Encore! Scrabble And Family Stories.

Scrabble 2

Image via Wikipedia

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

Why Haven’t You Done Your Life Story?

That’s the question I was asked one day by a personal history client.   I muttered something about being too busy and feebly joked about not being able to afford it. As a professional personal historian, it wasn’t my best moment. Why should anyone hire me if I didn’t believe enough in life stories to do my own?

I think as professionals we need to “walk-the-talk”. Would you hire an interior decorator who was uninterested in his own home’s appearance? What about the professional organizer who tells you she never has time to organize her own office? The chances are you’d probably have second thoughts about hiring them.

If we haven’t had our life story told, we can’t  talk about the experience in a personal and authentic manner.  Imagine, on the other hand, what a powerful selling point to be able to enthusiastically share with a potential client the rewards of having had your own life story documented.

I have a modest proposal. If you’re a professional personal historian and haven’t  had your life story told, here’s what to do:

I wonder how many other professional personal historians out there have never had their life stories told? Am I the only one?

Photo by Amarand Agasi

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Monday’s Link Roundup.

In this Monday’s Link Roundup I found PANTONE: A Color History of the 20th Century a reminder of the important role of color in our memories. The book looks gorgeous. It’s definitely on my Santa Claus list. Anyone want to play Santa? ;-)

  • The Terrible Word of the Year “Voltaire famously said that the Holy Roman Empire was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” Yesterday, Oxford University Press announced that, for the first time, their U.S. and U.K. lexicographers (along with “editorial, marketing, and publicity staff”) had chosen a “global word of the year.”
  • On the Future of Books: A Discussion with Seth Godin. “The industry of publishing ideas has been undergoing a revolution for more than a decade, and where it’s headed is still an open question…Today I share a conversation I had with best-selling author, blogger and publisher Seth Godin on the future of books, publishing and blogging. It was fascinating.”
  • Nile Rodgers’ top 10 music books. “From Beethoven’s letters to Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, the musician chooses books that reveal the private lives behind the public melodies.”
  • 16 Ways to Leave a Legacy. “You’ve spent years digging up data and stories to breathe life into the grandparents and great-grandparents who’ve made your existence — and your children’s — possible. But what are you doing to ensure your family’s legacy will be around after you’re gone?”
  • PANTONE: A Color History of the 20th Century. “… longtime PANTONE scholars Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker explore 100 years of the evolution of color’s sociocultural footprint through over 200 works of art, advertisements, industrial design products, fashion trends, and other aesthetic ephemera, thoughtfully examined in the context of their respective epoch.”
  • EyeWitness to History.com. “Your ringside seat to history – from the Ancient World to the present. History through the eyes of those who lived it.” [Thanks to Mim Eisenberg of WordCraft for alerting me to this item.]
  • The Legacy Project. “The Legacy Project began in 2004, when I started collecting the practical advice for living of America’s elders. Using a number of different methods, my research team systematically gathered nearly 1500 responses to the question: “What are the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your life?”

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Encore! How to Still be a Winner After Losing a Potential Client.

What do you do when you lose a potential client? A few weeks ago this happened to me. I was disappointed but it’s not the first time and it won’t be the last time that I hear the words, “I’m sorry but…”.  However,  over the years I’ve learned to see this as an opportunity and not as a loss. Let me explain … Read more.

4 Ways to Get Control of a Runaway Interview.

A weakness common to novice interviewers  is their inability to take charge of an interview.  Interviews frequently look  like a runaway train with the interviewer gamely hanging on to the proverbial  little red caboose.

Taking charge doesn’t mean forcing or dictating the direction of the interview. It’s more like riding a horse. Anyone familiar with riding knows that it requires confidence and a gentle hold on the reins. The same  approach applies to interviewing.

Here are four ways to keep control of your interview:

1. From the outset be clear what you want from the interview.

If you’re clear before you start on the topic that you want to explore and its parameters then it makes it easier  to stay on track.

For example, if you know you want to capture a client’s childhood stories about summer holidays, then start your interview by saying something like, “Tom, today I’d like you to think back to your childhood and your summer holidays. What’s a particularly strong memory of the games you played?”

2. Use short, focused questions.

The more precise your questions the more specific the answers from your interviewees.  For example, a good question would be “What was your Mother’s special gift or talent?” A poor question would be “Tell me about your family.”

Questions that aren’t specific make interviewees anxious because they don’t know what you’re searching for.  If you continue to follow-up with vague, unfocused questions, their trust will erode and so will the interview.

3. Gently interrupt.

It’s difficult, I know. It seems somehow impolite. But you’d be surprised how many people really don’t mind being interrupted in an interview. In fact they appreciate that you’re paying attention and bringing them back on topic.

To  interrupt  politely wait for your interviewee to pause before stepping in.  For example, “Margaret, this is a fascinating story about your aunt. Later we’ll be taking more time  to talk about your extended family. But I’d like to come back to the earlier question I asked about your mother?”

It’s important to acknowledge the interviewees’ remarks, assure them that the topic will be covered, and then gently nudge them back on track.

4. Go where there’s passion.

Sometimes it’s best to throw your plans out the window. An apparent innocent question on your part might trigger  a strong emotional response in your interviewees that has no apparent connection to your question.  If this happens,  take the time to explore the story behind the emotion.

Clearly your interviewees wants to talk about this now. If you put them off by forcing them back on topic, you can lose a really important story.


If you’re just starting out as a professional personal historian, I hope these suggestions will be helpful. Use them as guidelines not as hard and fast rules. Interviewing is more an art than a science.  With experience comes an intuitive sense of how to guide an interview and get the best possible story.

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Photo by Mazeau

Monday’s Link Roundup.

If you’re searching for a way of creating a free professional promotional video for your business, look no further. Check out My Business Story in today’s Monday’s Link Roundup. And reenacted photos in Back to the Future will forever change how you look at childhood pictures of yourself.

  • Moby Offers Up Free Music to Filmmakers. “If you’re an indie filmmaker, non-profit filmmaker or film student, you can head to MobyGratis.com, register for the site, and then start browsing through a fairly extensive catalogue of recordings — 120+ recordings in total.”
  • The Late Word. “When we speak of literature, we should not imagine that we are speaking of some stable and enduring Platonic entity. The history of literature has always been about its highly mutable institutions, whether bookstores, publishers, schools of criticism, or, for the last half century, the mass media.”
  • StoryCorps Gives Voice to Critically Ill. “[StoryCorps]has created the StoryCorps Legacy initiative. Partnering with hospitals, hospices and cancer centers, it helps people with life threatening medical conditions record their stories.”
  • My Business Story. “Google and American Express know every small business has a BIG story. So we’ve created MY Business Story to help you make a professional-quality video. It’s free and easy. Just tell your story and we’ll take care of the rest.”
  • A Plethora of Writing Prompts for Creative Writing and Journaling. “Having a list of prompts that you can pull from every day in order to help you practice your craft, even if it’s just for ten minutes a day, can be very helpful. In addition, sometimes creative writing prompts can help spark an idea when you’re stuck on a short story or some other fiction piece that you’re writing.”
  • Back to the Future. “I love old photos. I admit being a nosey photographer. As soon as I step into someone else’s house, I start sniffing for them. Most of us are fascinated by their retro look but to me, it’s imagining how people would feel and look like if they were to reenact them today… A few months ago, I decided to actually do this. So, with my camera, I started inviting people to go back to their future.”
  • miniBiography and the 99%. “David Lynch’s Interview Project,[is] an online series of short video documentaries centering on the lives of “normal” people across America. In Interview Project’s 121 mini-biographies, the filmmakers (including Lynch’s son Austin) ask complete strangers piercing, existential questions. It is a source of ever-renewed wonder that each stranger has an answer, and that the answers are so often so rich and brimming with hard-luck stories and lived experience.”

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Encore! Life Stories and Palliative Care. When Time Is Running Out, What Do You Focus On?

At  Victoria Hospice we’re into the third year of a Life Stories  service for patients registered with Hospice.  This is a program that I initiated and continue to be involved with as  a trainer and a mentor for our Life Stories Volunteer Interviewers… Read more.

Posts That Got You Talking.

Thanks to all of you who took the time to comment on my articles. Here’s my  yearly roundup of the posts that generated the most comments. These aren’t necessarily the articles that received the largest number of viewers but clearly they got people talking.

For those of you who may have missed them, here’s your chance to see what caused the flurry of comments. If you’ve already read them and didn’t comment, it’s not too late to join in the discussion! ;-)

  • The Cluttered of The World Unite!   “We seem to be inundated these days with exhortations from neatness mavens to declutter and organize our lives for a happier and better tomorrow. The implication seems to be that a cluttered existence is a sign of failing.”
  • The Power of “No”. “The “N” word has a bad reputation. It’s seen as negative and mean. Many of us find it hard to say. But saying No will help you not only with your work as a personal historian but also with your life in general.”
  • 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.”
  • 12 Key Tips for Successfully Working Alone. ” I’ve been self-employed  for twenty years. I’ve loved being my own boss. But it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses. There have been some real challenges and some hard slogging. Over time I’ve learned some things about working alone  and I’d like to share them with you. “
  • If You Don’t Like What I Charge, Too Bad! ” Those of you who’ve been following my blog know that I periodically  have the need for a good “old-fashioned” rant. It’s kind of therapeutic. And I like to think that perhaps I voice some of the same frustrations that you experience. So hang on to your hat, here’s my latest!”
  • Eight Lessons My Mom Taught Me About Marketing. “My mom is ninety-two and a wise woman. She never had much schooling but she earned her doctorate at the university of life. She has a homespun wisdom that on reflection has taught me some vital marketing lessons. Here they are:”
  • How Old Letters and Recovered Memories Bring Satisfaction and Hope. “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.”

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Photo by iStockphoto

Monday’s Link Roundup.

In this Monday’s Link Roundup, don’t pass up Affirmation, Etched in Vinyl. It speaks passionately to why personal historians do the work they do. As someone who loves a pen in my hand, I was intrigued by Why creative writing is better with a pen. For a little blast of nostalgia, take a look at What Record Stores Looked Like in the 1960s.

  • How Do You Spell Ms. “Forty years ago, a group of feminists, led by Gloria Steinem, did the unthinkable: They started a magazine for women, published by women—and the first issue sold out in eight days. An oral history of a publication that changed history.”
  • Getting Ready for Next Year–Now. “While the end of the year is likely not in the minds of many, it’s closer than you may think.So before the ball drops and that tax deadline gets even closer, it’s a good time to think about the many things you can do to prepare for the end of the year–and the promising year ahead.”
  • Why creative writing is better with a pen. “In a wonderful article published on the New York Review of Books blog the poet Charles Simic proclaimed “writing with a pen or pencil on a piece of paper is becoming an infrequent activity”. Simic was praising the use of notebooks of course, and, stationery fetishism aside, it got me thinking about authors who write their novels and poems longhand into notebooks rather than directly onto the screen.”
  • Affirmation, Etched in Vinyl. “For years I tried to construct a viable idea of my long-gone father by piecing together scraps of other people’s memories. I was only 6 when he died,…My father’s death stole many things from me, including the sound of his voice. For instance, I have tried to remember his laughter from that final night — its timbre and roll — but my mind is an erased tape. I possess the knowledge of his laughter and of Angie and Johnny’s bubbly white noise but have no memory of the sounds themselves. It’s as if I have garnered these details by reading a biography penned by a stranger.” [Thanks to Pat McNees of Writers and Editors for alerting me to this item.]
  • 7 Little Things That Make Life Effortless. “Life can be a huge struggle, most of the time, and for years it was a struggle for me.I’ve gradually been learning what causes that struggle, and what works in making life easier, better, smoother.Life can feel effortless, like you’re gliding along, if you learn to swim smoothly, to glide, to stop fighting the waters of life and start using them to buoy you up.”
  • What Record Stores Looked Like in the 1960s. “Just think: kids being born today will probably never see the inside of a record store. And why would they? Buying music used to involve wandering around a store browsing, picking things up based on cover art, putting them down based on scornful glares from record store employees, and generally being outside your house. Now, buying music usually amounts to nothing more than a click of the mouse from the safety of your couch.”

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Encore! The Best Advice Ever for a Personal Historian.

If I were able to go back to when I began as a personal historian, what’s the best advice I could give myself? Here’s what I’d say… Read more.