Four years ago, I became a Personal Historian, after taking some creative writing and memoir writing classes and joining the Association of Personal Historians (APH).
As I started to get more clients, I noticed a disturbing trend: my subjects had a tendency to die.
Most of the life stories I’ve written have been about elderly people. I learned very quickly to determine the most important topics to be covered before staring any interviews, and then address them first. Obviously, none of us know just how long we’ll live, but older people most likely have less time remaining. However, we can lose anyone at any age.
By the end of my first year in business, I was becoming discouraged—not because I didn’t have enough clients, but because the majority of them had passed away. To be honest, I almost felt like the Grim Reaper.
For a while, I contemplated whether this was the right field. During the interviewing and writing processes, it was easy for me to get involved with my subjects, through the good and the bad in their lives. When they died, it was heartbreakingly sad.
One of my clients died very suddenly, but peacefully, while watching her favorite television program. I had just completed the interviews and written her story; all that remained was to finish pulling in the scanned photographs. After talking to the daughter who had commissioned me, we decided to complete her mother’s story in a booklet and give it to the family members, which I did two days later.
At the wake the next day, the family made me feel that my efforts were not only worthwhile, they were greatly appreciated. Without the stories I had preserved, the children and grandchildren would never have known some of the details from the woman’s life.
I continue to write life stories for people and encourage them to write their own. The important thing is to preserve those precious family stories before they are lost forever. None of us know exactly how much time we have. Here are some suggestions to help you start saving your own family stories now, while you still can.
When you start working on your own family stories, I do strongly recommend getting a digital recorder, which is small, unobtrusive & fairly inexpensive. Mine is a Sony ICD-P520, which is less than $50 on Amazon.com. Another nice feature is that you can use the USB to load it to your computer and create CDs. Once you have a recording, you can also transcribe it into a Word document.
If you want to capture stories and folklore from the elderly, I urge you to start right away. You never know when they (or perhaps just their minds) may be suddenly taken away. Whenever you get a group of people together, encourage them to talk about their experiences. If possible, record them talking, but if not, then take notes to expand later.
Keep a writing journal to remind yourself of stories you want them to talk about, or events you recall yourself. Use photos & memorabilia to help them reminisce. That often has a starburst effect – one memory leads to three others and each of them to several more. It is a wonderful way to keep expanding their legacy.
Here are some of my favorite websites to help you get started. And of course, my book has some excellent ideas on how to capture your family stories.
About.com: Genealogy website has a list of 50 questions to help on interviews.
Ancestry.com: This website says, “Feel free to print and distribute” a Script for Video or Audio Interviews with Family Members.
Bethlamie.com: My website, where you can sign up for a free monthly newsletter (via email) with tips on writing family history.
Cyndi’s List.com: More than 200,000 website links to help with genealogy and family history.
Grandparents TLC.com: This site offers “Technology to Help Loving Grandparents Connect with Grandchildren!”
Smithsonian Institute: This booklet in PDF format explains how to get started with interviews, sample questions and additional resources.
Story of My Life.com: Free private website to easily gather all your family stories from friends and family and invite participation from around the world.
However you decide to start your own family stories, please start sooner rather than later. When something happens to one of your loved ones, you’ll be glad to have a keepsake of them.