Category Archives: Memoirs

Encore! 15 Great Memoirs Written by Women.

15 Great Memoirs Written by Women. I don’t know about you but I find a friend’s assessment of a book is often as good, if  not better, than some of the reviewers. That’s why I wanted to share with you this list, compiled by some of my colleagues in the Association of Personal Historians.  Here are fifteen gems to add to your list of summer reading… Read More


How to Start and Run a Personal History Business.

Disclosure. I’ve contributed one small item to this book but I will not be receiving any renumeration from its sale.

I’ve just finished Jennifer Campbell’s recent book  Start and Run a Personal History Business published by Self-Counsel Press. If you’re thinking of making personal histories a business, you owe it to yourself to get this book. Jennifer knows her stuff. She’s been a professional personal historian since 2002 and prior to that had a 25 year career as an editor, writer, and interviewer.

This 180 page book is packed with the kind of information I wish I had when I was starting out. The 16 Chapters cover:

  • the world of personal history
  • the business of personal history
  • getting started
  • business foundations
  • pricing
  • producing a sample
  • a guide to producing a personal history
  • interviewing
  • marketing
  • an online presence
  • publicity and promotion
  • sales
  • client relations and customer service
  • time management and project management
  • growing your business
  • accelerating your success and managing growth

In addition, the book comes with a CD-ROM which includes all of the sample templates used in the book as well as resources to help you in your business.

If you buy Personal History Business for nothing else than the chapter on pricing, it’s well worth the investment. For personal historians who are starting out, determining what to charge clients is a challenge. Jennifer’s detailed step-by-step approach will give you the help you need to ensure that you keep your business profitable.

What struck me about the book is that Jennifer makes it clear that running a personal history business takes more than just a love of people and their stories. Her book is like a splash of cold water.  After reading it, if you’re still enthusiastic about establishing a personal history business, you’ll  go into it with your eyes wide open. A word of caution. Don’t become overwhelmed by the content. There’s a lot to digest. Read it through once for an overview and then come back to chew on smaller portions.

I like Jennifer’s candor. For example, on business plans she says, “Like a lot of small business owners, I resisted doing a business plan for a long time. I think it was a psychological block…I finally got some serious business coaching…”  In my eyes, her honesty makes her more credible because I know that she’s writing from personal experience.

The book is also sprinkled with useful tips. They’re terrific. And I wish she’d included more of them and highlighted them so they stood out from the surrounding copy. This brings me to my only real concern and that’s the overall layout and design of the book.

My personal preference is for some breathing space around blocks of text. I found the information on the pages visually congested. I longed for more white space, bolder titles, and little sidebars with tidbits of information, like her “tips”.  I would have found it easier to absorb the wealth of material with more visual help. Having said this, I’m aware that there are production costs to consider when designing a book. And Self-Counsel Press, the publishers,  probably have a standard layout from which there can be  little deviation.

Layout and design aside, this is an excellent book. If you’re serious about establishing a personal history business, you need to do two things -  buy a copy of  Start & Run A Personal History Business and join the Association of Personal Historians.

From the Archives: Our Favorite Things Have Stories to Tell.

Our Favorite Things Have Stories to Tell. This past week I’ve been reminded how much our treasured possessions are a window into the stories of our life. My frail, ninety-one year old mother has  started to go through her modest collection of jewelry. She’s carefully trying to match each piece with a relative or friend she thinks would appreciate having it after she has died.   As I was sitting with her, she began telling me the stories behind each piece. There are the art deco black-and-white … Read More

15 Great Memoirs Written by Women.

I don’t know about you but I find a friend’s assessment of a book is often as good, if  not better than, that of  some of the reviewers. That’s why I wanted to share with you this list, compiled by some of my colleagues in the Association of Personal Historians.  Here are fifteen gems to add to your list of summer reading.

What’s your favorite memoir written by a woman? I’d love to hear from you.

An American Childhood. Annie Dillard. Harper Perennial; 1st Perennial Library Ed edition (July 20, 1988)
“Dillard’s luminous prose painlessly captures the pain of growing up in this wonderful evocation of childhood. Her memoir is partly a hymn to Pittsburgh, where orange streetcars ran on Penn Avenue in 1953 when she was eight, and where the Pirates were always in the cellar.”  From Publishers Weekly

Pilgrim At Tinker Creek. Annie Dillard. Harper Perennial Modern Classics (October 28, 1998)
“The book is a form of meditation, written with headlong urgency, about seeing. A reader’s heart must go out to a young writer with a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled…There is an ambition about her book that I like…It is the ambition to feel.”  Eudora Welty, New York Times Book Review

Balsamroot: A Memoir. Mary Clearman Blew. Penguin (Non-Classics) (July 1, 1995)
“Blew mines the repository of her aunt’s memoirs and diaries, uncovering near-revelations that suggest Imogene’s life was far from what it appeared to be.
The memoir is energized by the search and by the author’s connectedness to a Montana heritage.” From Publishers Weekly

Bone Deep in Landscape: Writing, Reading, and Place. Mary Clearman Blew. University of Oklahoma Press (September 2000)
“I cannot reconcile myself to the loss of landscape, which for me often is an analogy for my own body…. And yet I know that I have never owned the landscape.” In her second collection of essays (after All but the Waltz), Blew again demonstrates her artistry and strong connection to the Western terrain of her past and present homes in Montana and Idaho.”  From Publishers Weekly

A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana. Haven Kimmel.Broadway; Today Show Book Club edition (September 3, 2002)
“It’s a cliché‚ to say that a good memoir reads like a well-crafted work of fiction, but Kimmel’s smooth, impeccably humorous prose evokes her childhood as vividly as any novel.” From Publishers Weekly

The Leopard Hat: A Daughter’s Story. Valerie Steiker. Vintage (May 6, 2003)
“In this finely etched memoir, Steiker relives her childhood the family apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side,
the Parisian escapes with her mother, the family holidays in India and Nepal in delicious, Proustian detail.”  From Publishers Weekly

Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. Mildred Armstrong Kalish. (Bantam Books, 2007)
“Simple, detailed and honest, this is a refreshing and informative read for anyone interested in the struggles of average Americans in the thick of the Great Depression.” From Publishers Weekly

Lazy B. Sandra Day O’Connor.Modern Library; First Edition edition (November 1, 2005)
“A collaboration between O’Connor and her brother, the book recounts the lives of their parents “MO” and “DA” (pronounced “M.O.” and “D.A.”) and the colorful characters who helped run the Lazy B ranch.”  From Publishers Weekly

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. Maxine Hong Kingston. Vintage; Vintage International Edition edition (April 23, 1989)
“The Woman Warrior is a pungent, bitter, but beautifully written memoir of growing up Chinese American in Stockton, California.”  From Amazon.com Review

Personal History. Katharine Graham.Vintage; Reprint edition (February 24, 1998).
“This is the story of a newspaper’s rise to power but also of the destruction of a marriage, as Philip Graham slid into alcohol, depression, and suicide, and of Katharine’s rise as a powerful woman in her own right.”  From Library Journal

Some Memories of a Long Life [1854-1911]. Malvina Shanklin Harlan. Modern Library (July 8, 2003)
“These memoirs by the wife of a noted Supreme Court justice, John Marshall Harlan, first appeared last summer in the Journal of Supreme Court History…. Justice Harlan, though a former slave-holder, is remembered for his lone and eloquent dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that established the doctrine of “separate but equal.” From Publishers Weekly

The Road from Coorain. Jill Ker Conway.Vintage Books; First Vintage Books edition (August 11, 1990)
“At age 11, Conway ( Women Reformers and American Culture ) left the arduous life on her family’s sheep farm in the Australian outback for school in war-time Sydney, burdened by an emotionally dependent, recently widowed mother. A lively curiosity and penetrating intellect illuminate this unusually objective account of the author’s progress from a solitary childhood–the most appealing part of the narrative–to public achievement as president of Smith College and now professor at MIT.” From Publishers Weekly

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less. Terry Ryan. Simon & Schuster (August 30, 2005)
“Married to a man with violent tendencies and a severe drinking problem, Evelyn Ryan managed to keep her 10 children fed and housed during the 1950s and ’60s by entering–and winning–contests for rhymed jingles and advertising slogans of 25-words-or-less. This engaging and quick-witted biography written by daughter Terry… relates how Evelyn submitted multiple entries, under various names, for contests sponsored by Dial soap, Lipton soup, Paper Mate pens, Kleenex Tissues and any number of other manufacturers, and won a wild assortment of prizes, including toasters, bikes, basketballs, and all-you-can-grab supermarket shopping sprees.”  From Publishers Weekly

Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir. Doris Kearns Goodwin. Simon & Schuster; First Paper edition (June 2, 1998)
“Goodwin recounts some wonderful stories in this coming-of-age tale about both her family and an era when baseball truly was the national pastime that brought whole communities together. From details of specific games to descriptions of players, including Jackie Robinson, a great deal of the narrative centers around the sport.”  From Library Journal

A Romantic Education. Patricia Hampl. W. W. Norton & Company; 10 Anv edition (June 1, 1999)
“A now classic memoir, described by Doris Grumbach as “unusually elegant and meditative,” once more available with an updated afterword by the author. Golden Prague seemed mostly gray when Patricia Hampl first went there in quest of her Czech heritage. In that bleak time, no one could have predicted the political upheaval awaiting Communist Europe and the city of Kafka and Rilke. Hampl’s subsequent memoir, a brilliant evocation of Czech life under socialism, attained the stature of living history, and added to our understanding not only of Central Europe but also of what it means to be engaged in the struggle of a people to define and affirm themselves.”  From Product Description

Photo by Kathryn

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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 care residence near Fergus, Ontario.

"This little cup and saucer was given to me by my great-grandmother on my second birthday when we were still in England. My mother used to threaten me: "What might happen to your little cup and saucer if you don't behave?" Winifred Banbury

Marlene Creates, a Newfoundland environmental artist and poet has written of the book:

When objects are keepsakes, they relate most to our hands and our sense of touch. In Marilyn Koop’s photographs, hands are as eloquent as faces. On first glance, many of the cherished objects being held by these elderly people seem quite modest … But on reading these elders’ stories, it turns out that…[these keepsakes] are important not because of their monetary value but because of their history and meaning. I am struck by the profound  human caring and gratitude in these stories. The keepsakes are stand-ins for lost loved ones and times past. Through Marilyn Koop’s photographs and the brief life stories she has gathered, we are given the real value of these keepsakes.

"Henry carved this bar of soap on our honeymoon night in Niagara Falls." Agnes Koop

As a personal historian, I see a number of ways Keepsake can be of value:

  • a gift for special clients
  • in workshops as an example of creative story telling
  • to awaken care facility administrators to the potential of life story  projects with their own residents
  • a source for  reflection on aging, keepsakes, and remembrance

To Order

Contact Marilyn Koop directly at: koopwood@sympatico.ca

Price: Cdn $24.00 includes postage and handling.

_________________________________________

Images by permission of Marilyn Koop Copyright 2009

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The Year of Magical Thinking.

This past Saturday I attended the Canadian premiere of Joan Didion’s play The Year of Magical Thinking, based on her book by the same name. Both her book and play are extraordinary. The Chicago Sun-Times has said:

Unforgettable…Both personal and universal. She has given the reader an eloquent starting point in which to navigate through the wilderness of grief.

Didion’s work is a stark reminder of the frailty of life. In a heartbeat we can be  alone and bereft. And as she points out, this will happen to us all. I believe that personal historians are involved in important and soulful work. We make it possible to preserve the memories of those who will inevitably die. We create legacies that can be a part of the healing process for those left behind. Didion’s opening words to her book are achingly observant:

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

If you haven’t read The Year of  Magical Thinking, I urge you to do so. If you have an opportunity to see the play, don’t miss it. If you haven’t yet started on your life story, begin today.

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How to Get Mom or Dad to Tell a Life Story.

Sometimes I encounter an adult son or daughter who’s  had no success in convincing a parent to record a life story.

My experience has been that if people are really reluctant, it may be very hard to nudge them into documenting their lives. I hope these tips may be of help.

  • Don’t make it sound daunting. You don’t want to create the impression that your parents have to toil away writing down every detail of their lives from birth to the present. You might say something like, “Mom, you’ve told me some great stories over the years. I’d really like to capture some of them so that your grandchildren will know more about your life. It would be a wonderful gift for them.”
  • Explain that you’ll help. You can say something like, I can bring over a recorder and we could just sit and chat about some of your favorite memories. What do you think?”
  • Suggest some different approaches. As I explained in a previous post, there’s more than one way to tell a life story. You can do it chronologically or thematically. Or you can focus on major turning points.
  • Counter the myth. One of the favorite reasons for not documenting a life story is the one that goes, “Oh my life isn’t all that interesting.”  Sound familiar? Explain to your parent that you’re not looking for interesting. What you treasure are the stories that illuminate a different time. What you want to know is what it was like living before the advent of television, computers, supermarkets, and so on. What you value is the wisdom accumulated along the way – the life lessons. What you want to hear are the things  that made  mom or dad proud, happy, and sometimes sad.

In a previous post,  6 Reasons Why Writing Your Life Story Matters, you’ll find some other good arguments to help convince your parent to record a life story. Good luck!

Photo by protoflux

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The “Mini Memoir” Contest!

mini bookAn exercise I particularly like to use in workshops is the six-word memoir. This is based on Smithmag.net and their popular six-word collections. For more information click here.

The idea is rumored to have started with Ernest Hemingway. He was challenged to write a six-word story and he wrote:

Baby shoes for sale, never worn.

I think the six-word memoir is a great way to get your creative writing juices flowing. Having trouble starting your life story? Why not write a six-word memoir and use it as the title for your book. Alternatively,  turn it into the introduction to your story. These mini memoirs can be intriguing and often call out for a fuller explanation.

To give you some inspiration, here are a few of the six-word gems from the participants in my recent Dawson Creek workshop.

  • Mom’s revenge, I am my mom!
  • Who said it couldn’t be done?
  • I’m aching, broken but I’m alive!
  • Work hard. Live well. Enjoy life.
  • Waiting to see what is next.
  • Daughter, sister, wife, mother,  grandma, wow!
  • Have motorcycle, will travel. I’m free!
  • Family is my Love and Joy.
  • Love it all. Not enough time.
  • Years happen. Still learning. Constantly amazed!
  • Investing in others now. Rewards coming.

Here’s mine: Learned much. Much more to learn.

What’s your six-word memoir? Jot it down in the comment box below. To encourage you, I’m offering a free 30 minute telephone consultation. You can ask me any burning questions you have about personal histories and I’ll do my best to answer them.

I’ll select a winning six-word memoir on Thursday, November 20th, at 7 pm PST. Good Luck!

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Our Favorite Things Have Stories to Tell.

braceletThis past week I’ve been reminded how much our treasured possessions are a window into the stories of our life. My frail, ninety-one year old mother has  started to go through her modest collection of jewelry. She’s carefully trying to match each piece with a relative or friend she thinks would appreciate having it after she has died.   As I was sitting with her, she began telling me the stories behind each piece. There are the art deco black-and-white earrings she bought to go with a very fashionable dress my father got her shortly after they were married. A silver bracelet brought back by my dad from Pakistan during WWII is tarnished but her memories of my dad’s war experiences remain vivid. Each piece unlocks a story in my mother’s life.

And then there was a colleague at Victoria Hospice who told me of a unique funeral celebration he attended. A friend of the deceased gave a eulogy that was built entirely around photos of the  shoes in the woman’s life. Each pair of shoes had a story to tell.

In The Globe and Mail newspaper on Thursday, I read an essay entitled Family Ties. It tells the story of a son’s remembrance of his father through the neckties that were passed down to him. Here’s an excerpt:

The other day I was getting ready for work and went into my closet to get a tie…I reached for a brown-, blue- and white-striped tie and I remembered that it was one of my father’s. He died last year and shortly afterward my mother, who was almost 80, made the decision to sell the big house we all grew up in. It took her a while, but she finally tackled the job of cleaning out my father’s closets… My father had a lot of ties – dozens and dozens and dozens of them…. And so, on this morning, I found myself knotting my father’s tie, remembering how we stood in front of the mirror years ago, him teaching me how to get a half-Windsor just right. I smiled, knowing I might be the only person in the building that day with a tie on.

Another interesting use of objects to tell a story appeared on the NPR website. Entitled A Catalog — Literally — Of Broken Dreams, it reviews the book Important Artifacts by New York Times op-ed page art director Leanne Shapton.  The NPR article points out:

Foregoing narrative entirely, Shapton tells the story of a couple’s relationship in the form of a staggeringly precise ersatz auction catalog that annotates the common detritus of a love affair — notes, CD mixes, e-mails, photos, books— and places the objects up for sale…. In choosing the conceit of an auction catalog, Shapton reminds us that the story of love can be told through the things we leave behind, but also by the condition in which we leave them.

All of this got me thinking. Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a memoir or life story built around the special things someone possesses?  Something to keep in mind. Have you already done something like this? Love to hear from you if you have.

Photo by Kylie

Book Lovers Don’t Miss This!

readingLike most personal historians you’re probably a lover of books. You read them, discuss them, shelve them and share them. I just came across a terrific  website that I think you’ll like. It’s called Goodreads and  was launched in December, 2006. It currently has more than 2,300,000 members and 54,000,000 books added to member profiles. Here’s how Goodreads describe itself:

… a free website for book lovers. Imagine it as a large library that you can wander through and see everyone’s bookshelves, their reviews, and their ratings. You can also post your own reviews and catalog what you have read, are currently reading, and plan to read in the future. Don’t stop there – join a discussion group, start a book club, contact an author, and even post your own writing.

What makes Goodreads different from other book sites like Amazon.com is that it’s more like going to a friend’s house. As the founder of Goodreads, Otis Y. Chandler writes:

When I want to know what books to read, I’d rather turn to a friend than any random person, bestseller list or algorithm. So I thought I’d build a website — a website where I could see my friends’ bookshelves and learn about what they thought of all their books.

Goodreads is that site. It is a place where you can see what your friends are reading and vice versa. You can create “bookshelves” to organize what you’ve read (or want to read). You can comment on each other’s reviews. And on this journey with your friends you can explore new territory, gather information, and expand your mind.

Goodreads also allows you to share your own writing. There’s even a biography and and memoir group. So check out Goodreads.  You’ll not be disappointed.

Photo by Ianqui Doodle

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