Monthly Archives: March 2009

The Life Story Quote of The Week.


Television can stir emotions, but it doesn’t invite reflection as much as the printed page.

Bill Moyers, American journalist and public commentator

My work as a personal historian mainly involves creating video memoirs for my clients, although I do some written life stories as well. I believe television and the printed page each have their unique advantages. Unlike a life story book, a video memoir enables us to see and hear someone. It reveals, for example, their unique little speech patterns, the odd tilt of their head and their infectious laugh. From my experience, I know these physical characteristics become treasured remembrances for a family long after a loved one has died.

Photo by John X

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How to be An Engaged Listener.

engaged-listeningIn previous posts I’ve written about useful techniques for  interviewing: How to Listen with Your Third Ear and Nine Secrets of A Good Interview.  “The interview” is a key component of a life story project. Being a good interviewer means being an engaged listener.  Here are six tips that’ll help you become more engaged with the person you’re interviewing.

  1. Establish eye contact. Don’t fix your subject with a “steely” stare but do check to make certain you’re not gazing off into the distance.
  2. Use appropriate facial expressions. If the story you’re hearing is funny – smile or laugh and if it’s serious or sad – look  compassionate. Nod your head to signal you understand or agree with what’s being said.
  3. Use verbal cues. In order to indicate that you’re actually listening use expressions such as, “I see.” “Uh, huh.” “Interesting.” “Mmm.” “Wow.”
  4. Ask for clarification. Don’t be afraid to interrupt politely and ask your subject to explain something that’s not clear to you. If it’s not clear to you, chances are it’s not going to be clear to others.
  5. Provide a brief recap or summary. This should be used judiciously – after a pause or before you move on to another topic. Summarizing demonstrates that you’re actively listening. It will sometimes prompt your subject to add more detail or explain more clearly.
  6. Acknowledgment. If your subject has just finished telling you a touching or revealing story,  don’t abruptly move on to your next question. Make sure you pause and add a sentence or two that acknowledges your subject’s feelings. For example, if you’ve been told about a lifelong regret over not completing university studies, you might say something like, “I can see that you’ve struggled with this for a long time. It must be very hard.”

What tips do you have for being an engaged listener? Love to hear from you.

Photo by McBeth

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The 10 Best Selling Books on Life Story Writing.


I’ve compiled the following 1o best sellers from The books  represent Amazon’s highest sales ranked life story books listed from 1997 to 20o8. If you’re starting to build your personal history library you couldn’t go wrong by adding these titles. Two books that I’ve used and like are: How to Write Your Own Life Story by Lois Daniel and Legacy : A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence. Click on the titles for further information. (all reviews from

Review: A comprehensive, easy-to-follow guide for assisting anyone on the path to completing a first-class autobiography. Review
Linda Spence’s Legacy proves to be just that: the creation of a family heirloom that money couldn’t buy. Through a series of thought-provoking questions about each phase in human life, Spence helps readers record their personal history, think back to feelings that any number of snapshots could never capture, and reflect upon their lives. What events occurred during your childhood? What did you like most about school? What do you wish your parents had done for you? The text includes sample essays by the author and quotations by other writers to encourage your muse.

Product Description
Writing the story of one’s life sounds like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. This warmhearted, encouraging guide helps readers record the events of their lives for family and friends. Excerpts from other writers’ work are included to exemplify and inspire. Provided are tips on intriguing topics to write about, foolproof tricks to jog your memory, ways to capture stories on paper without getting bogged down, ways to gather the facts at a local library or historical society, inspired excerpts from other writers, and published biographies that will delight and motivate.

  • Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer.Tarcher; 1st Trade Paperback Ed edition (April 13, 1998) Review
Every person’s life tells a story, but few of us dare to consider our own story worthy of being written. Tristine Rainer shows us how to apply the structure of story telling to an ordinary life to give it shape, meaning, and clarity. Learning the tricks to becoming a better autobiographic writer may not lead to getting published, nor should that be the goal. Rather, it is a process that helps us re-remember the past so that we can better understand the meaning of the present.

I can’t imagine a better guide to lifestory writing. Sharon Lippincott pushes, cajoles, encourages, shares, and stays with you every step of the way. Don’t worry if writing and computers are new to you. Do your children and grandchildren a favor. Get this book, take a deep breath, and give them your story. –John Kotre, Ph.D. Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan, Dearborn.

Product Description
Creating stories allows individuals and their families to see and honor their connection to older and younger generations. The authors believe that through such writing, individuals not only communicate the meaning and spirit of their lives to their loved ones but also gain perspective on the larger world. This beautifully designed and illustrated guide escorts readers through the process of writing down their stories and illustrating them with photographs, memorabilia, and other images, including digital format. By offering readers questions to draw out events and memories, the book emphasizes a person’s full life, in all of its highs and lows, magic moments, and simple pleasures. The book’s supportive approach will inspire even first-time writers to forge a collection of stories to share and pass on to the important people in their lives.

From the Publisher
Your Story offers comprehensive, yet fun questions that help generate memories and thoughts about our past. Your Story was designed to help the writer recall and record memories about early childhood, school, parents, friends, first love and so forth. After each thought provoking question there is space for writing responses, attaching pictures and/or small momentos. The reader and writer will be grateful for the many memories, thoughts and experiences that these interview questions illicit.

Product Description
Writing Life Stories is a classic text that appears on countless creative nonfiction and composition syllabi the world over. This updated 10th anniversary edition gives readers the same friendly instruction and stimulating exercises along with updated information on current memoir writing trends, ethics, Internet research, and even marketing ideas. Readers will discover how to turn their untold life stories into vivid personal essays and riveting memoirs by learning to open up memory, access emotions, shape scenes from experience, develop characters, and research supporting details. With creativity sparking ideas from signing a form releasing yourself to take risks in your work to drawing a map of a remembered neighborhood, this book is full of innovative techniques that prove that real stories are often the best ones.

From Publishers Weekly
Veteran authors Franco and Lineback lead readers from beginning to end through the daunting process of writing a memoir-for fun, loved ones or publishing. Examining each stage of life, the authors outline the issues to consider and the questions to ask oneself, as well as techniques for successful writing.

Baltimore Sun Review
Anyone intent of writing a family history should read Turning Memories Into Memoirs.

Photo by Julia Laing

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The Life Story Quote of The Week.


Dare to be naive.

R. Buckminster Fuller,  American architect, author and futurist.

What’s Fuller saying? I think he’s commanding us to engage the world with a sense of wonder, freshness and innocence – much like a child.  A “beginner’s mind” is open to new possibilities and not wedded to old forms. How does this relate to life stories and personal historians? One of the advantages of hiring  personal historians is that they approach life stories with an open mind. They haven’t heard any of  the family history and so are fresh and engaged in it’s many intricate layers. As well, I know from experience that it can be the seemingly innocent and naive question that unlocks a treasure of forgotten memories.

Photo by tracy ducasse

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Scrabble And Family Stories.


I recently read an essay, Lessons Beyond Words by Darren Yourk on the Globe and Mail website.  It’s subtitled, While thrashing me at Scrabble, Grandma did more than expand my vocabulary. She shared our family’s story. Yourk’s piece is both humorous and touching. Here’s an excerpt:

I grew to accept Grandma handing me a humbling vocabulary lesson as a regular part of every trip north to visit. I took solace in the fact my lexicon was expanding with every thrashing, adding words such as purl (a knitting stitch), thatch (a roof made of straw or reeds) and trivet (a metal stand for a hot dish or kettle).

Over time I began to realize she was giving history lessons, too, filling in the blanks of my family’s past with vivid tales that left me wide-eyed or roaring with laughter. A single game often lasted more than an hour, the time between turns stretched by memories.

All around us are opportunities to tap into the rich reservoir of our family stories. We just have to ask. We can start the conversation with our elders  over a card game, a meal or a walk.  And if we can record these at the same time, even better.

You can read or listen to an audio version of Lessons Beyond Words by clicking here.

Photo by Rach Hutchinson

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Eight Top Sites for Finding Your Irish Roots.

shamrock-by-rebHappy  St. Patrick’s Day to all of you with legitimate or  fanciful connections to the Emerald Isle. I’ve recently been trying to learn more about my Irish grandmother and great grandmother. All I know is that my grandmother was born in 1872 in Ennis, County Clare. My research has led me to some useful Irish genealogical sites that I wanted to pass on to you. All of them offer some preliminary free service but for more detailed reports expect to pay a fee. If you’ve had success with other sites, please pass them on in my comments section. Click on the links below for further information.

  1. The Irish Family History Foundation: The Foundation is the coordinating body for a network of county based genealogical research centers on the island of Ireland. These centers have computerized millions of Irish genealogical records, including church records, census returns and gravestone inscriptions. You will find information here about the Irish Family History Foundation center in each member county. Through them you can have research carried out on your family history from the millions of records which they have gathered over the years.
  2. Irish Family Research: Hundreds of rare and, in most cases, Exclusive Searchable Databases, as well as other essential Irish Genealogy Resources covering every Irish County. And  regular updates of New Online Genealogical Materials, Newsletters, and Message Boards.
  3. Irish Family History Forum: The Forum based on Long Island, New York was founded in 1991 by a small group of dedicated genealogists and family historians. Its membership has since spread across the United States as well as to Canada, Ireland, and England.
  4. The Irish Ancestral Research Association: A nonprofit organization established to develop and promote the growth, study and exchange of ideas among people and organizations interested in Irish genealogical and historical research and education. Monthly meetings educate and entertain our members, as well as foster interaction with other Irish researchers. They do not provide individual genealogical research services.
  5. The National Archives of Ireland: The  Archives holds a wide variety of records, many of which are relevant to Irish genealogy and local history.
  6. Records Ireland: This is a Genealogy and Record Agency service based in Dublin, Ireland. It  provides a comprehensive genealogical service ranging from specific record searching to full family research. A tailored service is also provided for documents required for Irish citizenship/naturalization.
  7. Family Search: The largest genealogy organization in the world operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  For over 100 years, FamilySearch has been actively gathering, preserving, and sharing genealogical records worldwide.
  8. Irish Genealogy: The Central Signposting index (C.S.I) contains over 3 million genealogical records which may help you trace that elusive Irish ancestor. If you are not certain of the county of origin of your ancestor this could help you make a start.

Photo by reb

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The Life Story Quote of The Week


When you speak or write in your own voice you become subject rather than object. You transform your own destiny.

bell hooks – American author, feminist and social activist

There is strength and dignity in standing up and declaring who you are. It may not always be easy but you only have one life and it might as well be yours, not somebody else’s. One way you can become the “subject” of your life rather than the “object” is by recording and preserving your life story.

Photo by Charles Chan

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Here’s A Book You’ll Want for Your Library.

cat-and-booksAs a member of the Association of Personal Historians, I’m pleased to tell you about the publication of the Association’s new book, My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of  Personal History. The APH website describes the anthology as a celebration of  “the full range of life story writing, from lighthearted stories and deeply felt reminiscence to eyewitness accounts of history…. this rich collection of 49 stories from real life — gathered or written by members of the Association of Personal Historians — also explores the importance of life review and why these stories matter so much.”

Susan Wittig Albert writing in says:

If you’re a fan (as I am) of stories rooted in real life, you will very much enjoy this book. It would also make a delightful gift for the storytellers in your family—and might even give them a few valuable ideas (and some important motivation) for telling their own stories. And if you’re a teacher of memoir, reminiscence, or personal history, it would make an excellent addition to your classroom teaching or to your students’ reading list. Imaginatively conceived, thoughtfully arranged, and professionally
edited and presented, My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History will be a source of pleasure, information, and instruction.

You can read excerpts from the book here.  Priced at $19.95, you can order the book through the APH by clicking here or at by clicking here.

The anthology is edited by Paula Stallings Yost and Pat McNees with a foreword by Rick Bragg.

Photo by Tyler

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What Do A Cartoonist, School Children and Life Stories Have in Common?

Comox Valley

Comox Valley

I recently heard of a creative and wonderful life story project undertaken by cartoonist, Jesse van Muijlwijk who lives in the Comox Valley of  Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Here’s an excerpt from  an article in the Comox Valley Echo:

About 200 students from grades 3 through 7 at Huband Elementary spent three weeks learning how to create graphic novels from Dutch cartoonist Jesse van Muijlwijk. Van Muijlwijk, a local resident whose cartoon De Rechter (The Judge) appears in 14 Dutch newspapers with two million readers, began by teaching the students how to interview their parents and grandparents and then write down their stories.

“They were the journalists of their own family past,” said van Muijlwijk. “Then they would bring those stories back to the classroom. Beautiful stories, all of them. Some stories from 100 years ago in Victoria, or from great-grandparents who wanted to take the Titanic and missed the boat. Stories from World War One, World War Two, the Korean War.But also people immigrating to Canada, starting from scratch and building up their lives…”

During the third and final week, the students brought in their completed storyboards and learned drawing techniques. All of the skills they learned were then used to complete the final versions of their graphic novels.  “Now we have more than 200 artworks, covering the history of the 20th century, covering all kinds of countries and covering all kinds of local history too,” said van Muijlwijk. “They are historians, they are journalists, they are writers, sometimes they are poets in their works and they are artists in visualizing their work. It adds to their identity. You know who you are when you know where you come from.”

You can read more about this innovative project by clicking here.

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The Life Story Quote of The Week


It seems that the ancient Medicine Men understood that listening to another’s story somehow gives us the strength of example to carry on, as well as showing us aspects of ourselves we can’t easily see.  For listening to the stories of others – not to their precautions or personal commandments – is a kind of water that breaks the fever of our isolation.  If we listen closely enough, we are soothed into remembering our common name.

~ from The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo

In reading Mark Nepo’s quote I’m reminded once again that the act of listening to another’s story benefits not only the story teller but also me, the listener. One of the great benefits of story gathering is that we become more profoundly aware of our interconnectedness -  joined as we are by our common humanity.

Photo by Josh Schwartzman

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