Your Life Story

A FAMILY HISTORY MAKES A MEMORABLE GIFT

by Margaret G. Bigger

Your stories of "way back when," your knowledge of family history, and your perspective on life may be lost forever unless you begin recording them now.
If you are past 60, your immediate family has probably already asked you to do it. If you are over 70, remote relatives have likely requested information that their mamas and daddies forgot to tell them. After you turn 80, the historical organizations, libraries, and museums will be asking for oral history-if you can still remember clearly.
That's the point. Do it NOW, while the memories are still vivid.
So, how do you start? Certainly not with "I was born." Of course you were! That's boring! Besides, didn't your schoolteachers tell you never to start a letter or a theme with the word "I"?

Begin with your best stories first. You know the ones. Your children have asked you to tell them over and over. And then there are those you used to illustrate a point when they were young.
But why those? Your children already know those. They've heard them over and over. So why shouldn't you move on to stories they've never heard?
For one thing, they want to hear those anecdotes again because the stories remind them of their childhoods. Like Winnie the Pooh's tales, Mama's or Poppa's stories are a part of their personal folklore.

Ask your relatives what they want to know about. Wouldn't it be terrible if you proudly presented your finished product to your son and he moaned, "Oh Mom, you forgot to tell about the time I locked you out of the house?" To him, that was a major event.
Your nieces and nephews will want to know about their own mother or dad's childhood antics. Your cousins will surely want you to include a profile of your common grandparents.

Set aside a time to work. Plan blocks of time. But if you wait for a half-day to open up, you may never start. Allow at least 15 minutes as regularly as possible, and find a quiet place to keep everything you need for this project.
Carry a notebook with you everywhere you go. When you have to wait in a doctor's office, never waste time reading a magazine; get busy on your writing project.

Select your medium. Would you feel more comfortable using a notebook and writing by hand? Will the finished product be a journal? A commercial fill-in-the-blanks book? A typed and photocopied booklet? A self-published book? Audiotapes just for the family?
A typed and photocopied booklet can be the simplest way to get your stories into many hands quickly and inexpensively. With a soft cover, it is semipermanent. A hardcover should last as long as the paper does.
A self-published paperback or hardbound book can be expensive, but the more copies printed, the less the cost per copy. This is more likely to be saved for many generations and will be a source of great pride for the author.
Perhaps you dislike writing. Or you don't feel physically up to a prolonged writing task. But you love to talk. You never tire of telling stories and giving advice. Then audiotapes may be for you. Long after you are gone, your descendants can hear you reminiscing as though you were in the room with them.
Not only could future generations hear your words, they could see how you look, too, on a videotape. As you animatedly tell an anecdote, they could observe your facial expressions and mannerisms. Videotapes may someday become obsolete. But, if your descendants keep translating them whenever technology changes, your image will live on with your memories.

Decide on a format. You could use an anecdotal style or a flowing life-story approach. Or you might write vignettes and profiles with "bridges" to take the reader from one story to the next. The same would be true if you used tapes (audio or video).

Be prepared to change your medium or format. With good notes and a running list of what to include, you can switch from one medium or format to another without trauma if you become uncomfortable with your first choice.

Decide whom your stories are for. Do you expect your children, grandchildren, and others in your direct line to be the only ones to care? Or would your extended family want to know more about you and the people who touched your life? Will your friends want a copy? Are you into genealogy? If you include ancestors as well as currently living relatives in your vignettes, you may want to make your work available to your entire genealogical family, people you may never have met.

"What" Is Not Enough
In journalism classes, we learned to tell the "5 W's." That's good advice for recording memories, too. Unfortunately, many people are so anxious to communicate what happened that they neglect the other four W's. Here are the five W's to include in every tale you tell.

WHO - Be specific when mentioning others who have played a part in your life. In the first or second reference, give their whole names. "Aunt Jane" could be from any side of the family. You may even want to say, "my mother's sister." If you are telling about your childhood and talk about a female child, you would use only her maiden name.

WHAT - You will do this superbly: what happened.

WHEN - You may not know the actual day that a particular incident occurred, but you should at least be able to "round off" a date to the early '20s, mid-'30s or late '40s, for instance. By dividing a decade into thirds, like this, you can come within three to four years of the event, thus giving your relatives a notion of the time setting.

WHERE - To talk about "the family farm" as though everyone knows where it is-or was-is a bad practice. Even if it still exists and all your grandchildren have been there, you should name the county and state in deference to future generations. Tell your address, including house number. Although the dwelling may be gone, your descendants can pinpoint the setting.

WHY - Although this is the least necessary of the five W's, it may be essential to certain stories. It's background information that helps the tale make sense. It may be a simple matter of explaining that Uncle John always thought thrift a major virtue because he grew up in Scotland. Or you may need to explain certain mores of that period so that your descendants will understand why you were embarrassed.
Keep in mind that you are doing this for posterity. Ask yourself, what will someone 50 or 100 years from now want to know about me, my family, and the times I lived in? What do I wish I knew about my grandparents and their daily lives? This is why the "what" is not enough. And you must add more:

Maintain a sense of history, time, and place. If you recall national historic dates such as the day the stock market crashed or the day the banks were closed, the morning Japan bombed Pearl Harbor or John F. Kennedy was assassinated, you should not tell only about what happened from your perspective but how you reacted.

Discuss your stories before you record them. Seek out people who experienced the same or similar events and can jog your memory for details. Do you know where that childhood friend lives now? Call her! How about your college roommate, former next-door neighbor, and camp buddy? You'll be amazed how much they remember and how pleased they will be that you thought of them.
Speak with older relatives who might know more background information. Talk about your stories among contemporaries, even if they know nothing about the area where you grew up. Be alert to their questions. You will then be able to clarify your facts.

Recall as many descriptive details as possible. You will be adding color to black-and-white stories. It's the details that make your tales more interesting. On the other hand, it is not necessary to tell everything you know. Too many details get in the way of the narrative. Select the most fascinating ones.

Remember that you have senses other than sight. When people think of descriptions, they usually visualize what things look like. Especially when telling about a place, try to put in the smells and sounds-even the tastes-associated with that place.

Express your feelings. Anyone can record dry history. People (especially your family) years from now will want to know how you felt about major events that occurred during your lifetime.

Expect rewards. Do not be surprised when you find a new sense of purpose. The joy of accomplishing your goal and handing the finished product to your loved ones can be indescribable. During the process, you may be building closer relationships with the ones you love. The more they find out about your past and understand how you feel, the more they will truly know you.

From Recalling Your Memories on Paper, Tape or Videotape, by Margaret G. Bigger. 1996 by A. Borough Books. Excerpted by arrangement with A. Borough Books. $13.95. Available in local bookstores, or by calling 800-843-8490.


An Aging Writer's Lament
by Deborah Whitney

I'm not a bit busy, I've nothing to do,
So I'll write a long story in a week or two.
Just a few items to take care of first:
Visiting Jean and helping the nurse,
Shopping for Polly and Mitzi and Brother,
All of them suff'ring from something or other;
Buying flowers for Nan, who just broke her hip,
Seeing my doctor for post-nasal drip;
Then quadriceps treatments to strengthen my knee
Four times a week at half-past three;
Some blood tests tomorrow or is it today?
Then back to my dentist for another x-ray.
And every morning I should walk an hour
Before coming back to swim and shower.
Next week there's a service for poor old Ed
Who went the same way as George and Ned.
After that I must have a mammogram,
And my ophthalmologist says I need an exam.
Notes of sympathy, cards to soften
Grief must be written more and more often.
But I'm not a bit busy, I've plenty of time
To write a good story while still in my prime!


THE WRITE START
Writing Your Life: A Journey of Discovery. $11.95. 800-888-4741. Learn how to put your life on paper. Subjects include techniques for getting started, accessing memories, and handling different points of view. Writing exercises are provided as are extracts from other people's life stories.

Hey Look...I Made a Book! $7.95. 800-841-2665. A step-by-step, illustrated guide to creating your own hardbound book. Requires only paper, glue, cloth, a little cardboard, a darning needle, and thread. A great way to bind your memoir into a customized gift for family and friends.

The Book of Myself: A Do-it-Yourself Autobiography in 201 Questions. $14.95. 800-759-0190. Use this book as a fill-in journal or as a starting point for other recollections. The 201 questions are divided into three phases of life (Early, Middle, and Later years), each with five different subject categories, such as Family, Friends, Education, etc.

Family Chronicle. The Magazine for Families Researching Their Roots. $21 for one year (6 issues). 888-326-2476 (toll-free). Provides amateur genealogists with research tips, articles about specific countries and regions, information on preserving old photos and documents, and advice on conducting interviews. Also features personal stories, Internet resources, and software.

Family Tree Maker. $99.99. 800-474-8696. A computer software program (Windows) that makes it easy to preserve the facts, images, and stories of your family. You begin the process by entering information such as family stories, photos, birth certificates, sound clips, and even video clips. Because the CDs provided contain actual family trees for 6 million people and Federal records for 115 million people, it is possible to locate historical information about your ancestors and to create heirloom-quality family trees and custom reports.