Monthly Archives: April 2009

9 Indispensable Sites For The Personal Historian.


I realize that in the course of my work as a personal historian I use a variety of sites which have become indispensable to me. I’m not saying these are the only sites – you may have favorites of your own – but they’re the ones I keep coming back to.  Here in no particular order are my favorites:

  • iStockphoto: I use this site when I’m looking for a very special, high quality, royalty-free photo. Their rates are very reasonable and the site is easy to use. It’s the internet’s original member-generated image and design community.  You can  search  over 4 million photographs, vector illustrations, video footage, audio tracks and Flash files.
  • flickr: A treasure trove of photos supplied by members. It’s my main source of great pics to illustrate my blog posts. And what’s even better they’re free!
  • Wikipedia: You can find just about anything here. Wikipedia describes itself as, “written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world; anyone can edit it. Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown rapidly into one of the largest reference web sites, attracting at least 684 million visitors yearly by 2008. There are more than 75,000 active contributors working on more than 10,000,000 articles in more than 260 languages.”
  • BrainyQuote: I love quotations. There are numerous sites but this one is one of my favorites. They include authors  you won’t find on other quotation sites.
  • OneLook Dictionary: Currently more than 13 million words are indexed in over 1000 online dictionaries. You can find, define, and translate words all on one site.
  • Jacquie These are the classiest e-cards you’re ever likely to find. They’re all carefully hand painted and animated. I find the cards are an invaluable way to send a quick greeting to my clients. There is a modest yearly fee but you get to send as many cards as you wish.
  • CutePDF: I use the free version of CutePFF whenever I need to create a PDF. Works like a charm.
  • Creativity Tools: This is a very cool site. Need to brainstorm?  Need to come up with an original name? Just want a good chuckle? This is the place to be. For example, hit the random sentence generator and up pops, The desirable buyer ascends. Try a few more hits and you get, Another therapy starves into a bottle! Working with those you could begin generating some pretty interesting marketing ideas.
  • Backpack: I’ve been using Backpack as my business organizer for over a year. I use their free addition which you can get here. I’ve adapted it to a GTD system and it fits my needs well even without all the bells and whistles of the paid Backpack version.

I’d be interested in what you consider to be your indispensable sites. Drop me a comment.

Photo by CLUC

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Abolish Hunger Now!


This is a departure from my usual posting about life stories. I and some 500 other bloggers have joined forces in Bloggers Unite for Hunger and Hope on April 29th. We have  agreed to post an article on global hunger to raise awareness and promote action.

The Facts on Global Hunger.

  • Fact: 25,000 people (adults and children) die every day from hunger and related causes; (Source: The State of Food Insecurity in the World, FAO, 2008)
  • Fact: 963 million people do not have enough to eat – more than the populations of USA, Canada and the European Union; (Source: FAO news release, 9 Dec 2008)
  • Fact: The number of undernourished people in the world increased by 75 million in 2007 and 40 million in 2008, largely due to higher food prices; (Source: FAO news release, 9 Dec 2008)
  • Fact: More than 60 percent of chronically hungry people are women; (Source: The State of Food Insecurity in the World, FAO, 2006)
  • Fact: Every six seconds a child dies because of hunger and related causes; (Source: State of Food Insecurity in the World, FAO, 2004)
  • Fact: 10.9 million children under five die in developing countries each year. Malnutrition and hunger-related diseases cause 60 percent of the deaths; (Source: The State of the World’s Children, UNICEF, 2007)
  • Fact: In a 1970 UN Resolution, most industrialized nations committed themselves to tackling global poverty by spending 0.7 percent of their national incomes on international aid by 1975. Only Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Denmark regularly meet his target. (Source: DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa) facts map, 2006-2007)

What We Can Do.

  • Learn about hunger and poverty.
  • Influence public policy to support poor people.
  • Contribute financially to reducing hunger and poverty.

Organizations Worthy of Our Support.

  • Heifer International. Heifer’s strategy is…To “pass on the gift.” As people share their animals’ offspring with others – along with their knowledge, resources, and skills – an expanding network of hope, dignity, and self-reliance is created that reaches around the globe.
  • Results. A nonprofit grassroots advocacy organization committed to creating the political will to end hunger and the worst aspects of poverty. RESULTS is committed to individuals exercising their personal and political power by lobbying elected officials for effective solutions and key policies that affect hunger and poverty.
  • The Hunger Project. A global, non-profit, strategic organization committed to the sustainable end of world hunger.
  • Freedom form Hunger. Freedom from Hunger brings innovative and sustainable self-help solutions to the fight against chronic hunger and poverty. Together with local partners, they equip families with resources they need to build futures of health, hope and dignity.
  • Oxfam International. A confederation of 13 like-minded organizations working together and with partners and allies around the world to bring about lasting change. Oxfam works directly with communities and seeks to influence the powerful to ensure that poor people can improve their lives and livelihoods and have a say in decisions that affect them.

WFP Photo by Evelyn Hockstein

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Life Story Quote of The Week.


To forget one’s ancestors is to be a brook without a source, a tree without a root.

- Chinese proverb

How many of you can name all of your eight great grandparents? That’s the question posed by Dr. Barry Baines at one of his Ethical Will Workshops. I must admit I can only name one. How about you? Probably very few – right? Think for a moment. If you don’t do something to preserve and record your life story then your children’s grandchildren will not know your name. Pretty sobering isn’t it? What are you doing to ensure that your name isn’t forgotten?

Photo by David Fielke

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Do You Want to Give Mom Something Special This Mother’s Day?

mother-daughterMother’s Day is only a few weeks away on May 10th. Here’s a gift that I know she’ll treasure  more than the traditional box of chocolates or bouquet of flowers.  It’s called  a Gratitude Letter.  I’ve touched on the subject of gratitude in two previous posts. Today I’d like to expand on the idea of a Gratitude Letter, first developed by Dr. Martin Seligman, Director of the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center. In his best selling book, Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment he  gives the following instructions based on an exercise he does with his students:

Select one important person from your past [Your Mother] who has made a major positive difference in your life and to whom you have never fully expressed your thanks. … Write a testimonial just long enough to cover one laminated page. Take your time composing this; my students and I found ourselves taking several weeks, composing on buses and as we feel asleep at night. Invite that person to your home, or travel to that person’s home.

It is important you do this face to face, not just in writing or on the phone. Do not tell the person the purpose of the visit in advance; a simple “I just want to see you” will suffice.Wine and cheese do not matter, but bring a laminated version of your testimonial with you as a gift. When all settles down, read your testimonial aloud slowly, with expression, and with eye contact. Then let the other person react unhurriedly. Reminisce together about the concrete events that make this person so important to you.

What’s crucial is that you write your Gratitude Letter from the heart and in detail.  Here’s an excerpt from the Gratitude Letter I wrote to my mom four years ago on Mother’s Day:

First and perhaps most importantly, I am grateful for your conceiving and giving birth to me.  Having been born and having had a chance to participate in this world has been a truly great adventure. Thank you for making that possible.

I am grateful for the tenderness and nurturing that you not only gave me as a “wee” child but which you still provide today. You created a loving home and gave me the security that allowed me to blossom. I am forever grateful for your ability to hold me gently while at the same time letting me go to explore and exercise my independence.

What’s wonderful about this exercise is that it’s a gift to you as well as your mom. Studies repeatedly show that practicing gratitude every day has a positive effect and promotes greater happiness.

Further resources on gratitude that you might enjoy:

Photo by Roger Do Minh

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How to Engage Your Readers.


This past week my colleagues in the Association of Personal Historians have been having an interesting conversation. It’s  about making your writing more engaging by showing your readers not telling them. To explain, here’s an example taken from my own life:

Telling: ” In September 1966 I left for a two year assignment as a volunteer in Ghana.”

Showing: “I still remember that ‘muggy’ September night at Mirabelle airport in Montreal. It was 1966 and I was hours away from leaving Canada for the first time in my life. I couldn’t sit still. As I paced about the departure lounge, I felt a mixture of excitement and  apprehension. For the next two years I would be a volunteer teacher in an isolated rural secondary school in Ghana, West Africa. My youthful bravado said I could handle it. My more rational mind questioned my confidence.”

The telling example is a simple statement of fact. It lacks any emotional content. It’s flat and not engaging. By contrast, the showing example is rich with detail. We know it was humid and hot in Montreal. And we know something of what I was feeling and what was on my mind. By showing readers what was happening rather than telling them, we draw them into the story.

If you’re interviewing someone for their life story, the same rules apply. Bring out the emotion, flavor and detail of their story. If someone says, “I was married in 1939″ enrich this statement by using some  follow-up questions like these: What second thoughts did you have about your marriage? Describe the preparations that went into your wedding. What emotions were running through you on your wedding day? What stands out for you? Describe for me the place where you were married. What kind of weather did you have? What  funny incident  happened on your wedding day? Describe for me your wedding celebration. How did local or world events play into your wedding plans?

Here are some additional resources to help you with your memoir writing:

  • Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington. The Library Journal says,  “Her practical guide leads both experienced and novice writers through the writing process from idea to publication, addressing such technical problems as theme selection, voice, tone, form, plot, scene, and character development, as well as how to stimulate creative thinking and build necessary discipline.”
  • The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick. Publishers Weekly says, “Gornick’s book discusses ways of making nonfiction writing highly personal without being pathetically self-absorbed. In admirably plain and direct style, she discusses writers as diverse as Oscar Wilde, Joan Didion and a man she calls the “Jewish Joan Didion,” Seymour Krim…All the texts do nevertheless support her statement that essays can “be read the way poems and novels are read, inside the same kind of context, the one that enlarges the relationship between life and literature.”
  • Memoir Mentor is a terrific website for aspiring memoir writers. Dawn Thurston offers  generous tips on improving your writing. She has also written a book with Morris Thurston entitled, Breath Life Into Your Life Story, which you can order here.  “Written for both novices and experienced writers, this book presents techniques used by novelists to immerse readers into their fictional world—techniques like “showing” rather than just “telling”; creating interesting, believable characters and settings; writing at the gut level; alternating scene and narrative; beginning with a bang; generating tension, and more.”

Photo by Daniel Horacio Agostini

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The Life Story Quote of The Week.


The beginning of a habit is like an invisible thread, but every time we repeat the act we strengthen the strand, add to it another filament, until it becomes a great cable and binds us irrevocably, thought and act.

Orison Swett Marden (1850 – 1924) was an American writer.

Writing your life story can seem daunting. But one way to get the work done is to develop the habit of writing. You can set an amount of time that you’ll write each day. Let’s say you decide to do 30 minutes. Find an uninterrupted part of your day, set a timer and sit and write until the 30 minutes is up. Don’t worry about how your writing is progressing – just write.  Keep to whatever time you’ve set – no more  or no less.

Likewise you could decide to write one page a day. The trick is to continue writing until your page is full. Don’t start and then go off shopping and come back and finish the page. Do your writing in one sitting.

After you’ve developed the habit of writing you’ll find that it seems less a chore. And the bonus lies in the fact that bit by bit you’ll get your life story completed.

Photo by Pete Lambert

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In Honor of “World Creativity Week” – Four Unique Ways to Tell a Life Story.


World Creativity and Innovation Week started on April 15th and ends on the 21st. You can find out more about it here. It struck me that this was a perfect opportunity to come up with some creative ways to tell a life story. Here are four:

  • A  Six-Word Memoir. Smith Magazine has been collecting six-word memoirs from readers and compiling them into books. Check them out here. One of my favorites is, “I still make coffee for two.” by Zak Nelson. Larry Smith, the creative brains behind Smith Magazine says: “There’s no longer any debate: you can absolutely tell a compelling, poignant, and/or funny story in just six words. But six words aren’t necessarily the end—they can be a beginning. We’ve heard from many writers whose six-word memoir spurred them on to write thousands more.” What is your Six-Word Memoir?
  • A Life Story Quilt. I was first introduced to this idea by a dying mother of two teenage girls. She had survived cancer for some 8 years. Over that time she gathered all kinds of  “stuff” connected  with her children’s growing up.  On her last Christmas  she transformed this material into two beautiful quilts for her daughters. Here are two other examples of life story quilts – the The Journey to the White House Quilt and the Life Story Quilt project by Very Special Arts of Nebraska.
  • A Life Story Box. Find an attractive “archival quality” box large enough to hold a lifetime of memories. Into your time capsule place your photo albums, home movies, old letters, favorite recipes, airline boarding passes, theater and concert tickets, high school and university year books, certificates, old passports, etc. I would take the time to carefully number each of the items and include a list that identifies the significance of each. This is particularly important for future generations who will need some help to identify, for example, the importance of an old concert ticket you’ve included in the box.
  • A Graphic Life Story. I wrote in an earlier post about a cartoonist who helped schoolchildren create graphic life stories about their parents or grandparents.  If you have an artistic flair why not think of your life story or that of a loved one in terms of hand illustrated panels. Can’t draw? Then consider hiring an illustrator. Too expensive?  Try checking out a college or university fine arts program. It might be possible to find a student willing to work with you as part of her studies.

I’m curious to know what unique ideas you’ve come up with for telling a life story. Share your ideas so others can benefit from your creativity!

Photo by Cornelia Kopp

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Part Two: How to Find an Audio Recorder That’s Right for You.

Olympus WS-321M

Olympus WS-321M

Last week I wrote a post about my search for a new audio recorder and some good options in the $600US to $300US range. You can check it out here. This week I’ve focused my research on recorders under $30oUS. Just click on the product for more information.

  • Tascam DR-1: About$300US to $250US.  “The Tascam DR-1 is a very good, affordable, fun-to-use recorder that sounds good too.” And Musician’s Friend writes, “The TASCAM DR-1 brings innovative portable recording to a size and price that make it the recorder you can’t leave behind. This hand-held portable recorder lets you record live gigs, rehearsals,  samples, songs, podcasts, or news events in MP3 or 24-bit WAV format. The DR-1 recorder’s built-in stereo condenser microphone can be arranged in variable angles to fit different recording scenarios,  such as desktop or shirt-pocket recording. A huge 1GB card is included for hours of recording.”
  • Tascam DR-07: About $280US to $200Us. ” The TASCAM DR-07 Handheld Digital Recorder lets you record to SD or SDHC Card Media. A stereo pair of electret condenser microphones captures great-sounding performances as 24-bit WAV or MP3 files. A 1GB SD card is included with the portable recorder.The TASCAM DR-07 is powered by AA batteries and files can be transferred to your computer using a high-speed USB 2.0 connector. All of this recording power is contained in a compact, sturdy case that has a mic stand mounting hole. Includes windscreen.” Musician’s Friend.
  • Zoom H2: About $180US. “The Zoom H2 is a very convenient small recorder, and can give remarkably good sound when using its internal microphones. It’s especially good at picking up musical performances or collecting stereo ambiences of events that are at least moderately loud. Internal noise resulting from turning the input gains all the way up make it ill-suited for recording very quiet, delicate events. And using external microphones, as would be preferable for most interviews, gives poor results overall. So this machine can be a valuable tool in the recordist’s kit, but won’t be suitable for all circumstances. But its price, size and flexibility make it attractive as a recorder to carry at all times, in order to capture spontaneous moments, or to dedicate it to specific tasks, such as recording ambiences, demos and musical performances.”
  • Yamaha Pocketrak 2G : About $200US. “…the Pocketrak 2G is a solid — albeit pricey — choice for interviewers, students, and business types who need a tiny, large-capacity voice recorder that handles both MP3 and WAV files. In fact, with a built-in USB terminal and swappable battery, it is the ideal recorder for the backpacking ethnographer.” Review by O’Reilly.
  • Sony ICD-MX20:About $200US. “Reviewers are satisfied with the recording capability, software, and clear audio quality although there were issues with the tiny user interface and user manual. If you can overlook the user interface and user manual, it’s a decent option.”
  • Olympus WS-321M: About $100US. “The WS-321M is a voice recorder first, and it does this well…All in all, the 321M offers enough advanced recording options to make it ideal for professional use. The 321M, however, is far more adept as a recorder than it is as an MP3 player..”

Choosing an audio recorder is a very individual matter. So, I’m not going to tell you what you should buy. You have to work within your budget and decide what will be your primary use for the recorder. Are you going to record interviews that will be transcribed and turned into a book? If this is the case, audio quality doesn’t need to meet  broadcast standards. Are you recording interviews to edit and transfer to CD?  In this situation you’ll want the best audio audio you can afford.

What did I finally choose? I went with the Olympus WS-321M, not because it was the cheapest  but because it met my needs right now. I work primarily  in video and only occasionally have clients who wish a book or audio memoir produced. I didn’t want to go with a more expensive recorder that wouldn’t see much use. I  budgeted no more than $200 so that ruled out a good many of the recorders on my list. The Yamaha and Sony were possibilities as was the Zoom H2. The H2 has had a lot of good press but there are serious questions about noise when using an  external mic. And because I like to use a lavaliere mic when conducting interviews, this made me nervous about the H2.

Olympus has had a long history of producing good quality voice recorders and the reviews for the WS-321M were positive. I also had the opportunity of “test” driving a model and felt the audio quality was suitable for my purposes. There are some drawbacks to the WS-321M. It doesn’t record in WAV or MP3 but in WMA (Windows Media Audio). This means using free downloaded software to convert to  WAV, MP3 or AIFF format. It’s not a big deal but it’s another step you need to go through. The recorder has only one external mic input which doesn’t allow the interviewer to be on mic. Again, not critical but it’s nice to hear the interviewer’s questions as clearly as the subject’s response. But for the price, I’m not complaining.

I hope that my research has been of some help to you. Do you have a favorite recorder that I didn’t list? Let me know what you use and what you like about it.

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The Life Story Quote of The Week


Do not wait; the time will never be “just right.” Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.

George Herbert ~ (3 April 1593 – 1 March 1633) was a Welsh poet, orator and priest.

The question often arises, “When should I start on my life story?”  The answer is always the same. “Now.” It’s easy to procrastinate.  I don’t have time. I don’t know where to start. First, I need to take a memoir writing course. I’ll begin after I get back from my holidays.

I agree with George Herbert. There’s never a “right time.”  What’s important is to just start. Once you begin your life story you’ll soon discover what you need to craft your work.

Image by Dan Curtis from a photo by Martino Sabia

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What Do You Do With All Your Old Family Photos?

My great uncle George's daughters, Fan & Kit

My great uncle George's daughters, Fan & Kit

My mom is ninety. Her mind is clear but she has congestive heart failure and we both know that her time is limited. With her death goes the knowledgeable custodian of  several boxes of old sepia colored photographs of relatives long passed. With a sense of urgency we’ve embarked on a methodical recording and preserving of these photos. If you’re in a similar situation you might find what we’re doing of some value.

  • Step one: Mom takes a pencil (not a pen) and on the back of each photo she  lightly writes  index numbers  starting with 001, the first photo. In a notebook she  writes down the number. Beside it, as best she can recall, she indicates: (a) the names of the people in the photo and their family connection, (b) where the photo was taken, (c)  the occasion (i.e., birthday, wedding, picnic, travels etc.) and (d) the date. On the next photo she writes 002 and proceeds to write down the details as she did for the first photo. At this point we’re not  worrying about sorting the photos thematically – that can come later.
  • Step two: As Mom completes a set of photos I take them and scan them into my computer and carefully include the index number and description. We are now about half way through her collection. After I’ve scanned the photos I place them in an archival, acid free box. You can obtain these through such companies as Archival Methods, Carr McLean or The Container Store.
  • Step three: We haven’t got to this stage yet. But once I’ve made a digital copy of each photo there are a number of presentation options available – one that I’m considering is a Photo Book. I’ll most likely group the photos thematically and include the  description that my mom’s written for each photo. There are a number of web based publishers like  Blurb that specialize in Photo Books.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get those old family photos out of storage and  begin the work of archiving them. Let me know what you’re doing to preserve your family photos. Love to hear from you!

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