Shownotes, episode 1
Listen here for the story of how I got my start in personal history.
Listen here for the story of how I got my start in personal history.
That was a piece of great advice from a colleague early in my career. And one that didn’t sink in until much later. It wasn’t until my body revolted (bursitis of the shoulders, aching tailbone), that I recognized an ongoing problem with my work process: I was setting deadlines for myself that were not only arbitrary, but were impossible to meet.
At first I couldn’t understand it. As a new personal historian, I was excited, motivated, hard-working—so why this feeling of drowning when I was doing work I supposedly loved?
One word: overwhelm.
Compared to the typical number of concurrent projects I work on today, my load at the beginning of my career wasn’t all that heavy. At one point I had three storytellers to interview and two books to write (one was the joint story of a long-married couple), plus another storyteller I met with weekly to improve my interviewing skills. No editing for the last one (although for some baffling reason I transcribed the interviews), but the material for the paid book projects was growing at an alarming rate. My goal was to “process” the transcripts from the interviews as I went along, making sure all of it got added to a cleanly written draft, in prose that would allow room for future additions but wouldn’t embarrass me when I delivered the first, preliminary copy to my client. From the outset, I knew I didn’t want to separate the interviewing phase from the writing phase. Letting the draft take shape starting with the earliest interviews would a) enable me to ask better questions in future interviews and b) keep me from feeling overwhelmed by a heap of material.
Good intentions, faulty logic.
After several months, the ratio of transcript pages to manuscript pages was roughly:
1 million transcript pages : 1/2 edited manuscript page
At least, that’s what it felt like. Yes, I’d been (sort of) conscientious about incorporating new material into the book drafts, but I couldn’t keep up, and the further behind I fell, the less I wanted to do it. Enter overwhelm.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that writing a book takes significantly longer than conducting interviews. With weekly interviews (minus a few blessed weeks when the storytellers went out of town), the mass of new material was piling up far more quickly than I could edit it into the drafts. And the more the unprocessed transcripts heaped up, the more I dreaded facing them.
My problem was that I hadn’t yet worked out the fact that I needed more time to write. I believed, wrongly, that I owed it to my clients to produce drafts at the same pace that we completed interviews.
No, I didn’t promise them a fresh draft after each and every interview. However, as part of my selling strategy, I did (and still do) tell my clients that they would see a new draft each time we completed several interviews. For trusting me to create a totally customized project at an hourly rate with no set project price, it’s the least I can do. They get to read the growing book, make corrections, and tell me when they’ve finished telling their tale. I get the benefit of a feedback loop and the ability to shift in tone or topic before getting too far into the writing. It’s a good model.
But what it took me years to learn is that, if I want what I write to be good, I need to honor the process of writing. And good writing has been my goal from the beginning: produce no schlock. It’d be easy enough to delete all the umm’s and ahh’s from a transcript, toss it into Scrivener, and call it a book, but that’s not what anyone wants to read and it’s not what I want to write. It takes hours of editing to shape someone’s spoken words into a narrative that’s interesting, compelling, and entertaining. Why would I expect to be able to do that in the six days between interviews?
I don’t. At least, I don’t now that I’ve thought it through. My newer and updated strategy is to keep the interviews going at a regular pace—a rhythm that benefits the storyteller—but take periodic breaks between clumps of interviews to dedicate purely to writing. When my writing has caught up to the interviews—when I’ve “processed” all the transcripts to date—I schedule the next interview and arrive with the new draft in hand.
Unless the storyteller has a specific deadline in mind—a birthday, a family celebration—I as the personal historian get to tell them how and when they will see a draft. And so should you. Always remember that you are the expert—that’s why they hired you, after all—and they will follow your lead. The process of writing a book for non-writers is vague and mysterious. Even more so for people entrusting you to write their story. Tell them you can do it in a week, and they won’t bat an eye. Tell them, more reasonably, that it will take many months, or even years, and they won’t bat an eye. My point is, you as the professional shape their expectations. Don’t overpromise on delivery dates. Think them through, give yourself enough time, and then make sure you deliver when you say you will.
Before I modified my thinking about deadlines, my joy at writing life stories had seriously diminished. I felt like I was letting down my clients by not delivering work quickly enough (even though none complained about the pace of my output) and I was letting down myself by not working hard enough (even though I was working as hard as I could). Luckily, some tweaks to my schedule—and my attitude—have turned that around. I have more projects going at once than I used to, and I can still sometimes feel overwhelmed. But having the confidence in myself to get things done, in a timely matter that makes sense, keeps those busy times from sucking the joy from my work.
As personal historians, we don’t have the advantage of daily conversations with colleagues. Lots of this stuff we have to figure out on our own, or luck into reading about online. I hope this post will help you circumnavigate the all-too-common problem of overwhelm in your own career. If you have other ways of dealing with it, please share! I love to hear comments from readers, and others do too.
Documentary filmmaker Zeva Oelbaum was in Kansas City yesterday for a screening of her new film, Letters from Baghdad. She answered questions afterward, including mine about how she and fellow filmmaker Sabine Krayenbühl created the structure to tell the life story of Gertrude Bell, the film’s subject. Her thoughtful response pointed out a few ways in which we as personal historians can steal from documentarians, and a few ways we should not.
This was the big takeaway for me. The film deals with the whole of Bell’s life, and Oelbaum said they knew from the start that they wanted to open with a scene showing Bell at the height of her powers: an intrepid adventuress and Arabist who helped redraw the map of the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Big stuff, indeed.
It’s a common tactic: Start a story at its climactic high point, then go back to its beginning and work your way chronologically to that point and beyond. In her book The Power of Memoir: How to Write Your Healing Story, Linda Joy Myers cites this strategy, noting that “where you start is extremely important, because people tend to stop reading a story if it doesn’t grab their attention right away.” Can we, and should we, use this device when structuring a life story for our client?
I’ve tried this on a couple of projects. In all fairness, maybe I chose the wrong climactic scene to begin with; at any rate, it didn’t work either time.
One was about a man who had died decades earlier, and the family wanted a book based on interviews with friends, family, and colleagues. The focus was on the man’s career (the success of which had provided his grandchildren, young people who never had the chance to know him, a materially comfortable lifestyle), and I thought starting with a highlight from his career would make a good opener. But there was little conflict in the story of how he built his company, so as a dramatic device, the opener flopped.
In the other instance, the storyteller experienced and overcame a great deal of conflict in his life, and I felt like the opening scene/flash-backward worked well. He disagreed. In his mind, his book needed to proceed just as his life had, starting with a “I was born in...” (Luckily, I convinced him that we could change it up just a little, and we began with an interesting origin story about his grandparents).
This brings up a few things to keep in mind when we talk about structure and story arc for life story projects.
The books we write are typically intended for a narrow audience of family and descendants. Readers hungry to know details that wouldn’t interest the wider public. They’re not looking for entertainment as much as they are the roots of their own identity. Keeping the structure simple by hewing to a straightforward chronology may serve best.
It takes more time to write a story out of chronological order. Time to play with scenes, find the best to highlight, weave them together and build transitions. The more time it takes, the more it’s going to cost your client. Make sure you’re giving them what they want for the money they’re spending, and not trying to satisfy your own creative impulses.
In the end, as I remind them often (and you should, too), it’s my storyteller’s story, not mine. My job is to bear witness to their memories and write them in a way they would do if they were a writer. Yes, I bring my knowledge of creative writing to the task. But their vision of the book takes precedence. Always.
If time and budget permit, go ahead and try changing up the routine chronology. But before you do, make sure you’re writing chops are up to the creative task, and that your client is open to the idea. Otherwise, stick to the tried-and-true structure of telling the story the way it happened in real life.
Oelbaum explained that for Letters to Baghdad, she and Krayenbühl created the narrative first, then searched for the archival material to bring that narrative to life. They restricted themselves to primary source material—letters, documents, archival film footage. Tilda Swinton narrated much of the film, speaking as Gertrude Bell in words taken directly from the copious collection of letters Bell left behind. Characters from Bell’s life are portrayed by actors who likewise are given dialogue pulled directly from source materials. In other words, the filmmakers did just what we do: they let the storytellers tell their own story, without any invention on their part. Interpretation, yes. Invention, no.
While many of our storytellers won’t have been big players in the public arena like Bell, we can give their stories a richer context by searching out archival materials. These can be of two sorts:
Primary source material that pertains specifically to the storyteller
Most people will think of the photos they want to add to their book, but make sure to ask them if there are any old documents such as letters, journals, diaries, or anything else penned by them or their family or friends.
Material that pertains to the historic era
The storyteller doesn’t have images or documents? Try searching for them based on the time period in question. I’ve included photos and sidebars on everything from President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats to the history of marbles (much more interesting than you might think!). Remember, you’re building a portrait of a person, and that includes bringing to life the setting in which they lived. Not all of the words of their story have to come directly from their lips. Just make sure to ask if the new material fits with their perceptions and memories. If not, strike it.
The filmmakers of Letters from Baghdad included portrayals of Bell’s famous acquaintances, people like Lawrence of Arabia. But even if your storyteller didn’t rub elbows with the famous or the infamous, you’d be wise to adopt the documentary’s practice of including secondary characters in the story. Even having the storyteller recount anecdotes about the people in their life will give more depth to the tale. Better yet is if the anecdotes “rub” in some way against what the storyteller has told or believes. Are there letters written to the storyteller from others? Is there anything that contradicts the storyteller’s view of things? Multiple viewpoints can offer counterpoints that capture layers the storyteller isn’t even aware of.
We live in a golden age of storytelling. Some of it can be adapted to our uses, and some not. The next time you sit down to a good documentary, reserve some of your brainpower for analyzing the elements used to tell the story. Can you implement them in your personal history projects? If you have ideas on how to do so, share them in the comments or drop me an email. I’d love to hear from you.
Starting a new business endeavor, especially one we're excited about, comes with a hidden risk. Hijacked by our eagerness to learn everything we can, we turn into industrial-strength vacuum cleaners, sucking up everything Google throws our way. We read the experts, maybe even attend some conferences. But unless we watch out, we may find ourselves falling into the all-too-common trap of over-preparing, and its seductive sidekick, over-learning.
I was reminded of this recently when I geared up to launch my new Life Story Coach podcast. Diving in to learn a new skill is one of my favorite things, and podcasting proved to be a nut I couldn't stop trying to crack. I wanted to learn everything there was to know, and learn it NOW.
Podcasting had everything I loved. Not only the opportunity to ask guests everything I'm curious about (hopefully the same things you'll be curious about, too!), but also the dive into the nitty-gritty of recording, editing sound files, playing with my new mic...yeah, it brought out the nerdy kid in me. The nerdy kid who likes technology almost as much as she enjoys taking notes, and hunting down new resources, and looking for just one more expert's tips on tagging MP3s. I was a goner.
After countless hours (because counting them would have made me feel guilty) of research, I hit it: the Wall of Overwhelm. It's when you cross that skinny-as-a-hair, super-fine line between absorbing new information and feeling like you're drowning in it. When suddenly the caffeine and adrenaline evaporate and you just want to go take a nap. Or eat cookies. Or do anything to distract your poor, over-burdened brain from confronting just one more Piece of Excellent Advice.
I should have recognized the signs sooner. It wasn't much different for me when I was first sticking my toe in the water with personal history. Back then I gathered information, I talked to working personal historians, I read books on how it was done.
All without actually doing any personal history.
It wasn't until circumstances—a move to a new city, divorce—kicked in me the pants that I finally got my business up and running.
A few months into it, I attended a large conference put on by the (sadly, now defunct) Association of Personal Historians. It was electrifying. I spent the better part of a week surrounded by professionals in my new field, amazing women and men who were willing to teach the skills it had taken them years to learn. I went home with a heaping sackful of handouts and my own scribbled notes—and with the sterling intention of transcribing this crazy mass of gold into an orderly assemblage that would guide me to success as a PH'er.
I found that sack the other day when I was cleaning out my attic. It's still full of those same papers.
What happened? It wasn't laziness that kept me from following through with my good intentions, but its opposite: I was working too hard. I had paying clients relying on me to keep their projects moving forward. I couldn't stop to sift through notes on how someone else did things, I had to plow forward and get on with doing those things myself.
Did I know everything I needed to know? Not even close. I was still at the start of my new career, but I had already accumulated enough knowledge to at least get me out of the gate. Getting it done was more important than getting it perfect.
Procrastination dressed up as "research" or "learning" is still procrastination. Do I think we need to spend time learning a craft before we jump in? Absolutely. What we shouldn't do is let that learning time replace the doing time.
If you're just starting out as a life story writer, or learning a new skill in any field, I hope these tips will help you skirt the trap of over-preparing and over-learning.
Sure, at the beginning it's natural to spend all your time studying up on your new venture. But gradually your time should shift from the input of information to output of work (or practice work). Know when it's time to put away the notebook and close down the browser, and go take active steps to get things rolling.
Professor Gerard Puccio got it right when he said, "Learning without application achieves the same end as ignorance." By all means, read the best advice you can find about conducting a good interview with your new client, but don't just sit there with highlighter in hand: go out and interview someone. The same holds true for all the new skills you'll need to (gradually) master. Put those skills into practice now. Not only will you improve more quickly, you'll learn nuances not covered by the experts.
For me, it's the nearly unconquerable urge to nap. For you, it might be a trip to Facebook-land. Whatever the impulse, pay attention to when your brain is seeking out a distraction.
By the way, this isn't something you'll only experience in the information-inhalation stage; you'll likely feel the need for frequent breaks from writing and editing even after you start working on client projects. You wouldn't expect your muscles to make it through a marathon without first building stamina through shorter sprints. The same goes for mind muscles. Build up your stamina no matter which phase you're in.
We've probably all heard the term "analysis-paralysis." Sure, there are some people who jump to action without a thought about all the things they don't know how to do. I'm guessing none of them are writers.
This warning is especially important for the perfectionists among us. Don't let a desire for mastery keep you from getting out there and doing. You're going to encounter moments of feeling lost no matter how much time time you take to prepare and to learn. It's part of life. And especially in this field, where every project you work on is different from the one that came before. Be open to learning new things, but don't be afraid if that learning comes mid-stream, rather than before you jump into the water. And that brings us to the most important point, namely...
Get some momentum going with practice or paid projects; the forward motion will carry you along and make it easier to turn in a new direction when necessary. And when you're working on custom legacy projects, that can be often. No two projects are alike, and no two clients are alike. Each person will come with a different set of expectations and wishes, and most will know very little about personal history or how it works. Yes, come to the project prepared, but mostly, be prepared to adapt.
I hope these tips help as you move forward in your creative career. I'd love to hear how you've dealt with any of these or other challenges you've faced. Feel free to share in the comments, or drop me a line with the contact information below. Until next time, happy writing!