Monthly Archives: October 2008

What You Need to Know About Becoming a Professional Personal Historian.

I’ve been a professional personal historian now for some five years. I’m occasionally asked by people looking for a new direction in their professional lives if they should consider becoming a personal historian. I usually extol the virtues and tell them how much I love my work. But I’ve never actually thought seriously about what someone needs to consider before taking the plunge. So if you’ve been thinking maybe this is the line of work for you, here’s something to consider. If you can answer yes to each of the following questions, then I think you’re ready.

  • Are you prepared to work for a year or two with little or no income? Like any new business, it takes time to to market and promote your services. So for the first couple of years you’ll likely see more money going out than coming in.
  • Do you know what products/services you’ll offer? Personal historians offer a wide range of services and products that include ethical wills, corporate histories, editing, bookbinding, family histories, photo restoration – just to mention a few. You need to know what strengths you bring to the work.
  • Are you able to work alone for long periods of time? Being self-employed can mean working days without seeing another person. If you come from a job that involves daily contact with work colleagues, you may find it difficult to adjust to the isolation.
  • Are you disciplined and self motivated? There’s no boss telling you what to do. You’re it! If you don’t keep your office organized, prepare marketing plans and materials, and check on possible leads, no one will.
  • Do you have samples of your work? Prospective clients like to be able to see the quality of your work.
  • Do you enjoy working with people? For the most part personal historians work closely with their clients. If you’re not a people person, then this isn’t the work for you.
  • Do you have a support group of friends or professional colleagues? As I mentioned earlier, being on your own can feel daunting at times. It’s really important to have a group of people you can call on for professional advice and emotional support.

How did you do? Don’t give up if you answered no to some of these questions. It might mean you’ll have to do a little more work and planning to ensure you’re ready to become a personal historian. Or the questions may have helped you see that this is not the work for you.

Photo by thparkth

Warning: The Perils of Self-Publishing

This year The New York Times Sunday Book Review ran an article, You’re an Author? Me Too! about the phenomenal growth of published works. In 2007, 400,000 books were published or distributed in the United States, an increase of 100,000 from the previous year. The industry tracker Bowker, attributes this incredible rise to the number of print-on-demand books and reprints of out-of-print titles. Self-publishing companies would tend to support this assessment. IUniverse, a self-publishing company established in 1999, has grown 30 percent a year and now publishes 500 titles a month.

With print-on-demand making it easy and relatively inexpensive to publish, should you be looking at your Life Story as the next best seller? The evidence, despite a few exceptions, shows that self-published books sell few copies. The Wall Street Journal in an article last year wrote a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of self publishing. It told the story of C. Ben Bosah, an environmental engineer, who thought his wife’s health book was a sure-fire best seller. He ordered 15, 389 books and at the time the article was written had sold less than half.

But let’s say you’re not convinced of the perils of self-publishing. You know that you’ve got a winner on your hands. What I’d suggest is that before you do anything, run to your library and pick up the following books recommended by Pat McNees, a colleague of mine in the Association of Personal Historians. These books are some of the best and will give you a clear-eyed view of what’s required to promote and market your book. Good luck!

Photo by Matt & Mandy

The Life Story Quote of The Week

Photo by Olga Pavlovsky

In his “Afterword” in Native Soil: Photographs by Jack Spencer, Spencer writes,

I think that I have been given a gift-a gift of vision. Not just the vision of photography. That is secondary to the vision that allows me to see every single life as fascinating. I honestly believe that a great novel could be written about every one of us. We all have wondrous tales written across our faces. Some are epic, some tragic, some hilarious, some elegiac, and, of course, some are spare, but I believe none would be uninteresting.

I agree with Spencer. In the twenty-five years that I’ve been interviewing people, I’ve never yet encountered a boring life story. And yet I’m continually amazed by the fact that so many people feel their lives are unworthy of being recorded and preserved. I think it may have something to do with our culture of celebrity. Maybe people feel that their lives are rather humdrum compared to the media frenzy around the Britney Spears and Paris Hiltons of the world. But that’s like comparing apples and oranges. The gift we can give to out loved ones has nothing to do with the shallowness of celebrity. What we possess is a rich tapestry of stories that speak to what it means to be human.

What do you think? I’d like to hear your comments on why people are often reluctant to record their life stories.

Photo by Olga Pavlovsky

Powerful Ways to Recall Forgotten Memories.

I’ve been reading a remarkable book by Ojibway storyteller, Richard Wagamese. Recently published,  One Native Life, is a memoir about roots and the power of recollection to heal. For anyone contemplating the writing of their own story or the story of another, I can’t think of a better book to inspire you.

I was struck by a passage that made me realize how sound and light can be triggers for recalling forgotten memories. Wagamese writes,

The more I presented myself to the land in those early hours, the more it offered me back the realization of who I was created to be.

I began to remember. The sound of squirrels in the topmost branches of a pine tree reminded me of a forgotten episode from my boyhood; the wobbly call of the loons took me back to an adventure on the land when I was a young man. And there was always the light. The shades and degrees of it evoked people and places I hadn’t thought about in decades. Every one of those walks allowed me the grace of recollection, and I began to write things down.

For me the lonely blast of a foghorn, the wild call of geese flying south and the pounding surf on a rocky beach are just a few of the sounds that can evoke strong memories of my childhood on the rugged West Coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.  What are some of the sounds that trigger memories for you?

Wagamese’s book has made me consider other ways our memories can be triggered. Here are a few:

  • Smell. One of the strongest memory triggers for me is the smell of baking bread . My mother always baked bread and today all I need is a whiff of freshly baked bread to take me back to some fond childhood memories. What odors evoke memories in you?
  • Photographs. Bring out the old photos and within minutes people will begin telling you the stories behind the images.
  • Music. We all have a song or two that can trigger vivid memories. One of mine is Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind.” I was a university student at the time this was popular and it became something of an anthem for me then. What’s your song?
  • A favorite object. Everyone has a favorite object. And every object has a story to be told. Do you have a favorite object?
  • A favorite childhood place. This can be a place that was indoors or outdoors, rural or urban, fanciful or spiritual. What’s the story behind your favorite place?

When writing, keep in mind these powerful ways to tap into the rich treasury of memories that lie just below the surface of our awareness.

    Photo by Micky

    What Was The # 1 Song Playing The Day You Were Born?

    Julie Zander at Chapters of Life has come across a fabulous site for music history buffs. It’s called The #1 Song On This Date In History. If you want to discover the hit song on the day you were born or find out what was playing on your parent’s wedding day, then this is the site for you.

    It’s a great way to add some detail to a personal history you’re writing. You could also use the site to help spark memories if you’re interviewing a relative about her life. Music can trigger a flood of memories.

    On July 21, 1969 Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. Did you know that the #1 hit song playing in America that day was, “In the year 2525″ by Zager and Evans? For all you 60′s nostalgia buffs take a listen.

    The Life Story Quote of The Week

    Our stories, our personal stories, our family stories, those are our real gold. If we’re lucky, as we age, we put our stories in the bank, where they gather interest in deepening meaning.

    Richard Louv, American writer

    I agree with Richard Louv, and I would add that our family stories in order to really survive must be recorded and preserved. It’s a theme I keep coming back to, but memories fade and unless we write down our stories or capture them by audio or video recording they will be lost forever. Don’t let that happen to you!

    Photo by Cindy

    Ethical Wills 101: Part Seven ~ Putting It All Together

    If you’ve been working each week on your ethical will, you’ll have filled up a good many pages in your notebook. This week it’s time to put it all together.

    Here’s what I’d suggest you do:

    • Read each section ( Beginning, Values, Gratitude, Life lessons, Forgiveness, Regrets, Achievements, Hopes) from the beginning to the end and add any thoughts or comments that you might have missed the first time around. You may have some “Final Thoughts” that you wish to include.
    • Look at some sample ethical wills here and get some ideas of how other people have composed their ethical will.
    • Write out a first draft of your ethical will that incorporates the material you’ve assembled in your notebook over the last six weeks. Don’t try to sound “profound” – just write the way you talk. And remember that there is no “right way” to put you ethical will together. It’s your document and should reflect who you are as much as possible.
    • Now read aloud your ethical will and rewrite anything you stumble over.
    • Once you’re happy with your composition, find some good quality archival paper and acid free ink. This will ensure the preservation of your document.
    • In your best handwriting, copy from your last draft a final version of your ethical will. Even if you’ve been using a computer up till now, I can’t stress enough how much more valuable your ethical will will be if it’s written in your own hand.
    • At this point you have a number of options with your completed ethical will. You can keep it locked away to be given to the recipient after your death. You can deliver it by post or in person now. Or you can read it to the recipient before handing it over. The choice is up to you.

    I hope you’ve found these past few weeks worthwhile and enjoyable. If you’ve any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me and I’ll try my best to help you.

    Photo by Caitlin Heller

    The Storyteller and Recovering From Trauma

    Peter Renner at there is no path… alerted me to the power of narrative in treating trauma. I thought you might find his excerpts from the San Fransisco Chronicle book review of Healing Invisible Wounds: Paths to Hope and Recovery in a Violent World of interest.

    Contrary to existing dogma in the mental health field, this book posits, trauma survivors have an innate capacity to heal themselves without medical or formal psychological intervention. There is a “healing force hidden in all of us, even if depleted by violence, that is always striving for survival,” writes Richard Mollica, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

    Mollica bases his theory of psychological self-healing on 25 years of counseling war refugees, victims of torture and survivors of natural disasters. He uses personal, or “trauma,” stories from Khmer Rouge survivors, Bosnian doctors and Rwandan genocide witnesses and applies them to survivors of more common crises, such as sexual abuse, life-threatening illness or death of a loved one by accident or violence.

    According to Mollica, victims of violence must play an active role in their healing. Not only telling but interpreting one’s trauma stories is crucial for healing. Understanding the cultural meaning of the trauma, taking a new perspective on it and realizing the motivations of the perpetrators, are necessary to reframe the trauma for the survivor. “Storytelling coaches” can guide survivors in telling their stories without overwhelming listeners with horrifying details. The realization that by telling their story they will pass on valuable lessons in dealing with loss and tragedy also contributes to healing.

    Mollica has identified several measures that encourage self-healing: engaging in altruistic acts, working to provide for oneself (rather than accepting long-term handouts), spirituality (but not necessarily formal religion), humor, physical exercise, relaxation techniques and good nutrition. Empathic communication between healer and patient also has restorative power, as does the creation of beauty, e.g., making art, tending a garden, and keeping a journal.

    via recovering from trauma (book review) « there is no path …

    The Life Story Quote of The Week

    The best classroom in the world is at the feet of an elderly person.
    Andy Rooney, television news commentator

    In my work I have the honor of recording the stories of many elderly men and women. For me, Andy Rooney’s comment couldn’t be truer. I’ve learned much from the elderly. I’ve gained insight into the strength of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming loss. I’ve seen how perseverance can triumph over intransigence. I’ve been shown how hope can keep one going when all seems lost. And that at the end of our lives we count our richness not in the things that we surround ourselves with but in those who have loved us in the past and those who love us today.

    Photo by Ellie Van Houtte

    Ethical Wills 101: Part Six ~ Regrets, Achievements and Hopes

    This week you have an opportunity to look back and reflect on the regrets and achievements in your life. After that we’ll focus on your hopes for the future and the hopes you have for those you love.


    Writing about regrets can help you understand the circumstances that led to the regret and hopefully provide you with some insight. Regrets are inevitable but take some comfort in knowing that we’ve all made some major blunders in our life, so you’re not alone.

    In his book No Regrets, Dr. Hamilton Beazley, lists 10 steps to letting go of regrets and the very first step is to write them down.

    Exercise: In your ethical will notebook, find a blank page and at the top write the heading “Regrets”. As you look back on your life make a list of your regrets. Don’t worry if some are seemingly insignificant – put them down anyway. For example, one of my regrets is that I never learned to swim. Now this isn’t huge and if I really wanted to, I could enroll in a swimming class for adults. What’s important is that you just begin the process of listing regrets.

    Look at your list and select one or two regrets that you consider to be significant. Write about this regret and what you’ve learned and attempt to put it in some perspective. As an example, in my ethical will I wrote,

    One of my regrets in life is that I never pursued my belief that I had the potential to be a television or radio host. I’m a natural in front of an audience and my publicity appearances on TV and radio have always been fun. I loved the energy involved. What I know though is that had I pursued that avenue so many other doors would have been closed. I would never have made the films I have and most likely wouldn’t be a personal historian, something I truly love. Besides, if I still have the “bug” I can find avenues to satisfy my interest. Who knows, maybe I’ll host a Community Radio or Television program on “Life after 50.”


    The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines achievement as a result gained by effort. The result can be big or small. It’s the effort that counts. What I want you to consider in this section are your achievements. Our lives may have been filled with prominent achievements or unheralded ones. This is an opportunity to write about what you consider important. My mother believed her main achievements were running a well organized home, being a loving wife and mother and producing the best pastries in the neighborhood.

    Exercise:Turn to another blank page in your notebook and write the heading, “Achievements.” To help you reflect on your most important achievements, try answering this question. If you were to be honored for one thing in your life, what would it be? Another way of looking at achievements is to look at what you hope your obituary will one day say about you.


    One of my favorite quotes about hope is by American writer Barbara Kingsolver. “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.”

    Exercise: Find a blank page in your ethical will notebook and at the top write, “Hopes.” What is it that you hope for? How have you lived inside your hope? What do you hope for your loved ones?

    Some books you might find helpful:

    Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: Overcoming Regrets, Mistakes, and Missed Opportunities

    Finding Hope: Ways to See Life in a Brighter Light

    Maximum Achievement: Strategies and Skills That Will Unlock Your Hidden Powers to Succeed

    Next week the conclusion of our Ethical Will series, Part Seven ~ Putting It All Together

    Photo by woodleywonderworks