My mom and her sister
Maybe you’re like a number of people who say, “Yeah, I’ve thought about writing my life story, but…(fill in the blank).” There are all kinds of excuses for not getting down to it. That’s why I’ve put together this list to get you motivated. I’m convinced that after reading these six reasons for writing your life story you’ll want to get started today…or maybe tomorrow. But you will start. Right?
- You’re the only one who really knows your story. How will you be remembered? Will friends and relatives be the ones to define you after you’re gone? I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be the one to describe who I am and what motivates me.
- Your life story is a gift. This is no time to be modest and humble. While you may think your life has been of no great significance, others will beg to differ. I now have my mother’s story told in a beautiful 117 page hard-cover book. I know she has only a year or two at the most to live. I will treasure this book for as long as I live, because it is a very tangible reminder of who she is. It is a gift.
- Your story is part of a country’s oral history. Writing about the life you have lived is a window on another time and place. It can provide a rich and personal glimpse into daily life and major events of the day. Generations to come will find it fascinating and educational to know how you lived.
- Recording your life story can be therapeutic. Academic studies show that the act of reviewing one’s life can bring a sense of accomplishment and peace of mind. By reflecting on our life we begin to see that it is not a series of random events but that there is a discernible pattern. It helps us make sense of our lives and explains why we did the things we did. Looking back on my life, I realize that the many different things I’ve done have all been connected with my need to be of service. So it’s no surprise to me then, that I’ve set up this blog.
- Your life story can be of help to others. Our lives are filled with challenges. How we cope with them and the lessons we’ve learned can be of benefit to others.
- A life story connects the generations. In today’s world families are more often than not scattered across vast distances. We no longer share stories around the supper table. Young people don’t know their roots. A life story provides one way to reconnect families and bring them the richness of their heritage.
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In a previous post I talked about the importance of protecting your family media treasures. I stressed the need to transfer your films and video tapes to a digital format. You can do this yourself if you have the equipment but if you don’t, there are numerous service providers who can help you.
The problem arises when you try to decide how to choose the right company. Should you go with a local company or a large national chain? Does a more expensive service necessarily mean a better final product? Here are the 7 key questions you need to ask a transfer service before agreeing to leave your video tapes and films with them.
- What video and film formats do you accept? The more professional the company the more likely they’ll be able to handle a wide range of formats including the following: VHS, S-VHS, VHS-C, Video8, Hi8, Digital8, MiniDV, and Betamax in either NTSC (North American standard) or PAL. The most common film formats are 8mm, Super8 or 16mm.
- How will my original tapes be returned to me? It’s scary shipping off your treasures. The last thing you want is for them to be lost in the postal system. Use a reputable courier service to deliver your videos to the transfer facility. And ensure that they will return your videos by courier as well.
- How many hours of video can I get on one DVD? The DVD movies that you rent are made by an expensive process that involves preparing a glass master and pressing multiple DVD copies. You can read more about the process here. A less costly process which uses a laser to burn information on a DVD-R disk is what consumer transfer facilities use. To maintain a high quality image you shouldn’t put more than 90 to 120 minutes on one DVD-R. Avoid any company that tells you that they can put more than that on a DVD-R disk.
- Will my video look better when it’s transferred to DVD? The answer is no. Some larger facilities may be able to slightly enhance the original quality of the video. But if the image on your video is badly faded, there is no way to bring it back to life. Don’t believe a company that tells you they can perform miracles.
- Do you use professional video processing equipment? If the answer is yes, the company should explain that they use a time base corrector, a detailer, and processing amplifier. This equipment will produce a better quality DVD than can be made on your home computer or at a “Mom and Pop” operation.
- Do you have testimonials from satisfied customers? Satisfied, happy customers are a good indicator of a well-run company. I always look for testimonials.
- How long have you been in business? I would tend to use a service that has been around for a few years and established a good reputation.
Photo by David Cardoso
Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.
Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian, succinctly captures the value of life stories. It is only when we look back on the complexity of our lives, in a focused and methodical fashion, that we can discern a pattern. And from this pattern we can interpret more clearly the “Whys” of our life.
Understanding where we’ve come from can help us live our lives “forward” in a manner that hopefully avoids repeating the mistakes of the past.
Probably the hardest part of writing your life story is actually getting started. There are all kinds of excuses. Do any of these sound familiar? I’m too busy. I’m too tired. I don’t know what to say. The creative muse hasn’t struck me. Well, here are five surefire ways you can use to kick-start your writing.
- Keep a date with yourself. Set aside a 30 minute block of time when you won’t be disturbed. Mark it down in your calendar. Now here’s the important part. For 30 minutes begin writing about some aspect of your life. It doesn’t matter what. Just write. Don’t stop. Don’t worry about grammar or composition – just write. At the end of 30 minutes, stop. Get up from your desk and walk away. Congratulations! You’ve started your life story and you can come back and edit what you’ve written on another day.
- Select a topic. It helps if you can focus your attention on a particular topic that holds some interest for you. Here are a few suggestions to get you started. My idea of happiness. The individual who had the greatest influence on my life. The qualities I admire in a friend. A childhood memory.
- Choose a favorite object. We all have some favorite object that has been a part of our lives for some time. Mine is a little Nigerian thorn carving I collected many years ago when I was a volunteer in West Africa. Select your favorite object and write a story about how it came into your possession and what it means to you.
- Pick a photograph. Look through your photo collection until you find a picture that brings back a lot of memories. Now write about that photo. Where was it taken? Who’s in it? What was happening?
- Use a voice recorder. If you’re finding it hard to write out your story, why not try dictating it? Start by putting down five or six questions that you’re going to ask yourself. Next, turn on the recorder and interview yourself. Later transcribe your interview and edit it.
Good luck! I’m sure that at least one of these ideas will get you started on your life story.
Photo by Woodley
StoryCorps has declared November 28th to be the first annual National Day of Listening in the United States. The day after Thanksgiving they suggest that you:
…ask the people around you about their lives — it could be your grandmother, a teacher, or someone from the neighborhood. By listening to their stories, you will be telling them that they matter and they won’t ever be forgotten. It may be the most meaningful time you spend this year.
I think this is a terrific idea and urge you to participate. You can find out more about how you can become involved by clicking here.
Photo by Omar Bárcena
I went for a walk this afternoon. It’s a particularly glorious, warm day here in Victoria. Tucked as we are at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, we enjoy a milder fall than much of Canada. Most of the leaves have fallen and there is a pungent, musky odor of decaying vegetation. Whenever I encounter that smell it brings back a flood of earlier memories. This is something I touched on in another post on recalling memories.
The following quote by the late New Zealand writer, Sylvia Ashton-Warner reminded me of my own experience today. There is for all of us, a place of remembrance that is unlocked by a scent, catching us unaware in our busy rush through life.
It’s a long time…a lifetime since I smelt those particular blooms in that particular summer yet whenever I’ve seen a currant bush since, wherever I was, and have lowered my face to it, the scent and pink bring the whole thing back.
Sylvia Ashton-Warner, I Passed This Way
Photo by John Talbot
I read a recent article that pointed out that JVC, the last maker of VHS Players, will cease production of these models. This means that the VHS cassette will soon become obsolete – gone to media heaven like the 8 track audio cassette and LP. And according to the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, the lifespan of consumer physical digital media is estimated to be five years or less. Those family photos that you’ve stored on disk or the DVD of your last trip won’t last forever either. So what to do? Here’s what I’d suggest to protect your collection:
- Copy all of your film, audio and video tapes to a digital format.
- Keep alert to new formats and ensure that you copy all of your collection to the new format.
- Make certain all your audio and video tapes, old film stock and digital media are stored in a room that is free form dust and extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity.
- Keep your collection away from direct sunlight and liquids. All audio and video tapes should be kept away from any magnetic fields and other electronic equipment.
- Store your media upright in rigid containers specifically designed for that particular media. Cardboard sleeves are not suitable for storage.
- Handle your discs by the outer edge or inside hole. Never grab them by the surface. The grease and salt from your fingers will damage the disc.
- Drives should be cleaned regularly to avoid damaging your tapes.
- Don’t leave a tape in the drive of a recorder for a long period of time.
For further helpful information on preservation check out these sites:
Photo by Martin
In a previous post I wrote about the elements of a good interview. In this post I want to look at some common interviewing mistakes.
Interviewing a family member or a client for a personal history project involves more than just sitting down with a recorder and turning it on. Like anything done well, there is a real skill involved in drawing out the best stories. Here’s a list of mistakes that lead to a poor interview. And believe me I know because over the years I’ve committed all of these at one time or another!
- Not leaving room for silence. This is especially important if you’ve asked a reflective question. Leave space for your subject to think. Don’t leap in with another question right away.
- Sitting too far away from your subject. You want a degree of intimacy. This won’t happen if you’re sitting across the room. Make certain you’re no more than five feet away from your subject.
- Interrupting your subject. Interrupting might work if you’re a journalist trying to get at the heart of a hot story. But you’re not. You’re gathering a person’s reminiscences about their life. Be gentle.
- Talking about yourself. The interview is not about you. Don’t start relating how aspects of your life are just like your subject’s.
- Offering advice. While you might be tempted to toss in some words of wisdom, don’t. Your role is to unlock your subject’s rich treasury of memories. You’re not there as a therapist or counselor.
That’s my list. Do you have any other mistakes to add? Send me your comments. Love to hear from you.
Photo by Victoria
Man is eminently a storyteller. His search for a purpose, a cause, an ideal, a mission and the like is largely a search for a plot and a pattern in the development of his life story — a story that is basically without meaning or pattern.
Eric Hoffer (American Writer, 1902-1983)
Hoffer’s quote reminds me why recording our life story or helping someone else with theirs is so important. Our lives can appear to be a random collection of events. But when we actually begin to tell our story we can see more clearly a pattern emerge. With pattern there comes a sense of wonder and meaning to our life.
Photo by Ali Edwards
It seems that the way our brains store and recollect memories is kind of quirky. Our brains frequently convert rumors, falsities and opinions into perceived, recollected fact says Scott LaFee in an article in The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Everybody does it,” said Sam Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton University. “Memory formation and retrieval isn’t like writing something down on a piece of paper. Memories drift and change, and things we may have once doubted, we no longer do.
As we recall stored facts, said Wang, our brains reprocess them, collate them with new information, re-interpret the result, then re-store them as new and “improved” memories.
What does that mean for those of us writing our own memoir? I think what we need to keep in mind is that we want to render a three dimensional portrait not fret about getting every little detail correct. What’s important is that it’s your story, your recollections, your response to the events in your life. So what, if your brother or sister saw things differently. It’s not their story.
What I aim for in producing a life story for my clients is something more than just a chronological retelling of the events in their lives. I want to know how they responded to events; how they felt; the life lessons they learned; the values and passions that have driven them; their triumphs and tragedies and their hopes and dreams.
So, don’t worry. Like me and everyone else, our past memories are most likely an amalgam of fact and fiction. What’s really important is that we start recording and preserving memories now before they’re lost forever.
Photo by dierk schaefer