How do you react when people tell you meaningful stories about their lives? Particularly those lives that are very different to your own? Do you listen with impatience or do you listen with intent? I cherish the moments when people let me enter their private worlds, when they give me a glimpse of the threads that have contributed to the fabric of their current being. To me, this sort of story is a gift.
Let me tell you about one such gift. The gift is the story of Stephen Byrne or as I know him, Steve. Now I don’t know about you, but I am not acquainted with too many pilots who can write nor too many authors who can fly – a rather intriguing combination of itself. But what makes this story a little bit more unique is that Steve also happens to be a paraplegic.
Steve’s story is documented in his autobiography, Windows In The Clouds, recently published by Zeus Publications.
Much like Steve’s life, the book comprises two distinct parts. The first part chronicles Steve’s early life and childhood years, the tree felling accident that changed his life in 1985 and its aftermath. The second part is more travel guide and through his story and the story of others, Steve documents his first solo overseas travel experience to the United States of America, a trip lasting seven weeks and taking in twenty-two States and a flying experience with Challenge Air.
Overseas readers will find the first part of the book particularly interesting because it contains many glimpses into small town, rural Australian life. Steve grew up and lived a lot of his life in the Southern NSW town of Cootamundra, which some of you may know as the birthplace of our most famous cricketer, Sir Donald Bradman. It is the story of a young child with dreams of living and working on the land, of clinging to the hope of one day owning his own farm and of putting a less than stellar family life behind him only to have those dreams snatched away through paraplegia. It is also the story of a young man struggling to come to terms with an irrevocable life change and of eventually refashioning his dreams and taking grasp of them.
What makes this book a pleasure to read is the depth of the writing. The main reason for its depth is that the author has quite a remarkable level of self-awareness. The fact that it comes from the male of the species is even more astonishing! Take this paragraph as an example:
I could just not cope with what had happened to me and I had turned into someone I didn’t like. Although I had survived a tree falling on me….I felt like a complete and utter failure. I looked around my farm and could find no real happiness. I had bought this block of land in the very real hope that it would help me to come to terms with what happened. Although I felt at times that I was in paradise here deep in the Australian bush, what was going on in my head was extremely dark.” [reproduced with the kind permission of Stephen Byrne]
I admit that I have only known Steve since his accident and in some ways I think that puts me at a distinct advantage. For I am not distracted by mourning what WAS, but rather I focus on celebrating what IS. And what IS, is a remarkable life, a published author and a talented pilot, most worthy of celebrating.
For this blog piece, I asked Steve what made him write this book, to which he replied:
” I wrote my book for a number of reasons. I suppose I had always wanted to write something about my life and what had happened to me, particularly my early life. The older I get, the more I realise just how much my early life has shaped the balance. I don’t want to keep going back into the past but unless I can deal with that it will always keep getting in the way of what I am doing now. I have also written what I have because I hope that my story may help others. It took me so long to really come to terms with what had happened to me and just how much it has affected my personality. The wheelchair only exacerbated all that was still lying under the surface. When I first tried to write my story fifteen years ago I gave up on it because I didn’t want to portray such a negative story. Over the intervening years things have changed in so many ways and there have been some real positives in there. I guess I have been able to, and I hope I have, outweigh the negatives with the positives.
To be able to put other people’s lives into my book I think brings some sort of balance to it all. I didn’t want to just talk about myself. Being able to tell other people’s stories takes the focus away from me a bit. Being able to also add a travel story adds to the mix.”
Whilst I have seen the story being described as “a story about overcoming spinal cord injury”, I don’t believe that this is an accurate description. Firstly, in my view, spinal cord injury cannot be overcome – its affects can be mitigated, sure, but the injury itself cannot be overcome as the spinal cord cannot repair itself. Secondly, to bill this book merely as the usual story of disabled inspiration sells it short, which is confirmed by Steve’s own words above. If you are inspired after reading the book – great – but you should read it for the depth of the writing, for the lessons which can be applied to your own life and for gaining an insight into a life different to your own.
As for the second part of the book, as a reader you feel like you are travelling for the first time, experiencing the thrill of mastering a new environment, of overcoming doubts and discovering just about anything is possible. There is a real sense of wonder that permeates though it, together with some wonderfully humorous anecdotes. Watch out for the Kansas City incident, it’s a real pearler!
I know more than a few writers read my blog so I finally asked Steve about the publishing experience. Steve had this to say:
“Being able to get someone to think that this was worth publishing was a big step. I had thought about self publishing but didn’t want to go down that road because having someone else publish my book was an affirmation that it was something worth doing.”
The book was certainly worth doing and is certainly worth reading. It is the gift of a journey.
What’s the most interesting biography or autobiography that you have read? Would you ever contemplate writing your own life story?