Category Archives: Writing

How Much Detail Should a Life Story Contain?

That’s the question some of my colleagues at the Association of Personal Historians  have recently been examining.

Some feel that details count because they can enrich a life story by providing a social history context for it. They suggest that what might be tedious to the interviewer could in fact be fascinating to family members now and in the future.

Other personal historians  see a  need to be selective with details, choosing only those that enhance a story – sifting out the chaff and creating a more readable and entertaining narrative.

But the debate about how much detail to include is better settled after thinking through the following questions:

Is this a book or video life story?

In the previous article Book or Video? Which Makes a Better Personal History? I extolled the strengths and weaknesses of both print and video.

Books are more suited to detail than video. Video’s strength is in storytelling, broad strokes, and emotional content.

What’s the budget?

If you want detail,  it’s going to take time and time costs money. Ten or more hours of interview isn’t uncommon for a full life story.

While your client might want their very own version of Gone with the Wind, their budget restrictions point to a more modest affair like Swayed by the Breeze. ;-)

How open and revealing is your storyteller?

Some people  need little prompting to unleash a wealth of detailed stories. Then there are those who are more reticent. No matter how sensitive and clever your questions, you’re lucky to get the bare bones of the person’s life.

What kind of questions are you asking?

The interview is at the core of a comprehensive and entertaining personal history. I’ve written extensively about the art of interviewing in 11 Articles on Interviewing .

If you want to get the stories behind a life,  avoid questions that focus exclusively on names, dates, and places. Instead, use open-ended questions that begin with How, Where, When, What, and Why. And don’t read from a series of scripted questions. Make sure to go deeper with prompts like “And then what happened?”

Conclusion

I believe that details can enrich a life story. Ultimately though, we’re  hired as professionals to edit and weave those details into a coherent and engaging story.

Photo by Chris Beckett

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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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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.

The #1 Secret to Creating an Engaging Video Life Story.

What makes a video biography memorable?  Is it the person being interviewed? Or is it the inclusion of archival photos and movies? Or could it be the clever use of audio and visual effects? All of these are significant but the most important factor – the #1 secret to a first rate video biography is good story telling.

Basically your video biography needs to have the same narrative structure  that goes into creating a good feature film – pacing, suspense, and character development.  It’s true that your production isn’t for broadcast and will only be seen by your client’s  family and friends. But that’s no excuse to make it boring!

Here are a few ways you can improve your story telling.

Launch your story with A compelling opening.

And I don’t mean flashy effects. That’s window dressing. A good feature film captivates you in the first few minutes of the story. Edit a clip from the main interview that establishes your subject’s character. It might be something that’s funny, heavy with portent, sad, or revealing.  Cut that into your opening. Later decide what visuals (e.g family photos, home movies, etc.) you might want to accompany this opening segment.

Keep the story moving.

It’s not enough to string together the chronology of a life.  You need to use  techniques that will give the narrative energy and create momentum. One  approach is  to shift the emotional tone. For example, after your subject has recounted a sad story fade to black and then come up on an account that’s happy. Or if your subject has been railing at the world, jump to a tender story. Trust me it works.

Another way to keep the story moving is to create a jump in time. This can improve your storytelling immeasurably by eliminating material that’s lackluster. For example, the story of a woman who struggles to get an education during the Depression and eventually goes on to university is riveting. But her university years are less interesting. What’s really intriguing is how she gets her first job after graduating. So find a clip from her interview that can be used to jump directly to her first job. It might be something she says like, “I had great fun at university but it was my first job that really tested me.”

Create suspense.

Suspense is the principal engine that  drives your story. Suspense is created by your audience asking and getting answers to such basic questions as, “What is the subject’s quest?  How does the subject resolve the challenges along the way? Will the subject reach a goal?  What happens when the dream is achieved or not achieved?”

Here’s the bad news. Unless you’ve asked these questions in your interviews you’ll likely have little to help you create suspense.

Keep your editing tight.

As  Sheila Curran Bernard, an an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning writer, said, “In documentary, as in drama, you have to collapse real time into its essence.” Believe me, not everything your subject says is worth including in your video. Eliminate anything that doesn’t  support  your main story. For example, an anecdote about “Aunt Flo” might be interesting but unless it somehow illuminates some facet of your main subject, Aunt Flo should go! To give you some perspective on this, I shoot an average of six to seven hours of interview for a one-hour video biography.

Provide A Good Closing.

Your ending should provide a satisfying resolution to the central journey. It must be short and not introduce any new story lines.  The final scene can be in the form of a simple summary statement from your subject. Or it can be some end cards that bring the story up-to-date. Whatever you choose, don’t make the mistake of creating multiple endings.

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Photo by Steev Hise

The 50 Best Life Story Questions.

I know it’s presumptuous for me to claim these are the “best”.  But what the heck, they’re not shabby. ;-)

In a previous article I suggested you might want to write “50 best life story questions”.  I explained these could be a token of appreciation for a potential client that you lost. If you haven’t yet written your “50 best”,  take a look at my list and feel free to use any of them. Be my guest!

  1. If you could do one thing over in your life, what would it be?
  2. What makes  you happy?
  3. Looking back on your life, what do you regret?
  4. What do you believe to be true?
  5. What is the secret to a happy life?
  6. What do you believe happens to us after we die?
  7. Who’s had the greatest influence on your life and why?
  8. What are the qualities that you admire in your friends?
  9. What is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do?
  10. How would you describe yourself?
  11. If you could meet anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
  12. What’s important in your life?
  13. If you had a million dollars, what would you do with it?
  14. What’s a secret ambition of yours?
  15. Who in your life would you like to thank and for what?
  16. What principles have guided your life?
  17. Where do you find serenity?
  18. What makes you sad?
  19. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your life?
  20. How would you like to be remembered?
  21. If you had only one day to live, how would you live it?
  22. How would you describe your spiritual beliefs?
  23. Who is the most important person in your life today and why?
  24. What was the worst job you ever had and why was it so bad?
  25. What’s your idea of a good time?
  26. What’s wrong with the world?
  27. What’s one big question you’d like answered?
  28. What is it that you absolutely couldn’t live without?
  29. How would you describe yourself as a child?
  30. What’s the greatest gift you could give to someone you love?
  31. What does love mean to you?
  32. What was the best job you ever had and why was it the best?
  33. If you had to evacuate your home immediately and could take only one thing, what would it be and why?
  34. What do you still want to accomplish?
  35. What’s right with the world?
  36. What’s one thing you’d like to change about yourself?
  37. How would you describe your perfect day?
  38. What event in your life would you like to live over and why?
  39. What are you avoiding?
  40. What are your best qualities?
  41. What’s the most romantic thing you’ve done for someone?
  42. Who are your heroes and why?
  43. What are your failings?
  44. What’s the kindest thing you’ve done for someone?
  45. What is more important to you,  challenge or comfort and why?
  46. How is your home like you?
  47. If your life were a motion picture, what would the title be?
  48. Who in your life would you like to forgive and  for what?
  49. What are the advantages of getting older?
  50. What would you place in a time capsule that would tell a relative 1oo years from now who you were?

Do you have some questions that you think should be on the list? Please add them in the comment box below. I always appreciate hearing from you.

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From The Archives: What Everybody Ought to Know About a Successful Blog.

What Everybody Ought to Know About a Successful Blog. If you want a blog that will attract and keep readers, then this is what you need to do. Post frequently. Aim for at least one post a week. Writing once a month won’t attract and hold visitors to your blog. The exception to this rule would be an original, dynamite, must-have  article each time. Then once a month might work. Be consistent. As Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”  Visitors to your blog want to know that they … Read More

Bringing the Dead to Life: Writing a Biography of an Ancestor.

My grandfather

The other day I was asked if I had any ideas about writing the biography of a dead family member. This struck a responsive chord in me. For some time I’ve wanted to write  about my mother’s father, my grandfather. He was only thirty-two when he died in 1920. A Winnipeg fire fighter, he succumbed to the great flu pandemic that was sweeping the world. My mother was only two when he died and she had few stories about him.

Maybe you’re also thinking about writing the life story of a distant family member. Before beginning, you’ll need to pull together as much information as you can on your ancestor. Here’s an approach I’m going to use for my grandfather’s story. You might want to try this.

Locate relatives and friends. Where possible,audio record interviews with descendants. Try to find out as much as you can, whether it’s first person accounts, documents, or leads to other people who may have information about your relative.

Research documents. Personal letters, diaries, and wills, as well as census, land, church, probate, and court records, may yield details of your subject’s life. For example, I’ve contacted The Fire Fighters Museum of Winnipeg to ascertain if there are any records of my grandfather.

Search for historical and cultural information. This will give you some clues about your relative’s  life. In my case, I want to find out about the working life of Winnipeg fire fighters around 1920. What were the qualifications to get into the fire department? What did the job pay? How many hours a day did they work? Was there a pension plan?

Read local and ethnic histories. These can provide clues as to how your relative may have lived and provide interesting texture to your story. For example, I want to read newspaper accounts of the impact the the flu pandemic was having on Winnipeg.

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What Everybody Ought to Know About a Successful Blog.

If you want a blog that will attract and keep readers, then this is what you need to do.

  • Post frequently. Aim for at least one post a week. Writing once a month won’t attract and hold visitors to your blog. The exception to this rule would be an original, dynamite, must-have  article each time. Then once a month might work.
  • Be consistent. As Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”  Visitors to your blog want to know that they can count on you to deliver.
  • Be personal. The best blogs are those that give you a real sense of the person behind the articles. Write conversationally.  To illustrate a point, use your own experience.  A word of caution: don’t write only about yourself. Unless your life is truly riveting, most people  really don’t care.
  • Keep it short and scannable. The truth is that visitors to a web page don’t stay long. As a rule they want quick, relevant information, presented clearly and succinctly. So use bulleted lists, short paragraphs, headings, and sub headings.
  • Keep it uncluttered. You want to make it easy for visitors to find their way around your blog. You don’t need to hire an expensive website designer. Many of the existing blog templates work well. Just don’t load them down with too much stuff.
  • Use photographs. Photos add interest. They can attract attention to your content and leaven longer articles.
  • Use catchy headlines. Think newspapers and popular magazines when writing your headlines. You want them to be simple, intriguing, and descriptive.
  • Be generous and useful. Don’t hoard your best ideas. Create useful reports and give them away for free. Keep your audience in mind and solve problems they’re encountering.

For more on successful blogging these two sites are terrific: ProBlogger and  Copyblogger

Photo by iStockphoto

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The “Mini Memoir”.

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.

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How to Get Started on Your Life Story.

thinkingIn a previous post I mentioned that I was traveling to Dawson Creek, British Columbia. I ran two life stories workshops there for the South Peace Hospice Palliative Care Society. One of the questions that came up frequently was  “How do I get started?” I thought that was an excellent question to address here. This is what I’d suggest.

Start by reading  some reference books.

There are many excellent self-help books on writing your life story. Here are three that I’d recommend.

“I have taught memoir courses from this book, so examined most others in the field of writing one’s own life story. This was the first, and I think, the best. The author makes the task manageable with “get started” topics that trigger memories, inspiring samples from her real-life writing classes, and helpful tips. Perfect if you have an elderly parent or grandparent who should record his/her life for family archives.. .or if you want to do it yourself.” ~ Reviewer: A reader, Chicago

“Aiming to prod the story out of the writer, writing consultant Spence has designed a book of questions and quotes that goes deeply into the hows and whys of the writer’s life. The questions are well written and divided by time period, from earliest memories of childhood to life as seen from the vantage point of old age. People will probably want to own and spend time with this book because the project it proposes will take longer than a three-week checkout.”  ~ From Library Journal

“Senior-education teacher Mary Borg…provides lively questions on family, career and friendships, designed to tease out memories.” ~ Review: New Choices Magazine

Choose a format that appeals to you.

There are many different ways to record your story. Here are three.

  • Chronological. Organize your writing by following the stages of your life from birth and childhood through to adolescence and adulthood.
  • Turning points. Write about those moments when your life took a turn such as the death of a parent, the birth of your first child, a life threatening illness, loss of a job, or retirement.
  • Thematic. You could write vignettes around themes such as the values you’ve lived by, life lessons learned, the most memorable person you’ve known, or your accomplishments.

Make a date with yourself.

After you’ve selected an approach, decide what time of the day, what days of the week, and how long you can devote to writing. Mark those days and times in your calendar and stick to them.

Start writing.

The trick here is just to write and keep writing until your time is up. Write the way you talk. Don’t worry about being perfect. Editing and polishing can come later.

None of the above.

You might want to try one of the online life story programs.  Check out my previous post Put your Life Stories on The Web. I listed ten sites that might be of help to you.

I hope these suggestions have been helpful. If you have other tips, I’d love to hear from you.

Photo by iStockphoto

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