Family History: Five questions we all ask about writing personal/family histories

Five questions we all ask about writing persona historiesBy Barry J. Ewell

The following are five questions I have found to be common among those who have a desire to write a persona/family history:

1. What is a personal history?
Personal histories are a documented, detailed record of a person’s life—the thoughts, feelings, events, people, and places of an individual’s past. Histories are usually arranged chronologically and have a blend of one or more of the following elements:

  • Topical. Focus on a particular historical event, such as World War II; a special family event, such as a wedding; or a place associated with the family over the years, such as a farm or neighborhood.
  • Autobiographical. One person’s life history, usually starting from infancy and progressing chronologically through their life.
  • Genealogical. A record of a person’s ancestors and lineage.
  • Skills or occupations. Descriptions and demonstrations of how things were done in the past.
  • Social history. Includes ethnic culture, religious practices, gender roles, everyday life, and so forth.
  • Folklore. Includes favorite stories, songs, and poems; local legends; and games and other pastimes.

2. Why should I write a personal history?
The most important reason to write a personal history is because “I want to.” Then couple that desire with other reasons, such as the following:

  • To provide a gift to your posterity to do any or all of the following:
  • Ensure that you or the one you write about is not forgotten
  • Share personal stories
  • Share incidents of one’s life that teach a lesson
  • Tell of your triumphs over adversity
  • Provide inspiration to others facing a challenge
  • To discover who you are, search for your own identity, and understand the forces that have shaped you.
  • To have a story to go with those old photos.

Every life is important and unique. It’s about the people known, the places visited, the decisions made, the opportunities lost or gained, and the spiritual, physical, and mental exuberance and folly. If for no other reason, your life is important to you, and that is reason enough to write a personal history.

Do not underestimate your value and how incredibly important your history will be to your loved ones. How many times have you said, “I wish that my grandparents had written a personal history”? We have many questions about those who have gone before us. The history (or histories) you write will be among the most prized pos¬sessions you give to others.

 3. What can I write about?
Don’t worry too much about what to write. With a gentle nudge—the right question, a photo, stories, lessons learned—you will find the memories, and ideas will be begin to flow. This chapter will provide many helpful tools to aid in your rediscovery of a life story. In most cases, you will organize your thoughts chronologically through life’s stages. One thought leads to the next. Tip: Once you start to write the personal history, keep a pocket notebook or recorder with you to capture the thoughts or memories that will come to you at any moment.

4. How and where do I begin?
Why not start today? You don’t have to be an accomplished writer. The end goal is to produce a story written in your own words reflecting your own thoughts and feelings. The writing happens one memory, one lesson, and one line at a time. Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit. Define a specific time each day, week, or month when you won’t be disturbed. Think about your life, your memories, and find the one experience you most want to write about. Start there.

Like any project, there is a beginning and an end. The focus of this chapter is to outline the phases of writing a personal history and to provide detailed resources for preparing a personal history. The process includes three phases:

  • Phase I: Setup and Organization
  • Phase II: Gathering, Interviewing, and Research
  • Phase III: Writing and Publishing

There are many paths, options, and approaches to writing and organizing a personal history. This is an important step and decision. The following are several options that are available. Any of these options will work well; the decision comes down to what you want to accomplish with your personal history.

How-to Books and Articles. How-to books are a great way to get started. You can find these books and articles online with a simple search. The following is a list of some of the details included in how-to books and articles:

  • Organization and helpful hints that will guide you through the process of writing a personal history.
  • How to organize your project
  •  How to conduct an interview, including what questions to ask
  • How to write and publish your completed work

Fill-in-the-blank book. This is a common method used by individuals writing autobiographies. It is probably the easiest method, since it provides you a list of questions to answer that cover the basic chronology of your life. The disadvantages to this approach include the following:

  • Rarely will your life fit neatly into a bound book.
  • Usually not much space to talk about your life.
  • Lots of irrelevant questions.
  • Limited to writing longhand.

Fill-in-the-blank binder. A common approach that combines the ease of a bound fill-in-the-blank method with the flexibility of a three ring binder. With a fill-in-in-the-blank binder, you are able to do the following:

  • Freely write the wide variety of life stories you have accumulated.
  • Include photo and zipper pockets for heirlooms and other memorabilia.
  • Choose to hand-write onto a prepared page or type onto a computer and print the completed document, or a combination of the two.

Professional Personal Historians. You can choose to work with a professional personal historian who can help to coordinate the process. With the help of a professional personal historian, you will complete your personal history project faster than by any other method. Professional historians bring a unique perspective to the process and can be helpful in organizing and packaging a final product, whether that means you end up with a written, oral, or video presentation, or a combination of the three. There are a wide variety of organizational styles depending on the professional.

It is not always easy to find a professional personal historian in all areas, but one excellent source of information is the Association of Personal Historians. Remember that you are hiring a professional; you are paying for someone else to help complete the task. Sticker shock should not be an issue. You can have them complete the entire project or work with you on different aspects. References are always expected. And make sure you interview several historians before you make your final choice.

Oral and Video Personal Histories. Oral and video systems are somewhat more complex than writing or typing a personal history or hiring a professional. You will need to purchase, hire, or other-wise use audio or video equipment. Most often, you need to involve another person to help you though the process. Consider contracting the services of a professional personal historian to help coordinate the process, since do-it-yourself audio and video programs usually turn out to be “easier said than done.”

A benefit of making an oral or video personal history is that you gain both audio and video, so people are able to hear and watch your personal history. However, expect cost or complexity of duplicating this type of personal history to limit the number of people who will be able to view your personal history. Consider transcribing and copying the content of the recording for wider distribution to your family and friends.

Online Systems. Online web templates are very popular at the moment. Normally you pay an annual membership fee or a one-time fee to gain access to an online template containing fill-in-the-blank type questions. Membership provides you a password to log into the online template whenever you please and fill in your answers from your own computer. You can type in as little or as much information as you want.

It’s convenient to log in anytime and from wherever you are. The real drawback is data safety. Most online autobiography template providers cannot guarantee your data is safe, secure, and kept completely private.

5. How long will it take?
It could take a few days, months, or years to compile your personal history. It really depends on what you want to accomplish.

The sooner you start, the sooner you will finish. One of the most important lessons learned by those before you is to start with a general chronically of the life you are writing about. Then set up achievable goals (such as one memory a day or two pages a week) so that you will keep moving forward and not lose interest. Many of your goals will come once you have had a chance to ponder, organize, and scope the project. For example, if your goal is to write a 250- page autobiography, you could complete the project in four months by writing two pages a day or in two months by writing four pages a day. If your goal is to interview five siblings of your mom, do one interview per week for five weeks.

Enjoy the experience. At times you will be like Sherlock Holmes, searching for the answers to expand upon a topic, uncovering answers to questions you have asked for years, and experiencing a full scope of human emotions.