Category Archives: The Insider’s Guide to Personal History

What’s the best way to preserve my family history?

As a personal historian, I often get asked the basic question: How can I preserve my family’s history? While the question seems simple, there are many ways to answer this.

In this post, I will present a few of the options. That way you can understand what’s available and explore the best fit for you and your family.

Oral history: recording your voice

To begin, simply turn on a digital audio recorder and start to recall memories of the past.  This first recording session could be as simple as your telling your favorite family stories.  You could record memories of your mother’s great prowess in the kitchen, or your father’s antics growing up.

There are many books that can guide you through this process, providing questions and topics that you might like to speak to (see the list of recommended reading at the bottom of this post). You could also hire a professional – a personal historian to bring his or her expertise to the project.

Writing: jotting down your memories

Grab a pen and paper (or your laptop), and let the memories flow. Some of you will find this an easy and enjoyable task, others won’t. Writer’s block is a common problem, so don’t worry if you have a hard time getting started. Recording your memories takes determination and discipline. To help guide you, there are ‘fill-in-the-blank’ books that provide prompts and questions to answer.  These kinds of books can be infinitely helpful in creating content. One of our favorites is Our Family Tree and Album  – Edited by Samone Bos.

Looking for more inspiration? Find a local memoir writing class, and attend faithfully.  The class will help you with written self-expression, and the discipline needed to follow through with your story.  By the end of the class you will be well on your way to a full-fledged memoire.  These classes are typically offered through continued adult education programs at local community colleges, adult community centers, and local libraries.

Artwork: creating memories

Have you enjoyed scrapbooking over the years? Have you made a ‘shadow box frame’ containing personal memorabilia, which belonged to an ancestor?  Do you sew custom-made story quilts? Does your home have a family photo gallery? Artwork like this adds character to a home, and creates strong connections from one generation to another.  For the artistically inclined, a family history project is hard to beat.

Film: producing a multimedia experience

In beautiful high-definition, film is quickly becoming the go-to medium for personal history. Films can beautifully document a life story.  Regional accents, facial expressions, and personal recollections can all be captured on film, along with still photographs, family movies, and other personal mementos. Films also incorporate a musical score, to add drama and emotion to the story.

Click here to view some sample family history films.

This is just a short overview of some of the options you have in preserving your family history. I hope I have fueled your desire to kick off the project. You have a story to tell. Why not start today?

The following is a short bibliography of how-to books on the subject of personal history preservation:

The Story Only You Can Tell – Creating Your Family History With Ease and Expertise by Toni Sorenson Brown

Creative Journal Writing – The Art and Heart of Reflection by Stephanie Dowrick

Touching Tomorrow – How to Interview Your Loved Ones to Capture a Lifetime of Memories on Video or Audio

Legacy – A Step-By-Step Guide To Writing Personal History by Linda Spence

You Don’t Have To Be Famous – How to Write Your Life Story by Steve Zousmer

Learn more about Ethical Wills at http://www.ethicalwill.com

Check out the Association of Personal Historians’ web site for more information on personal history preservation.

What if I’m Nervous About Being Interviewed?

So you’re feeling a little anxious, shy or self-conscious about being interviewed for your personal history film? You really want to save your memories for your family but when you think about actually doing it, all you can think about is that public speaking class that you took in high school.  Your palms still get sweaty when you recall standing up in front of everyone. It wasn’t a pretty picture.

The concerns

You might be thinking about such things as:  What if I don’t know the answer to a question? What if I trip over my tongue or forget what the question was?  Maybe you’re worried about sneezing or burping during the interview. Or you’re concerned about being surrounded by cameras and lights.

You’re not alone

Well, the good news is you are not the only person who has these sorts of concerns. In fact, most people have never been interviewed on film before.

I’m here to help you get over those nerves.  I have been interviewing folks for fifteen years.  I understand where this nervousness comes from – it comes from a fear of the unknown.

Three reasons why you shouldn’t dread a personal history interview

Reason 1:  You can prepare. Before the actual interview you will have an opportunity to speak with the personal historian who will be interviewing you. You will have a critical part in creating the interview questions.  You will know the answer to each and every question because you will play a role in designing the interview guide yourself.  Know that the personal historian who is interviewing you is not trying to trip you up or turn the interview into an interrogation.   Her goal is for you to look and sound great throughout the interview.

Reason 2:  Editing is magic. Are you worried about tripping over your tongue, sneezing or even burping while on camera?  The beautiful thing about video is that the camera can easily be turned off for a moment and then turned back on when you are ready to resume.  A huge part of making a personal history film is the editing process.  This is when any of the blurps, bleeps or tongue contortions are edited out, proverbially landing on the cutting room floor.

The finished film will only contain the best of the best of your interview.  You will truly rival George Clooney or Audrey Hepburn!

Reason 3: You will feel relaxed. The personal historian takes great care to make sure you are comfortable and relaxed during the interview.  Before the interview begins, she will answer any questions that you might have. She will encourage and affirm you throughout the conversation. Whether it is a need for a bio-break, or the desire to re-phrase the answer to a question, it is the personal historian’s job to reassure you that everything is still okay and on track.

The camera equipment may initially seem imposing to you, but it is the personal historian’s place to create a connection with you. Soon the camera equipment fades into the background and it is the engaging conversation that becomes the focus.

Where do we go from here?

There is a little quote that I like a lot.  It goes like this:

Blessed are they, who know the way,

To bring back memories of yesterday.

Author Unknown

As a personal historian, I take my job and all that goes with it very seriously, and I know that other personal historians feel the same way.  I feel honored to play a small role in preserving your life story.

So, are you feeling a little better about the interview now?  Take a deep breath, and start the process of saving your stories while you’re on a roll.

What is a personal history film?

When I tell people what I do for a living, they often give me a puzzled look. “What is a personal history film?” they ask, wondering if I’m a historian, a filmmaker, or something else entirely.

I like to start off by explaining exactly what a personal history film is. Keep in mind there are a lot of names for this product, including video biography, video memoir, life history video, tribute film, or family history movie. For this article, we’ll call it a personal history film.

So what is it? A personal history film is a 30-60 minute documentary chronicling the stories, remembrances and history of an individual, couple, family, or a business. Think of it as a custom-made A&E biography. Rather than it being about someone famous, it could be about anything…including you or your parents. The film could be historical in nature, soaring through the highlights of a person’s life. Or it could be more philosophical, expressing one’s values, beliefs, hopes, dreams and the lessons learned from living life (commonly known as an “ethical will”). It could focus on one moment in time—such as grandpa’s experiences in the War—or cover 300 years of family history. The possibilities are endless.

With the use of today’s digital technology, a personal history film can record a person’s life as no other medium could do in the past.  What makes a personal history film so special? Rather than explaining it with a list, I thought it would be more interesting to ask you to consider the following:

  • Seeing your grandmother’s sweet facial expressions as she recalls memories of being a youngster in the 1920’s.  She tells of the summer she spent picking blackberries and being paid just enough money to buy a special dolly at the local Five and Dime.  Her cat Sally sits on her lap as she tells this particular story while being filmed.
  • Listening to the loving tone of your mother’s voice as she reflects on becoming a mother for the very first time.   She speaks of her initial concerns about being a good mother, but recalls that upon caressing you for the very first time, all her fears vanished.
  • Watching Uncle Joe smoking his cigar, telling his corny jokes and doing his all-too-familiar magic tricks. Somehow everything old is new again.
  • Hearing your great aunt Rosemary share stories of living through WWII.  She talks about ration tickets, black out curtains, not having real butter to spread on toast and having to walk to and from church on Sundays because there was no gasoline to put in the family car, a 1939 Nash LaFayette.

Did these elicit an emotional response? They are the sorts of memories of the past that can easily be captured on film (but less so in a book or an audio recording).  Of course your own stories will be a little different, but that’s what makes personal history films so powerful: they’re tailored to each person, each family, and each moment in time.

One of my favorite quotes is from Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), the Irish dramatist, novelist and poet.  Wilde said, “Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us.”  Today, think about moving some of your special memories from your (mental) diary to a timeless digital film. And if you’re interested in learning more about personal history preservation, I highly recommend the following books:

The Story Only You Can Tell – Creating Your Family History With Ease and Expertise by Toni Sorenson Brown

Ethical Will – Putting Your Values on Paper by Barry K. Baines, MD.

Tell us about your own personal history film. What has it meant to you and your family?

Why would anyone find my life story interesting?

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles titled “The Insider’s Guide to Personal History”. Each post will answer a different question that we’ve been asked over the years. Hope you enjoy it! If you have questions you’d like us to cover, contact us and we’d be happy to write about it. 

People often ask me, “I’ve lived a normal life, and I’m just a regular person, so why should I record my story?”

I’ve been interviewing people for the past fifteen years.  And I can honestly say I have never been bored by the stories and recollections I have been told.

How can that be? Well, here are six reasons why life stories are always worth preserving, even if you think your story isn’t all that exciting:

1.  You are a living connection between your ancestors and your descendants.
Your recollections are valuable to your descendants.  You are the one person who can flesh out the memories of the past and recall the stories of your ancestors.  Your children, grandchildren and those yet to be born will value knowing the stories of success, failure and perseverance.  We cannot know who we are unless we know where we have come from.  You are a living warehouse that provides that essential link.  Give your descendants this opportunity by telling your stories.

2.  The world is changing every day.
Preserve your memories of days gone by – tell your ancestors what things were like “back in the day”.  Tell them about the days before computers and cell phones (your young grandkids may be shocked to hear that you didn’t send your friends text messages).  Tell them about your childhood days during the war.  Tell them about family life before television.  You actually lived through those days; most of your family didn’t.

3.  Values, beliefs and life lessons.
Give your descendants a sense of what has made you tick.  Why did you make the decisions you did?  What beliefs grounded you when life got hard?  What were the lessons that life taught you along the way?  Tell your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren what kept you going and guided your actions.   Teach your family from the wisdom you have acquired over the years.  The sharing of this kind of knowledge is truly priceless for loved ones who haven’t had the experiences you have.

4.  “When writing the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.”
This quotation speaks to telling your life story in the way you want it to be told.   Make this opportunity happen – tell your story in the way only you can tell it.  Nobody knows you as well as you know yourself. Speak your own truth—because nobody else will.

5.  It’s not too late.
Many people I meet tell me how they’ve thought about interviewing their mother, father or great uncle and recording family stories.  They will say ‘What a great idea!’ However, a lack of time or skill often gets in the way of actually preserving those precious stories. And then the door of opportunity is closed permanently – a mother or father passes away. At that point, you realize how cherished these stories are, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  If I had a dime for every time someone said “If only I had met you a few months ago, before my father passed away”, I’d be a happy camper. But it’s not happy to hear these laments. So start today—it’s not too late, but one day will be.

6.  The nuts and bolts of personal history preservation
It’s not as difficult as you might think. Just start writing (or recording), and you’ll see that it’s actually a fun, educational, and often therapeutic process. If you get stumped, there are companies that can help you – whether you desire a video biography, audio records, or a written memoir.

Mark Twain once wrote, “There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility.  Inside the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy and a tragedy.”

After reading this quote you can see that I’m in really good company.  Be assured that in the years to come your family will be appreciative that you spent the time to recall and preserve your memories. You’ll be amazed to learn just how special your life has been.

Will you begin to tell your story today?