Tag Archives: Writing

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, 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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Monday’s Link Roundup.

I’m a sucker for clever animation. In this Monday’s Link Roundup you won’t want to miss a real charmer, Spike Jonze’s Stop-Motion Bookstore Love Story. And if you’re concerned about digital preservation, take a look at this Library of Congress article Digital Preservation-Friendly File Formats for Scanned Images.

  • PBS Off Book: Type. “In episode 2 of Off Book, typeface designers Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones outline the importance of selecting the right font to convey a particular feeling. Graphic designer Paula Scher talks about building identity in messaging, while Eddie Opara uses texture to create reaction. Infographic designers Julia Vakser and Deroy Peraza map complicated data sets into digestible imagery, mixing color, graphics and type.”
  • The 20 Most Iconic Book Covers Ever. “We recently read an article over at We Made This in which Nick Hornby writes that ”the days of the iconic jacket illustration, the image that forever becomes associated with a much-loved novel, are nearly gone. The stakes are too high now.” If this is true, it’s just another way that advertising is ruining our lives, since one of the things we love best about the book as art object and experience is the way well-designed covers complement and enhance your reading, and the way they figure in your mind when you remember a book.”
  • The Memoir and Children’s Privacy. “An article published in The Times on Monday [August 30, 2009] discussed the controversy over “The Lost Child,” a memoir by a British writer, Julie Myerson, who chronicled her son’s drug addiction. After Ms. Myerson’s son, now 20, condemned the book, which was published in the United States this week, debate flared in Britain over whether it was proper for the author to expose her son’s troubles and over what the boundaries should be in memoir writing. Is it inappropriate and even harmful to expose the private lives of minor children, in particular? What privacy lines should be observed, if any, in writing about family members and others?”
  • Spike Jonze’s Stop-Motion Bookstore Love Story. “…[this] lovely short film … was created by Spike Jonze—director of Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are, and so on—and the handbag designer Olympia Le-Tan. Among Le-Tan’s creations are limited-edition, felt book-clutches based on the famous covers of literary classics. Le-Tan met Jonze in Paris, and he asked for a Catcher in the Rye embroidery to put on his wall, … Le-Tan asked for a film in return.”
  • Old San Francisco Pictures Online. “If you or your ancestors ever lived in San Francisco, don’t visit this site! It is addictive. You’ll spend hours looking at the pictures! Dan Vanderkam moved to San Francisco in 2007 to work at Google. He became fascinated with his new city’s history and soon found the San Francisco Public Library’s online repository of old pictures. However, he quickly became frustrated by the site’s awkward user interface. He thought, “there must be a better way.”
  • Digital Preservation-Friendly File Formats for Scanned Images. “From a preservation standpoint, some digital file formats are better than others.  The basic issue is how readable a format remains over the course of time and successive waves of technological change.  The ideal format will convey its content accurately regardless of advances in hardware, software and other aspects of information technology.”

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Monday’s Link Roundup.

Happy Thanksgiving to my Canadian compatriots! This Monday’s Link Roundup has its usual eclectic mix of articles. One on my favorites is 7 Playful Activity Books for Grown-Ups. If you’re looking for something to lighten your day, then one of these books may just do the trick. Also don’t miss a fascinating story about Vintage Report Cards from the early 1900s and what they reveal about daily life.

  • The Benefits of Speaking Aloud. “Giving sound to what had been a silent process puts writers in the role of their readers. This extra step gives writers an objective view of their content. Bestselling author Nicholson Baker calls his version of the verbalizing process “speak-typing,” in which he dictates to himself and types as he speaks.”
  • 7 Playful Activity Books for Grown-Ups. “The intersection of childhood and adulthood is a frequent area of curiosity around here, from beloved children’s books with timeless philosophy for adults to quirky coloring books for the eternal kid. Today, we turn to seven wonderful activity books for grown-ups that inject a little more whimsy and playfulness into your daily grind.”
  • When a Dictionary Could Outrage. “…the furor over Webster’s Third [1961] also marked the end of an era. It’s a safe bet that no new dictionary will ever incite a similar uproar, whatever it contains. The dictionary simply doesn’t have the symbolic importance it did a half-­century ago, when critics saw the Third as a capitulation to the despised culture of middlebrow, what Dwight Macdonald called the “tepid ooze of Midcult.” That was probably the last great eructation of cultural snobbery in American public life.”
  • Five ways to work a conference. “It’s conference season, and the challenge for most attendees is how to turn the hothouse of ideas they are exposed to into marked improvement back in the office.” [Thanks to Philip Sherwood of Lifewriters for alerting me to this item.]
  • Vintage Report Cards from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls. “After discovering hundreds of early 1900s report cards from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls, Paul Lukas is publishing his findings online in a series called “Permanent Record” on Slate. The written assessments are historical artifacts as well as ephemeral relics of daily life, describing some students as “slow,” and others as “very ambitious,” “irritable at times,” or a “nice type.”

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Encore! 6 Lessons My Cat Taught Me About Time Management.


My cat Annie is full of useful lessons. And for those of you who say that lack of time is keeping you from getting your life story told, here’s what Annie knows about good time management… More

Monday’s Link Roundup.

To start off your week, why not peruse some of these lively articles in Monday’s Links Roundup? I recommend The Power of Color! for tips on how to use color to sell your products or services.  And for a really creative memoir idea, take a look at The Sidewalk Memoir Project.

  • From Scroll to Screen. “Something very important and very weird is happening to the book right now: It’s shedding its papery corpus and transmigrating into a bodiless digital form, right before our eyes. We’re witnessing the bibliographical equivalent of the rapture. If anything we may be lowballing the weirdness of it all. The last time a change of this magnitude occurred was circa 1450, when Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type.”
  • Five Ways to Improve Your Social Media Skills. “The sites you subscribe to and the thoughts you post define you: as a connection, a customer and even a thought leader. If you have a product or service and you are not using social media to reach out to the masses you are missing a huge opportunity.”
  • The Sidewalk Memoir Project. “I’m teaching an 8 a.m. session of Writing Rhetorically this semester, which is Bridgewater State’s equivalent on Writing I. You need to be a little innovative when you’re trying to hold a class’s attention that early in the morning, so here’s what we ended up doing Thursday. The exercise — which doubled as a lesson in brevity as well as audience — ended up going much better than I thought it was.”
  • National Punctuation Day. “This Saturday, September 24, is National Punctuation Day. Founded by Jeff Rubin, the holiday seems readymade for copyeditors. Rubin’s site offers a few ways to celebrate his holiday, but for word professionals, the best way is to correct punctuation in your editing every day—not just on Punctuation Day—and instruct your writers on better punctuation usage. Gently, of course. Here are a few resources for punctuation lessons:”

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Monday’s Link Roundup.

This Monday’s Link Roundup has two terrific lists, 100 Resources for Writers and 50 Best Memoir Blogs. And if you want to read about the value of life stories for terminally ill patients, be sure to check out For The Dying, A Chance To Rewrite Life. 

  • Objects and Memory. “The documentary film Objects and Memory depicts experiences in the aftermath of 9/11 and other major historic events to reveal how, in times of stress, we join together in community and see otherwise ordinary things as symbols of identity, memory and aspiration. In its exploration of people preserving the past and speaking to the future, Objects and Memory invites us to think about the fundamental nature of human interaction.”  [Thanks to cj madigan of Shoebox Stories for alerting me to this item.]
  • Blast From the Past. “Wondering what hot topics your grandparents discussed with the neighbors, or what tunes your mom whistled as a teen? Want to flesh out your family’s story with facts about everyday life? Enjoy reminiscing about days gone by? Our book Remember That? A Year-by-Year Chronicle of Fun Facts, Headlines and Your Memories, by Allison Dolan and the editors of Family Tree Magazine, is an accounting of the whos, whats, whens and wheres of the 20th century.”
  • 100 Resources for Writers. “I don’t necessarily use or outright endorse all of these resources myself. Thing is, in compiling this list I started thinking, “Who am I to judge what is helpful for other writers?” My goal is to provide you with a starting point for online exploration, not tell you what to do. So if you hate some of this stuff? Fine, not my fault! If you love it? I take full credit!”
  • For The Dying, A Chance To Rewrite Life. “For several decades, psychiatrists who work with the dying have been trying to come up with new psychotherapies that can help people cope with the reality of their death. One of these therapies asks the dying to tell the story of their life.”
  • The Women’s Museum. “A Smithsonian affiliate, The Women’s Museum™: An Institute for the Future makes visible the unique, textured, and diverse stories of American women. Using the latest technology and interactive media, the Museum’s exhibits and programs expand our understanding of women’s participation in shaping our nation’s history and create a lively environment for dialogue and discovery. Thousands of stories recount public and private triumphs and the struggles of those who would be denied their freedoms in all its forms: political, social, and spiritual.”
  • 50 Best Memoir Blogs. “Our list of the 50 best personal memoir blogs is full of poignant childhood tales, scandalous anecdotes, and valuable resources for any aspiring writer. They may even inspire you to write your own!” [Thanks to APH member Catherine McCrum for alerting me to this item.]

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Encore! Are You Charging Hamburger Prices for Gourmet Work?

Are You Charging Hamburger Prices for Gourmet Work? It’s not uncommon for those starting out in the personal history business to offer their expertise at rock bottom rates. And while this might be important for the first project or two, it’s definitely not a plan for financial solvency and success in the long run. How much are you charging per hour for your personal history services? To give you some idea of where your fees fit with others, I’ve compiled some lists. From PayScale here are … Read More

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?”


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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Monday’s Link Roundup.

In this Monday’s Link Roundup don’t miss When Data Disappears. A thoughtful piece on the preservation of digital data. And for lovers of graphic design check out The Language of Graphic Design. If you’re near the Smithsonian this summer, you’ll want to see Little Pictures, Big Lives.

  • The Lost Art of Postcard Writing. “The terrific thing about postcards was their immense variety… Almost every business in this country, from a dog photographer to a fancy resort and spa, had a card. In my experience, people in the habit of sending cards could be divided into those who go for the conventional images of famous places and those who delight in sending images whose bad taste guarantees a shock or a laugh.”
  • The Language of Graphic Design. “Visual communication, like all communication, relies on a sophisticated and deeply encoded language to relay its message …The Language of Graphic Design: An Illustrated Handbook for Understanding Fundamental Design Principles offers fluency on a beautiful silver platter by dissecting the building blocks of this language and examining its ABC’s — definitions, functions, and usage — through visually-driven case studies spanning the past 100 years.”
  • Little Pictures, Big Lives: Snapshots Of American Artists. “Whether you’re on vacation or stay-cation this summer, chances are you’re taking pictures. Smartphones make picture-taking easier and more popular than ever. But in earlier years, photography was more of an event. At the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, an exhibition called “Little Pictures, Big Lives” shows snapshots from the 1920s through the ’60s. And many of the people in these photos happen to be some of this country’s greatest artists.” [Thanks to cj madigan of Shoebox Stories for alerting me to this item.]
  • NPR: On Memoir, Truth and ‘Writing Well’. “William Zinsser, author of the classic guide On Writing Well, talks to Michele Norris about the challenges of writing personal history. He says that since the 1990s, many memoirs have focused on victimhood, rather than forgiveness.”
  • When Data Disappears. “…if we’re going to save even a fraction of the trillions of bits of data churned out every year, we can’t think of digital preservation in the same way we do paper preservation. We have to stop thinking about how to save data only after it’s no longer needed, as when an author donates her papers to an archive. Instead, we must look for ways to continuously maintain and improve it. In other words, we must stop preserving digital material and start curating it.”
  • Letters of Note: Many times I have kissed and cryed over this. “Here’s a fascinating missive written to Charles Darwin in 1839 by his wife, Emma, shortly after the inception of his theory of evolution, in which she openly worries about his dwindling faith and, midway through the letter, asks him not to be blinded to the possibilities of things “which if true are likely to be above our comprehension” whilst consumed by his scientific pursuits. Darwin’s reaction is illustrated by his incredibly touching note at the foot of the letter, added some months later.”
  • History stitched in flour sacks. “Nancy Jo Leachman has a talent for reading old flour sacks. And oh, the stories they tell.Valuable American history lessons are stitched into the simple pieces of cloth used to hold flour from the late 1800s up until the 1960s. Leachman gives presentations centered on her own flour sack collection interwoven with fascinating tidbits about the history of Kansas, the nation’s breadbasket and leading hard red winter wheat producing state.” [Thanks to Stefani Twyford of Legacy Multimedia for alerting me to this item.]

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