a blind woman approached Felipe Morales, he assumed she wanted money — but all she really needed was directions. The incident reminded Morales about the risks of prejudging people and taught him a valuable lesson about humility in his own life.



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  1. Do What You Love

    00:00. 00:00. I believe that people should take pride in what they do, even if it is scorned or misunderstood by the public at large. I have been a professional skateboarder for 24 years. For much of that time, the activity that paid my rent and gave me my greatest joy was tagged with many labels, most of which were ugly.

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    This I Believe is an international organization engaging people in writing and sharing essays describing the core values that guide their daily lives. Over 125,000 of these essays, written by people from all walks of life, have been archived here on our website, heard on public radio, chronicled through our books, and featured in weekly podcasts.

  3. This I Believe: Essay: "Do What You Love" by Tony Hawk

    Topic 5. Topic 6. Topic 7. Essay: "Do What You Love" by Tony Hawk. Essay: "I Will Take my Voice Back" by Quique Aviles. Essay: "A Duty To Family, Heritage And Country" by... Essay: "Remembering All the Boys" by Elvia Bautista. Essay: "Creative Solutions to Life's Challenges" b...

  4. Sample Essays From This I Believe: Massachusetts

    Sample Essays From This I Believe: Massachusetts. Testing the Limits of What I Know and What I Feel. By John Updike (Beverly Farms, Mass.) A person believes various things at various times, even on the same day. At the age of 73, I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction ...

  5. Personal Favorite Essays from NPR's "This I Believe" Series George Leslie Stout’s “This I Believe” essay is a response to conversations he would have “occasionally with a few scholars”, who conjectured that mankind, as a whole, had not improved, but devolved into a state that is today less human or “poorer” than years prior.

  6. This I Believe : NPR

    February 8, 2009 • In an essay from 1951 for the original This I Believe series, Margaret Mead says she can't separate the beliefs she has as a person from the beliefs she has as an...