Recording memories for future generations
One of my daughter's favorite early toys was a computer where she pretended to talk to people and write.

Life story writing one story at a time

One of my daughter's favorite early toys was a computer where she pretended to talk to people and write.

When it comes to preserving one’s family history, most people love the idea of the finished product, but cringe at the workload it takes to get it completed.  It prevents them from starting in the first place.

Throughout the summer I will periodically write about using small chunks of time to get your personal history project started.

Writing your life story doesn’t have to be a marathon event unless time is of the essence or there is just too much information for one person to manage. (In that case, I would just hire a personal historian to help you.) When managing the process yourself, however, it’s easy to start slowly. Don’t live with regrets by not getting started at all.

The first step to writing your life story is thinking about what you would like to accomplish. The question – What should I write about? – is the biggest pushback I get from clients.  Let’s look at some ideas.

Maybe your life story project is to write a manuscript that accompanies all the documents with your completed genealogy chart. Perhaps your quest to organize all the family photos has fueled to a desire to write about special events. How about that 47-year career? It’s worth documenting. Maybe you’ve been thinking about compiling the collective military background of everyone in your family, dating back to 1915. In subtle and amusing ways is your extended family always arguing over a treasured family recipe? Maybe you’d like to create a cook-off challenge and record it as a family cookbook.  More simply, maybe you’d like to write a list of wishes for your children or grandchildren in a legacy letter. Either way, it’s your project and it’s an important part of your family history.

This week’s idea is a 30-minute photo essay. Grab one personal photo – any shot you’d like, anything you remember. Author Eudora Welty once said, “A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away.”

We’re going to add to it.

A ballerina with a tough attitude. This photo tells a lot about my artist daughter. It's a family favorite.

Now spend half an hour a day, writing for one week on a single aspect of your life story. What’s so significant about the moment in that photo?  Describe it. Why is that important? What was happening around that time in your life? What was going on in history? What is in that photo? What’s just outside of the camera’s view? Why is this photo and story important to you? What messages do you want remembered?

You don’t have to write about every photo in your home, but many demand the story behind the image. If you don’t have photos for whatever reason consider using antique postcards, an old map of your neighborhood, textiles or other crafts and artwork. Even pieces of old clothing work to tell a story. First, prioritize the areas of your life that you would like to write about, such as military history, life lessons, education, weddings, parenthood, career, homes, travel, or faith. Start with the one photo. Just write. Each day add or edit a little more. If you have extra time at the end of the week then pick another photo.

By week’s end you’ll have three and a half hours into the project. I’m sure the photo scavenger hunt in your home will fuel a few other ideas. Start a checklist for yourself and add to it in small chunks of time.

By way of example, I recently found some of my favorite photos of my children as toddlers. I’ve cherished their little faces looking up at me from faded 4 x 6 paper rectangles for years. Each photo, however, tells a deeper story and reveals a little bit about their personalities that will follow them their entire life. Siblings look at each other differently than a parent sees them. When I talk about these photos now, my children belly laugh hard. They know I’m right. The moment has been preserved by Mom in words and pictures.

One photo, one story at a time.

We call this photo "Dancing Guitar." While it's not a great photo from a technical standpoint it IS a great story telling photo about how a new Dad plays his son to sleep every night.

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3 Responses to “Life story writing one story at a time”

  1. […] Writing your life story doesn’t have to be a marathon event unless time is of the essence or there is just too much information for one person to manage. (In that case, I would just hire a personal historian to help you.) When managing the process yourself, however, it’s easy to start slowly. Don’t live with regrets by not getting started at all.  […]

  2. […] Writing your life story doesn’t have to be a marathon event unless time is of the essence or there is just too much information for one person to manage. (In that case, I would just hire a personal historian to help you.) When managing the process yourself, however, it’s easy to start slowly. Don’t live with regrets by not getting started at all.  […]

  3. […] I could tackle these projects in small chunks of time, an issue I discussed in an earlier posting. Maybe they don’t all need to be written up, but some […]