The process of writing and publishing a personal history is unfamiliar to most people, so it’s not uncommon to come to the table with a lot of good questions. Here are some of those most commonly asked.
Simply put, a personal history is a life story (or a chapter of one). Personal histories come in many forms, including memoirs, family chronicles spanning several generations, autobiographies, or a focus on a particular aspect of your (or your family’s) life. These one-of-a-kind kind stories can be expressed in many ways and through various media, but are most often undertaken as written narratives highlighted with photos and mementoes. There are also subsections within the category, such as ethical wills (documents that convey a person’s wishes, hopes and values to be passed on to future generations).
You could, perhaps, tackle this storytelling project on your own. However, it’s an overwhelming task for many —which is why it so often remains unfinished in a drawer somewhere. The goal of writing a family history remains on many to-do lists for years — or even decades — but life gets in the way. Personal historians are your aces in the hole. The talented ones are true collaborators, and they transform the writing of a personal history from a daunting assignment into an illuminating, fun, and eminently do-able project. Among other talents, personal historians are skilled listeners. They instinctually sense when to pause, when to prompt and how to draw you and other interviewees out to achieve maximum impact. Most personal historians have a passion for research coursing through their veins. The historical/cultural highlights they weave into your story contribute to a livelier, more interesting depiction. That said, you can write your memoir yourself. There are many resources available to you (books and classes), and many personal historians (including myself) happily serve as writing coaches or partners. Or, if a family history has already been written but could benefit from revising, editing, and beefing up, personal historians can help complete the project — thereby bringing a family’s story to colorful fruition
Shakespeare said it best, “The tale of someone's life begins before they are born.” No matter your life circumstances or ancestry, you’re a link in the unbroken chain of humanity. You, and everyone you know, play a part in a larger story — one that truly is of genuine interest to those who care about you. Stop and ask yourself: If your parents, grandparents, other ancestors, and significant adults in your life did not leave a record of their lives, don’t you wish they’d done so? Do you long to know more about their lives? If you answer an enthusiastic “yes,” the good news is, you can start to turn that tide right now. Family members who are now too young to know (or care) about your childhood, for example, will one day wish they had knowledge of your family’s history. Equally important, they may be likely to keep the history going! No less a literary figure than Arthur Conan Doyle (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes) reminds us, “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” Taken from a personal-history perspective, those “little things” include the following: Where were your great-great grandparents born, and how did they come to settle where they did? What dishes and recipes did your grandmother’s traditional holiday meals consist of? What was the exact address of your uncle’s farmhouse? What nugget of family lore has been around forever, and what kind of light can you shed on it? An instant heirloom, a family history will be read, reviewed and shared — time and again. By creating one, you will continue to influence the generations that follow you. As you share stories of your successes and your trials, your funny childhood moments and adult love stories, you will become a more fleshed-out, fully formed individually for your descendants — not just a name on their family tree. See Why and How for more reasons to start writing your personal history.
Start as soon as you can. With all the best intentions, many people plan to sit down with their aging family members to record their stories, but it just doesn’t happen. In truth, if you wait too long, it may be too late. Health fails, memory diminishes. Rather than feeling badly when a loved one is no longer available to share his/her stories, capture those precious memories now, while there’s still time. Particularly for older adults (as well as younger ones), there are many well-documented reasons for conducting a “life review:”*
- Achieve a sense of integrity and self-worth.
- Promote self-understanding.
- Preserve personal and collective history.
- Transcend the material world and physical limitations.
- Allow for identification of universal themes of humanity.
- Reinforce coping mechanisms.
Just as everyone’s personal history is unique, so is the time required to complete it. In every situation, however, interviews are best thought of as conversations, dialogues between interviewees and personal historians —interested, objective parties skilled at asking questions in a comfortable manner that leads to successful storytelling. A quiet, private place to conduct interviews is most conducive, particularly as they are recorded to ensure accuracy. Situations differ too, according to the purpose of the story. For example, if a couple is collaborating on a book about their life together, it often is preferable to interview each one separately before bringing them together for a shared conversation. Personal historians are accustomed to interviewing all kinds of personalities. If a person is on the shy side, for example, there are techniques for making them more comfortable, thus welcoming them into the process.
What will we talk about? You might be surprised at what comes up, especially once you devote some time to thinking, in advance, about your planned conversations with a personal historian. People structure their histories in many creative ways; for example, some like to consider the defining moments of their lives. Others take a more general chronological approach, focusing on these topics as they arise naturally, including many of the following categories: ancestry/family background; early school years; childhood memories; family celebrations; high school and college experiences; marriage and children; friends and other significant non-familial relationships; grandchildren and other extended family; career; military service; community service; political activism; travel; hobbies; and spiritual life.
Again, personal history projects vary greatly. The time needed for completion fluctuates based on the number of hours of interviews, the number of interviewees, how many graphic images are to be integrated into the book, whether you want to include special features such as digital scrapbooking, and more. Importantly, when can the work be scheduled? Are you aiming for completion to meet a certain deadline — such as a significant birthday or anniversary celebration? Depending on your objective and planned scope for a personal history, interviews can take anywhere from a few hours to more than 20. In most cases, a personal history project requires several months, from start to finish. (Time must be allotted for the back and forth inherent in this kind of project. Cost considerations also are a factor. ) Importantly, interview questions cover only the subjects you want to discuss. It’s your story, and you control the content.
The cost of completion depends on myriad factors:
- The skill level of the personal historian: Is she an experienced interviewer, writer, and project manager?
- The number of hours required for interviews, the number of people to be included, and the cost of transcribing interviews. (A general guideline is 3.5 hours of transcription time per one hour of interview.)
- The time required to sort through and curate photos and other graphic elements, as well as scanning of those elements. A related consideration: Are photos in good condition, or will some require repair before they can be used?
- The number of hours needed for writing, editing, revision, and proofreading as well as book production, design and layout.
- The printing process and materials to be used in printing, as well as the number of copies of books to be printed.
By using the techniques of personal history — a blend of storytelling, research and interviews with key parties — organizations are better able to share their histories, accomplishments and visions with their constituents, from employees and donors to clients/customers and even elected officials, in some instances. It’s a valuable but time-consuming project, one that many organizations simply don’t have the staff hours to attempt on their own. This kind of document requires many hours of research, interviews, transcription, photo collecting, writing, editing revising, book production and design, and more. Accustomed to the steps involved in this kind of undertaking, personal historians often can complete the initiative more efficiently and effectively than can in-house employees.