Preserving Personal Histories
Create a book about your life (or a close family member’s) by writing a personal memoir—a treasured family keepsake for future generations
A few seconds altered Larry Wills’ life forever and eventually propelled him into a new way of passing along what he learned from the dramatic experience.
On September 17, 1972, Wills was driving a few miles from the military base where he was on duty with the Kentucky National Guard. To his left, he glimpsed a gaggle of teenagers chatting outside a local hangout. At 21, Wills wasn’t much older than them.
It had been dry for weeks, but fresh rain and hot asphalt mixed to form bubbles of oil on the road. Wills hit a slick spot and his jeep spun across the road. Wills gripped the steering wheel, forcing the car right to avoid the teens. He even navigated through the lengthy curve ahead, skidding into a ditch.
A chewing out from his captain might have been the worst outcome had it not been for a concrete culvert hidden in the knee-high grass. The jeep slammed into the culvert. Almost as quickly as it hit, the jeep jumped the ditch then sailed another 18 feet before it hit a tree stump and ripped it from the ground. Wills clung to a steel battery box cover located between the bucket seats. The out-of-control vehicle then traveled 128 feet up an embankment before slamming into a tree. It momentarily came to rest on a steep bank, then flipped 360 degrees, still running.
“I’ve either broken every bone in my body or my neck is broken,” Wills told the first person to reach him. Wills’ body was not only mangled, much of the skin and flesh on his face was missing.
Wills was rushed to a hospital. The next 48 hours would determine whether he would live, the doctors agreed. If he survived, Wills would never walk again because of the nerve damage he sustained. He would be a quadriplegic. He would never father children. Years of rehabilitation would be needed.
Wills was the only one who didn’t accept the diagnosis. He promised himself he would walk out of the rehabilitation facility. He kept that promise and went on to father two children and create two successful businesses.
Throughout the decades, Wills often thought of recording the powerful life lessons he had learned, but time slipped away in a flurry of activity.
One day Wills looked up. The family was raised. He was financially able to retire at 50. It was time to write that book.
Wills spent the next two years doing just that, but he was a businessman, not a writer. He needed help.
Hiring a personal historian
Meet Susan Owens, a personal historian. Owens put her knowledge to work on the manuscript, and Wills’ book—Please Don’t Worry: A True Story of Faith, Hope, and Love—was published in January 2010 (available through your local bookseller, www.larrygwills.com, or www.WingSpanPress.com).
Owens is a new breed of professional who blends genealogical research, traditional writing, and editing skills with new publishing technologies, making it possible for most anyone to create a book about their life. These professionals create a personal history, or memoir as they are called in the publishing world.
Personal histories or memoirs are not the same thing as genealogies, although people often mix and match the terms to denote works about an individual’s life, according to Owens.
“Traditionally, genealogy is when you are interested in people who make up a particular family’s lineage, most of whom are dead,” says Owens. “The genealogist is interested in places and dates and names and their connections. They want to know other things too, but are mostly trying to establish relationships between people and put people into a hierarchical pattern based on when they lived. They often are interested in seeing how far back they can go.
“Personal history takes a different approach, usually focusing on the story of a single individual. Genealogy may play a part in this story, but the primary emphasis is usually on the people, places, and events surrounding the writer’s life.”
Good questions are at the heart of every personal history because good questions elicit more memories and better details. If you are helping someone to record their history, as you might expect, there are some general rules about questions, according to Owens.
“Good questions do not have a yes, no, or one-word answer,” she says. “Instead of ‘Did you like going to school?’ ask the subject to tell you about a typical day in elementary school. You want to ask questions that help people paint pictures for you and for themselves.”
Owens usually starts with the same first question: What is the first thing you can remember?
The personal historian often takes a list of questions to each interview with a client. “Even though the answers may lead us in a direction I never anticipated,” Owens says, “the list allows me to freely explore new topics without forgetting what we were originally discussing. It helps me to guide the interview one step at a time.”
Use some of the resources listed in “Getting Started” below to help you come up with questions to ask.
These stories have become a popular genre. Frank McCourt crafted three international best-selling memoirs, including Angela’s Ashes, ’Tis, and Teacher Man.
Journalist John Grogan transformed his experiences with a rambunctious Labrador retriever into Marley & Me, a book that went on to become a movie. Kelly Corrigan told her personal journey through breast cancer and family life in The Middle Place.
These are exceptions though. Most personal histories don’t achieve popular success or even attract a publisher. Nonetheless, they remain treasured family keepsakes, allowing future generations to know those who preceded them.
Such is the case for Allen County’s Arles Weaver. His son, Greg, commissioned a personal history about his father. The elder Weaver, a soft-spoken farmer, would never have thought to record his own history although he is involved in the local historical society. But after decades of genealogical research about his family, Weaver quickly realized the value to future generations of Weavers.
Other personal histories seek to increase understanding of an event, time, place, or company.
Union County’s Michael D. Guillerman wrote Face Boss: The Memoirs of a Western Kentucky Coal Miner after working for the Peabody Coal Company for 18 years as a belt shoveler, timberman, shooter, drill and shuttle car operator, rock duster, and finally section foreman—the “face boss.”
Now retired, Guillerman says he wrote the book because he found so many misconceptions about coal mining in media coverage and because he didn’t want it all to be forgotten.
“Coal miners are usually portrayed as country bumpkins,” Guillerman says, “but that isn’t the case. I wanted people to hear about coal miners from a coal miner.”
In the process, Guillerman also managed to produce a book with significant historical value, according to reviewer K. Pennavaria. “Only a few miners have ever recorded their experiences the way Guillerman has, so this account of his day-to-day activities has high value for future historians as well as for people today who want to know the details of coal mining. Especially interesting are the numerous pictures included in the book, all taken underground.” (The book is available through your local bookseller, or from the publisher, University of Tennessee Press, www.utpress.org.)
The intrigue provided by the photos brings up another important point. Not all personal histories are written. Some are done on audio or video.
There are advantages to each medium. Videos offer the incredible experience of seeing their ancestor talk, while books usually cover more material and allow for more explanation. Books may more easily be passed from generation to generation since someone will eventually have to transfer today’s technology into technologies that aren’t even thought of yet.
Regardless of the medium you use, Owens says it is important to remember that your most appreciative audience will most likely include people who aren’t even born yet.
“This helps me answer questions about how much historical context is needed and how much explanation is required for cultural references that would make no sense to someone 50 years from now.”
Getting all the facts straight is also important. Her fellow personal historians have had lively discussions recently about what constitutes truth in a memoir. Perspective is one thing, according to Owens. Facts are another. While a personal history is just that—personal and understood to be the truth as that person sees it—Owens says errors in dates and misspellings, for example, can arouse questions about the accuracy of the entire book.
Owens solves that through old-fashioned research with new tools such as Web sites that tell what the weather was like on any given day in history in any specific location. Courthouse records such as marriage licenses, death certificates, and property transfers are also valuable.
Owens is also quick to point out that you don’t need to hire a personal historian to do a memoir.
“This is an important thing to do,” she says of writing a personal history. “I encourage everyone to do it. It doesn’t matter if you write it on tablet paper and stick it in a drawer. It doesn’t matter whether it’s ever published. It’s the doing that is so valuable, because what you create will be treasured long after you’re gone.”
Back in Russell Springs, Wills hopes readers will not only be educated and entertained by his book but also learn from his experiences.
“I think people may be inspired to do things in life they hadn’t thought about before,” Wills says of his personal history. “I hope they will realize that they may face adversity but life is still great.”
OTHER WAYS TO RECORD YOUR HISTORY: STORYCORPS AND VETERANS HISTORY PROJECT
If you don’t want to undertake a complete personal history, there are other ways to record significant events in your life.
Two good examples are StoryCorps and the Veterans History Project.
StoryCorps is a nonprofit organization that has helped more than 50,000 Americans record their stories. It started in 2003 and has grown into the largest oral history project of its kind. All of the stories are preserved at the Library of Congress and one is broadcast each week on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.
According to information on the Web site, “The heart of StoryCorps is the conversation between two people who are important to each other: a son asking his mother about her childhood, an immigrant telling his friend about coming to America, or a couple reminiscing on their 50th wedding anniversary…Our goal is to make that experience accessible to all, and find new ways to inspire people to record and preserve the stories of someone important to them. Just as powerful is the experience of listening. Whenever people listen to these stories, they hear the courage, humor, trials, and triumphs of an incredible range of voices.”
Anyone can record a story. Go online to www.storycorps.org for details.
If you or someone you know is a veteran, there is another option. The Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center “collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.”
The Veterans History Project is collecting firsthand accounts of U.S. veterans from both world wars, as well as the Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf wars, and the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Civilians who were actively involved in supporting war efforts (such as war industry workers, USO workers, flight instructors, medical volunteers, etc.) can also share their stories. The project is currently concentrating on WWII veterans. The Web site—www.loc.gov/vets/vets-home.html—also includes lists of questions to ask.
FINDING A PERSONAL HISTORIAN
There is an association for folks who prepare personal histories called the Association of Personal Historians
(www.personalhistorians.org), which has close to 700 members, including Owens. To reach Owens, call her at (859) 225-8266 or (859) 948-5318, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is a lot of help available to people who want to create a personal history. Here are some of the most popular books, Web sites, and publishers:
Legacy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence
This is one of Owens’ favorites on the subject. Spence goes through each phase of life and provides questions to help people reflect on their experiences.
Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington
Barrington approaches the subject creatively with chapters such as “Using Your Senses” and “Moving Around in Time.”
This site includes a nice list of books on the subject. Click on “Reunions” at top right, then “How Do I….Publish a Family History” to read a primer on the subject, with examples.
Hover over “Learning Center” tab, click on “Article Archives” to enter keywords under “Search Topics” box. There are many articles. Try searching “telling personal histories” or search “Ten Steps to Recording Your Personal History” for a step-by-step article.
This is another good site to visit for advice on writing a family history. It includes a list of topics and templates of questions for each of the topics.
A good self-publishing firm if you want only a few copies of your book.
This is a well-known print-on-demand publisher for your family memoir.
Owens highly recommends this site because of their customer service, which includes the ability to talk with a person, a feature not available from some Web-based publishers.
This print-on-demand publisher is good if you want larger quantities of your book. Their service costs more up front than many others, but the individual books are cheaper. They also do the book layout and cover. With some self-publishers, you need to do this yourself.
WingSpan Press is a smaller print-on-demand publisher that provides personalized service at a reasonable cost. Owens says they are good at answering questions and are known for their flexibility.
Most of the publishers listed offer some editorial help at an additional cost, though those wanting a more personalized experience may wish to work with an editor on a more in-depth basis and/or begin such a relationship long before choosing a publisher.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: WRITING YOUR MEMOIR
Whether you’re interested in writing your own life story or having the assistance of a personal historian, go to memoir writing for a host of self-publishing tips and what to expect when working with a personal historian.