He was 102; she was 94…

6 Nov

He was 102; she was 94 building a barn in 1919 brought them together in Australia at the end of World War II. Writing Personal Histories – bringing other’s stories to life, documenting stories and long forgotten conversations is a wonderful gift. Today I am working on page 380 of their book telling their story.

It’s just two days until the Association of Personal Historians Annual Conference in Bethesda, MD. This is my first APH conference, it will be intriguing to meet hundreds of colleagues dedicated to helping thousands of people each year write their life stories.

Some Personal Historians specialize in video memoirs; one colleague used his film and documentary skills, his experience with interviewing, videotaping and editing to craft compelling 30 minute or 60 minute stories that captures and shares the essence of his clients, often bringing them almost to life, for family and friend long after they are gone.

Some colleagues specialize in photo memory books, the focus is on bringing to life those compelling photos and the stories and background connected to the photos. Their books are beautifully crafted bringing individual and family stories to life. Too often the unique stories behind photos are otherwise lost.

Some colleagues specialize in memoir writing – providing coaching and classes to encourage people to just start outlining and writing down their stories. This often gives the rest of us great material to build upon, if/when needed. These colleagues are very skilled in writing and editing and often provide ongoing coaching or ghost writing support to help their clients complete or expand their stories or shape their writing into a book.

Personal Historians often collaborate, sharing tips, tricks, tools, expertise, reference resources and referrals. Some specialize in transcription, line editing, converting manuscripts into books; or specialize in community or corporate histories.

Some us are fascinated with genealogy, tying in many little known threads of family history, vital statistics, where their ancestors came from or moved to and why location or specific events, like building a barn after World War I, could shape the story arc of people’s lives on opposite sides of the globe.

My focus is on the research, the interviews, weaving in sometimes hundreds of family photographs, letters, journals, genealogy into the story arc. Sometimes this comes together as a 400 page book; well there was that jam packed file drawer down in the basement filled with “material” that no one had looked at for up to 50 or more years.

Sixteen hours of interviews provide a lot of source material. 500 plus photographs needed to be reviewed, scanned or reshot and PhotoShopped; it is amazing how World War II photos of Japanese Torpedo bombers attacking Australian and US warships can deteriorate after 70 years, but they were part of the unique story of this couple that met while serving in the American and Australian Navy in Brisbane Australia in 1945.

Then there was his High School journal describing daily highlights, studies, sports, singing practice, “choring” on the family farm, sharing with pride how his family was able to harvest, by themselves, the entire potato crop on their large family farm, what the weather was like every day during the winter in Minnesota, walking to school, catching a ride or going by horse drawn sleigh in sub-zero temperatures.

No one else in the family even knew his high school journal existed. They had not read her vivid descriptions of her six months, grand tour of Europe in 1949, staying mostly in Youth Hostels. Witnessing the still very evident effects of six years of World War of bombings, of fighting, of ongoing shortages of people, communities, and countries still recovering move than four years after the fighting stopped.

Everyone has a unique story to tell. Sometime they write some of it down. Often they have documented unique moments through photographs, or they have collected bits and pieces of genealogy of family history. Sometimes they write their own book or craft their own video or photo book.

I help many friends and colleagues get started either with suggestions of how they can start capturing their stories or especially the stories of older family members using a digital voice recorder or a video camera or the voice recorder in their smart phone.

Personal Historians often can help the individual or the families ensure that the unique life stories and family history are captured and compiled. Too often people put it off and then it is too late and the caption to those old family photograph and the answers to those questions for your mother, father, aunt or uncle just never gets written down or never get asked or answered.

For the couple I am writing the book about, I was asked to help the family capture their stories at just the right time. At age 102 and 94 they were still active, living in their own home; they were able to share rich stories about their life and experiences, about the events and people who shaped their lives. They talked about their parents and grandparents who were born in the 1850s who were still alive during their childhood and could tell stories about their ancestors going further back who immigrated from Norway and the Channel Islands to the US and to Australia.

Within about nine months after I did my interviews with this couple, older age, various falls, and time started catching up with them. They became more frail, less vocal, and would not have been able to share these rich personal and family stories. Meanwhile, I could transcribe their interviews, organize their genealogy, review and caption the hundreds of photos, read through that file drawer full of material, develop the story arc and organize their material into Personal History products… audio tapes, transcripts, in their first person voice, a PowerPoint with over 375 photos, and my, still growing, 380 page book draft/manuscript.

Finally time caught up with my clients, he died in September at age 104 and she a month later at age 95 after long, interesting lives and lots of adventures. Yes, I still have to finish their book, but I have been able to document and share large sections of the manuscript with the family. The audio tapes and the hundreds of photos, many of which have been restored or enhanced, to be included in the book, are much valued by their family. Their personal history and family stories will live on and hopefully be passed on for generations.

It is never too soon to start collecting, to start writing your personal history or to start recording the stories of family, friends and colleagues. If/when you need help getting started, or help moving the story along, or with writing, editing, research, etc., look for a Personal Historian, the Association of Personal Historians is a great resource.

Get started today.

Bruce Summers
Personal Historian – SummooseTales

Member – Association of Personal Historians


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