Category Archives: Inspiration

Encore! Why Are You a Personal Historian?

Why Are You a Personal Historian? I came across this Annie Dillard quote the other day: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” It got me thinking. There are times when the humdrum of keeping a personal history business afloat and tending to clients’ concerns can leave me drained and questioning if this is how I want to spend my days. Why am I a personal historian?  I tell myself that I’m helping families record and preserve their stories as a legacy for … Read More

From the Archives: Attention Personal Historians! Don’t Miss These Movies!

Attention Personal Historians! Don't Miss These Movies! Get out the popcorn, turn down the lights, and settle back for a feast of  “personal history” films.  These movies vary in quality but are all worth viewing. They address issues that we have an interest in as personal historians. I must admit my two favorites are “Big Fish” by American director Tim Burton and  “The Barbarian Invasions” by Canadian director Denys Arcand. If you have some favorites that aren’t on my list,  let me know. I’d love to hear … Read More

Want to Know What Betty White Can Teach You About Your Personal History Business?

1989 Emmy Awards

Who doesn’t  love Betty White? I’m a huge fan, first encountering her as the sugar-coated tough cookie  Sue Ann Nivens on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. This past weekend I was reading an interview with White.

I was struck by the fact that her life has lessons to teach those of us who run personal history businesses. I’m not for a moment suggesting that we can all possess the good health and talent of a Betty White but we can certainly learn from her example.

Keep going

Betty White has been working hard for over  six decades. She’s done it all, constantly reinventing herself. She started out in radio in the 1940′s. Her first television appearance was in 1949 with Al Jarvis on Hollywood on Television which she later hosted.

Through the 50′s she created, co-produced, and starred in the syndicated comedy Life With Elizabeth for which she received her first Emmy Award.  Through the 60′s  and early 70′s she appeared regularly as a celebrity panelist on game shows.

Her big break came in 1973 with The Mary Tyler Moore Show where she was a regular until the series ended in 1977. Her next starring role, for which she received her second Emmy Award, was on The Golden Girls from 1985 through 1992.

Through the 90′s, White guest starred in numerous network television programs. She also lent her voice to a number of animated shows. Most recently she’s hosted Saturday Night Live and is starring in the comedy series Hot in Cleveland.

LESSON: Success doesn’t happen overnight. As a personal historian you’ll need to put in many years of hard work. You might have to take on a second job to pay the bills. Like Betty, who continually reinvented herself, you’ll need to learn new skills such as public speaking, book  production, blogging, or workshop design. Doing all this with determination and a positive attitude will help you through the tough times just as it did Betty White.

celebrate your uniqueness

Betty White embraces her age. She makes no apologies for being old. From the Golden Girls to Hot in Cleveland she’s demonstrated that you can be old and still be funny, smart, outspoken, and sexy.

Receiving a lifetime-achievement award at the 2010 Screen Actors Guild Awards, she gushed sincerely about how lucky she’s been to work with so many in the room, and then seamlessly added, “And I may have had some of you, too.” Back on that podium again in 2011, she stroked the statuette’s bare bottom and smiled lewdly.

~ from the Globe and Mail  The Betty White tornado

LESSON: Be yourself. As a personal historian, I bring decades of experience as a documentary filmmaker. I value my graying beard and wrinkles. I see my “advancing years” as a plus in this business. Age suggests experience and a life lived – all valuable and marketable traits for a personal historian.  Look hard at what makes you special and unique. This will be a selling point with your potential clients who are not only looking for competency but also authenticity.

Embrace curiosity and learning

“You have to stay interested in things.” White said in her Globe and Mail interview. “There’s so many things I want to know more about that I’ll never live long enough to do. But it’s something to reach for.”

Betty White is a marvelous example of life-long learning. Starting in radio, moving to television, then becoming a producer, starring in feature films, hitting the quiz show circuit, and now releasing her fifth book  If You Ask Me: (And of Course You Won’t).

Given her six decades in the entertainment business she could have easily succumbed to its changing technologies and tastes as many did. But she rose to the challenges, got even better, and survived without any bitterness. As she says, “Sickeningly optimistic.”

LESSON: To survive in the personal history business we need to adapt or be swept aside by the the digital revolution. E-books, print on demand, social media, and HD video all require learning new ways of doing our work. Sure,  it’s not easy at times but sticking our heads in the sand or complaining bitterly won’t work. Grab on to your inner “Betty White” and just do it!

look Fantastic

Have you noticed that throughout her career Betty White always looks fabulous and stylish? She’s not afraid to show some flair and sassiness.

LESSON: Hire a designer to ensure that all of your marketing materials – business cards, brochures, and website are first class. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone to come up with a design that speaks to your uniqueness. And don’t forget your own appearance. Looks do speak volumes whether we like it or not. You want your business attire to read confident, impeccable, trustworthy, and appropriate.

Photo by Alan Light

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How Old Letters and Recovered Memories Bring Satisfaction and Hope.

We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others.

~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Last week I was doing some spring cleaning and came across a collection of letters I had written to my parents some forty-five years ago. At the time, I was a young man teaching in Ghana. After University I’d joined CUSO, a Canadian voluntary organization similar to the Peace Corps, and had been assigned to the West African country for two years. I’d asked my mother to keep these letters as a partial record of my experience.

Dan and the staff at Sefwi Wiawso Secondary School, Ghana

Last week was the first time I’d looked at them in over four decades. As I read through these tissue thin blue aerograms, covered in tightly composed script,  I was deeply affected.  My younger self was speaking to me across the years not only about his wonder at this new place and culture but also about his hopes and dreams.

I feel that I want a role in life where I can work to benefit those among us who are not so privileged. I have long given up the idea that I alone can solve world problems. But I do feel that I have something and that I can contribute a little to working out some of our problems.

In a powerful way I came to see that the life I had hoped for has been lived. The values I held then are still close to my heart. It gives me encouragement as I look ahead to the “third chapter” of my life. I suspect it will be  a time  every bit as challenging and eye-opening as my days in Ghana.  And I hope I’ll face the future with the same degree of passion, curiosity, dedication, and openness as that young man did all those years ago.

The letters also confirm how much detail and texture of our past is simply lost unless we have journals or letters to refresh our memory.  I was surprised at the events, people, and places that had faded from my mind.  In fact, it turns out that the Ghanaian secondary school compound where I lived and taught wasn’t exactly how I remembered it at all!

My letters home illustrate the great value that memorabilia play in unlocking the stories of our life. But not just the stories.  Those letters also helped me understand something of the person I am today.

Here are a few random thoughts:

  • Start a journal. It’s never too late. Begin recording the details of your life. One day you may want to write your life story and these journal entries will be invaluable.
  • Preserve old letters. Make sure that you keep your correspondence safely stored in acid free archival boxes.
  • Search for original documents. If you’ve been hired to produce a personal history or you’re doing your own, make sure to uncover any letters, journals, or photographs that will help trigger memories.
  • Use archival documents to reveal values and beliefs. While memorabilia can aid in triggering a recall of past events – go further. The stories that emerge from the past can provide powerful clues to the essence of a person and the things that person holds dear.

Photos from Dan Curtis collection

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Stop With The Productivity Pitches!

I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia. ~ Woody Allen

Google “personal productivity” and out gush 102,000 blogs and 2,440,000 articles.  Among them you can learn 15 Ways to Maximize Your Lunch Hour. Call me crazy but I like a quiet lunch followed by a nap. If I want to maximize anything, it’s a longer siesta! One productivity guru promises that you too can Live A Stress Free Life With Time Management. Really? If it were that easy, the sales of Ativan would plummet.

My beef with the cult of productivity is that it implies that through increased efficiency we’ll get more done, have more free time, and be happier.  It feeds on our desire to have it all. News Flash! Happiness can’t be achieved through productivity.

Don’t get me wrong. Productivity has its place as long as it doesn’t become an end in itself. Spending our days checking things off lists, getting things done, and measuring our progress won’t ultimately make us happier or our business more successful.

Here’s a modest proposal. Rather than being caught up in the productivity game, just give up! That’s right. Give up.

Let me illustrate with a personal example. Some years ago I decided to transition out of documentary filmmaking  and become a  life coach. I enrolled with the Coaches Training Institute and after a rigorous year graduated as a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach.  I worked hard for the first couple of years marketing, honing my skills, and building a small client base. One day it dawned on me that I really wasn’t happy spending my time on a telephone coaching clients. No amount of increased efficiency was going to change that fact. So I gave up coaching. It wasn’t easy but I needed to move on.  I’m glad I did.

Giving up means acceptance of things as they are. It means stopping the constant need to change things. As “crazy” as it sounds, giving up will ultimately make you happier and your work more joyful.

What can you give up? Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • give up being super productive
  • give up trying to be perfect
  • give up trying to be all things to all people
  • give up worrying about the competition
  • give up working 12 hour days
  • give up  working at happiness
  • give up all the “stuff” that’s useless
  • give up toxic acquaintances
  • give up trying to be #1
  • give up  the self-improvement merry-go-round

Woody Allen’s humorous take on speed-reading gets at the heart of an obsession with productivity.  In our drive for ever-increasing efficiency we rob ourselves of life’s very essence.

What do you think? What are you prepared to give up?

Photo by Phil Gilbert

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Touching Souls.

copyright © 2010 gapingvoid gallery - reprinted with permission


You can take this as a guide for work or relationships.

I think it’s about life.

Kindness, Gentleness, Generosity, Grace, Purity of Intent.

To touch the souls of others is as much gift to yourself as it is to the person you are touching.

Yes, you can also through a product.

Whatever it is, Do it with love.

Written by Hugh MacLeod copyright © 2010 gapingvoid gallery – reprinted with permission


Not long ago I discovered this wonderful cartoon and its accompanying text by Hugh MacLeod. I found it inspiring and thought to myself, “This is what I do, as a personal historian. I touch souls and am in turn touched. The work we do as personal historians is both  substantive and enlightening.”

This is the perfect time to share this with you. We are at the beginning of another yearly cycle and with it an opportunity to reflect on our life and our work.

I hope Hugh MacLeod’s “Soul” resonates with you as it has with me.

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From the Archives: Now for Something Completely Different: Calmness.

Now for Something Completely Different: Calmness. It’s time to stop  the rushing and working and worrying. You can always pick that up later. For now, as we come to the end of another year,  let’s all take a deep breath and calm ourselves.  As my holiday present,  I’ve put together a little virtual retreat for you. You’ll find some wonderful calming images, music, books, and quotations below. Start anywhere you like.  There’s the three minute Whispering Sea guitar video.  You can  feast your eye … Read More

As Personal Historians, How Do We Rekindle “The Sacred” in Our Work?

Our people lived as part of everything. We were so much a part of nature, we were just like the birds, the animals, the fish. We were like the mountains. Our people lived that way. We knew there was an intelligence, a strength, a power, far beyond ourselves. We knew that everything here didn’t just happen by accident.

~  David Elliott Sr. (Saltwater People, School District 63 (Saanich, 1990)

This past week I had the privilege of hearing First Nation elder STOLȻEȽ ( John Elliot) of the WASÁNEĆ (Saanich) territory address the 16th Annual APH Conference in Victoria, B.C.  He spoke reverently of the stories that were passed down to him about the land and sea and animals and the values to live by.

I was moved by his dedication to his people and by the importance he places on the preserving and recording of their stories. Too often I find myself caught up in the mechanics of my work as a personal historian. There’s marketing to do, blog articles to write, and deadlines to meet. I forget about the sacredness of our work. And by sacred I don’t mean religious. I mean knowing someone deeply, being touched by our common humanity, and venerating the interconnectedness of all life.

What can we do to rekindle the “sacred” in our work? Here are some thoughts.

Begin with our elders.

We need to connect regularly with our own past and show reverence for our elders. This might mean ending or starting each day with some personal expression of remembrance and gratitude for family members who hold a special place in our hearts. It could mean being mindful of the elders in our community and extending a smile or helping hand.

Make time for reflection.

We need to take time out from our busyness for reflection. We need to connect to our sacred moments. Find a space where you can sit quietly and recall a sacred moment in your life. Remember what was happening and how it felt. Let that moment wash over you.

Listen for The connections.

There’s a Bantu expression, Ubuntu, which translates as  I am because you are; you are because I am. It speaks to our interconnectedness as human beings. When I’m working with clients I’m aware that some part of their stories touches my own.

Create A personal belief statement.

We  need to find a statement that gets to the heart of what we do as personal historians. It’s not just words to use in a tag line but a touchstone that can remind us of why this work is sacred. Start by writing, “I am a personal historian because I believe that…”. Play around with phrases until you have an Ah-Ha! moment. For me that moment came when I wrote, “I am a personal historian because I believe that preserving memories is an act of love.” Whenever I lose my way, I try to remember that statement and why I’m doing this work.

Write it. just don’t think it.

We know how much we learn from listening to our clients’ stories.  But how many of us have actually told our clients this in writing? Too often I’m guilty of not taking the time  to pen a thank you note that acknowledges the wisdom that I’ve gained from my clients.

keep a “thank you” file.

I have a file where I keep the letters of appreciation I’ve received from clients and their families over the years. It also includes excerpts from personal histories that particularly touch me. When I need a pick-me-up, I go to that file and read through the collection. It reminds me of why I do this work and reconnects me to the sacred.

We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch.

~ e. e. cummings

Photo by Cornelia Kopp

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Remember When. Songs That Recall Our Yesterdays.

Music can evoke strong feelings and memories. It’s one of the ways we personal historians can help  clients unlock stories from their past.

Not long ago some of my colleagues in the Association of Personal Historians began compiling a list of their  favorite songs that brought back memories. I’ve included some of them here and added some of my own. To listen to these selections, just click on the title.

Here are four songs that resonate with me:

“If I could save time in a bottle/The first thing that I’d like to do/Is to save every day ’til eternity passes away/Just to spend them with you”

“Memories, may be beautiful and yet/what’s too painful to remember/we simply choose to forget/So it’s the laughter we will remember/whenever we remember/the way we were.”

“There are places I remember/All my life though some have changed/Some forever not for better/Some have gone and some remain/All these places have their moments”

  • We Rise Again performed by Ann Murry, Rita MacNeill, The Rankin Family and Men of The Deeps

“That as sure as the sunrise/As sure as the sea/As sure as the wind in the trees/We rise again in the faces/of our children/We rise again in the voices of our song/We rise again in the waves out on the ocean/And then we rise again”

Here are some other great songs from my friends at the APH. What are the songs that speak to you about the past?

“It’s not a question/but a lesson learned in time./ It’s something unpredictable but in the end it’s right./ I hope you had the time of your life./ So take the photographs and still frames in your mind.”

“Grandpa, tell me bout the good old days/Sometimes it feels like this world’s gone crazy/And Grandpa, take me back to yesterday”

“Remember when thirty seemed so old/Now lookn’ back it’s just a steppin’ stone/To where we are,/Where we’ve been/Said we’d do it all again/Remember when/Remember when we said when we turned gray/When the children grow up and move away/We won’t be sad, we’ll be glad/For all the life we’ve had/And we’ll remember when”

“Blowing out the candles/on another birthday cake/Old enough to look back and laugh at my mistakes/Young enough to look at the future and like what I see/My best days are ahead of me”

“Time it was, and what a time it was, it was/A time of innocence, a time of confidences/Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph/Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.”

“Once upon a time there was a tavern/Where we used to raise a glass or two/Remember how we laughed away the hours/And think of all the great things we would do”

  • Dream performed by Judy Collins

“I wish, I wish, I wish in vain/That we could sit simply in that room again/Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat/I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that”

“You must remember this/A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh./The fundamental things apply/As time goes by.”

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Photo by Ford Veate

From The Archives: Don’t Pass Up This Keepsake.

Don't Pass Up This Keepsake. Keepsake by Marilyn Koop is a must-have for your library.  A friend  gave me a copy the other day and I’ve been totally captivated by it. Each page contains a photograph of time-worn hands cradling a loved keepsake. On the page opposite is a cameo history of the person, a brief story behind the keepsake, and words of advice. There are twenty portraits in the collection. All save two were of people living at the Wellington Terrace, an assisted car … Read More