Part 1 of our interview with Janet Kirkman
Today's episode is part 1 (part 2 is here) of our interview with Janet Kirkman, a 15-year veteran or life story writing. She talks to us about writing life stories, clients who self-publish, teaching memoir classes based on Guided Autobiography, and how she learned to create legacy letters with Barry Baines.
We had some technical difficulties with the sound and lost the first part of the conversation. The TIME Magazine article Janet refers to was part of a publicity campaign spearheaded by fellow life story writer Lettice Stuart, a founding member of the now-defunct Association of Personal Historians. According to Pat McNees on her amazing writersandeditors.com site, "It was Lettice who pushed reporters to write articles about APH, and whose friend at the Wall Street Journal wrote the first major media article about APH. Then several national publications got on the bandwagon and published stories – Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, the LA Times, Time Magazine, and many more."
The interview with Janet was packed with so much good information (and inspiration!) that I split it into two parts. Click here to listen to Part 2.
Links and stuff:
To reach Janet, email her at email@example.com
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Now go out and save someone's story.
Amy: 00:00 Tell us a little bit more about your background and what led you to, to the place that you are now, because I know that you've had other careers which just for the listeners that happens to be probably the norm rather than the exception for people to have careers and then come into this as a second or a third career.
Janet: That's exactly right. I started teaching. I was a speech pathologist for some years and I worked with the public schools with a little critters and then at that time you can look up on the salary schedule and see what you could make in 20 years. And it was not very much money. Oh boy. That was all published. Oh yes. And being an ambitious soul. Um, I left there and went into the business world and I was in pharmaceutical sales for quite some time. And uh, I was in management at the time and then I went to work for a family owned company and I was into, in industrial sales for 17 years after that.
Janet: 01:00 And uh, that's when I was in sales and marketing management and I was a senior manager. And so forth and so as a life does sometimes causes you to take a look at your life and say, this isn't working. Um, my mother was sick at the, at the time and uh, I was traveling all over God's green earth and that just wasn't working so much. Traveling for work, you mean? Yes. Yeah. And so I left that job. I had never quit a job in my life. And then, um, I had always written for business purposes, uh, articles for magazines and trade publications and so forth. And so my passion was writing and I didn't really know that at the time. So I flipped around, uh, you know, checked out a few things and nothing felt quite right of different types of writing. You mean, I know different careers after that because I realized I was a working girl.
Janet: 02:00 And um, so at that time, that's when I discovered that a piece in Time magazine and it was one of those light bulb moments. Uh, I read it and it was like, okay, that's it, that's what I want to do. And so I called Lettice and as you said, she was very, very gracious. She had written kind of a how to manual or something that I think I got. And um, so I, that's how I got started and that was 15 plus years ago. And I'm, isn't it funny how those things appear right when we need them? Oh yes. If anyone could have told me that would happen that way I would have said, oh my. I um, received my first paying job as a personal historian through another person who no longer, uh, was active in the group and uh, she had talked to this gentleman and um, so he ended up being my first, my first project.
Amy: It seems like I've talked to other people where things just sort of fall in their laps, you. My biggest client to date or my biggest project that I worked on to date was, um, he found me because I literally left a, a business card in a coffee shop and, and it does seem like, you know, you know, there's some serendipity there, but I also feel like there are not very many people who do what we do. And I think the need far outstrips the, you know, the, this, the demand is there, the supply, you know, the suppliers, people like us. I don't think there's that many of us. Um, and so I, you know, I think that definitely has had its impact on at least how I've gotten clients and I imagine how you have to. Yes, definitely. Yeah. So, um, in that, you know, that goes back to also this feeling, you know, you and I are in the same market, you know, we're, we're both in the Kansas City area.
We both do life story books. So in any other field I think we would be considered competitors and I mean technically I guess we are competitors, but I feel like we're much more colleagues and you know, yes, most definitely.
Janet: Most definitely. And that's really a breath of fresh air compared to other industries where I have worked where it's just very concerned. Um, I know we've talked about this, it's been your experience too that everyone in that group just welcome you with open arms. You could ask them anything, they will tell you they're just, they couldn't be any more open. Right. And these are other personal historians as opposed to other professions or professional organizations were exactly right.
Amy: Yeah. That's interesting. I wanted to talk. Well, first of all I wanted to give you a thank you and I'm, I'm doing this publicly, but back in my very early days of doing this, you know, I was trying to, I had a part time job on the side, um, I was trying to make a go of this as a career and this is something for people who are just getting into this, you know, you can, you don't have to only take your ideal life story project.
Amy: 05:03 You can look around, there are other ways of getting in and learning. And one of the things that you did for me at the very beginning was you gave me some transcription work and that was, it was great because it was some money in my pocket, but it was also wonderful because I got to hear you do interviews with people and that's not something that we're privy to very often. So you know, you're, you're, you're a professional, you know what you're doing. And so for me as a newbie to be able to listen to somebody who knew what she was doing, that was beautiful.
Janet: Oh great. It was, I'm glad you felt that way. That works out well for both of us.
Amy: It did, it did. So that's something to keep in mind for listeners to keep in mind that there's, there's ways of collaborating with people who are more experienced and you know, you'll earn some money, but you'll also earn a lot of, um, just from their experience, it's a win win situation for everybody because there are people who do live story writing or other kinds of personal history who need to farm out some of the work.
Amy: 06:06 Um, and so they contract other people, whether it's for writing, collaboration, for doing, editing, for doing transcription work and anything that you can get into that's going to open that world to you and give you a little bit of knowledge and experience is going to be helpful if you're starting out.
Janet: 06:26 I know when I first started I did everything myself and that was a great learning tool for me because unless you've been there, done that, you don't understand what's all involved. Like if somebody says transcriptions can take four and a half hours for each hour, either why? Right. I can type faster than that. I can do better than that or whatever. Um, but once you've actually worn those hats yourself, then you know exactly what's, what's all involved and you have more respect for people that you might work with on the outside, right? For their expertise.
Amy: 07:01 Can you tell people what kinds of work you might now contract out to other people? Like what parts of the process would you, uh, do you sometimes not do yourself, but you have other people do now?
Janet: 07:13 Transcriptions. That's just a very labor intensive part of the, of the job. I have contracted out the, the, uh, design aspects of it in the marketing has been handled by a couple of clients themselves after they wanted to be more public about what they had written.
Amy: 07:35 Talk a little bit about that because most of the books that I do, and I think that in general, for personal historians, the vast majority are privately published and they're just intended for family and friends. But you've had a little bit of a different experience.
Janet: 07:49 I have and that's been an interesting, been to my, to my work. One project was a pilot who had flown with all these mega famous people, so he had these incredibly entertaining stories about them, so he decided to publish that on his own and he marketed that on his own and he's a well connected person. And so that was successful.
Amy: 08:15 So he self published. It wasn't, he didn't go through a, one of the big publishing houses. He actually self published. Right. And he was able to, to sell copies of it?
Janet: 08:26 Yes he did. But like I say, only because he was well connected in his community. Um, another gentleman that I worked with a in that project. Let me back up a second. I did the, uh, interviews and editing on that particular project and wrote part of the narrative and some of the other aspects were handled by other people. Um, for the other project that I had with, it was a longterm project. I did interviews with lots of people for an author and a, that was an eyeopening experience, is very, very, uh, intense because people were talking about life experiences that they shared with us. And then he went on to self publish that and market that on his own. So he has a website that promotes it and the whole nine yards. Yeah.
Amy: 09:19 And was that the book that it started because there was a murder? Yes. Okay. And can you, I don't know how much you're at liberty to talk about that, but if you are, can you, can you tell people, because that's what I'd like to get across is that, you know, most people that will contact you as a personal historian want to talk about their own life or they want to hire you to do their parents' story. That's been my experience. And very often it is, it's fairly straightforward. They tell you about their childhood, they tell you about, um, you know, their young adult years, they may go all the way through their adulthood, but it's for a particular audience of very small audience and it's to pass on their personal memories. But then we get a little outside of that box and we get people who are interested in doing books for other reasons. There's other motivations and maybe it's not just their own story, but there's obviously very big overlap with, you know, with life story writing because, you know, it's all life stories, right? Yes. So can you talk a little bit about the one where there was a murder and that set off a chain of events that ended up in these books that you've collaborated on?
Janet: 10:36 First of all, this, a gentleman was referred to me by, um, a person who hired me to write his mother's story. So that's how that project came into being. And anyway, so the genesis of it was in there. He had a personal experience, uh, with a murderer. And uh, it was a life changing a light bulb moment for him. He thought that he could use that to propel stories about other people who have gone through similar circumstances and had a hopeful message. And so that's how that came to be. But all that being said, um, those projects, like you said, are kind of an anomaly. The meat and potatoes, I guess I would say, of our work has been the family histories. And so if for someone would come to me and say, you know, that they would want to write a best seller and thought, you know, the whole, the whole thing, I would gently guide them to a more realistic stance. This murderer series that I was talking about, he spent thousands and thousands of dollars promoting, uh, and uh, enlisted several other experts along the way. So it was a very, very expensive a process. The other gentleman, the pilot that I referred to that was less expensive, but he had kind of a built in audience. So that was more of a, a, a boutique kind of a project for him.
Amy: 12:05 Right. And so he is, is he actually selling his book then? So he's recouping some of the costs to have help with producing it. Well, he wouldn't
: 12:16 need to, to sell thousands to recover the cost. So that Kinda gives you an idea of where that falls within that, right. That realm, right?
Amy: 12:27 I've, you know, I have a couple of ongoing projects right now where the, the clients approached me with something other, something else in mind besides a family or a life history. And I think that as long as you're very clear, which is what I've done, you know, I, I'm, I don't, I don't get into publishing, I don't get into book marketing and as long as you're very clear, you know, we can all right the kinds of stories that they want and if they want to make the investment, which very many people do, you know, for them it is a very worthy investment to pursue commercial publication. I don't see that there's anything wrong with us writing a story. So, you know, taking our strengths and helping them bring that to fruition and um, you know, whether it actually works or not, um, that it's okay as long as they understand the risks.
Janet: 13:25 I agree. I think, you know, my take has always been to get the story and help people find a way to tell their stories, whatever avenue that might take. So yeah, you're exactly right. And I think you need to be open to things and look outside the box. One
Amy: 13:43 of the things that I did at the very beginning was I basically told people, you know, when they were coming to me interested in a project and these projects can be very expensive. I mean by definition they are expensive because they are so labor intensive, you know, so for um, one hour of interview, like you mentioned, there's going to be probably four hours plus of transcription work and then the editing is, there's a massive amount of time that goes into editing. Um, and that's when I sit down with people for the initial cells meeting, I want to make that very clear to them. There's so much time, you know, that it's, it ends up being pretty much for me, it probably 85, 90 percent of the time is spent in front of the computer. So that's working with the material and it's um, you know, it depends on which part of the project you're on. If you're getting closer to the end, then you have to make sure that everything is weaving together in the proper places. And the flow is there, you know, at the beginning it's just getting big chunks of information where they belong. So how do you, because is the pretty much the first question that people ask you, how much does this cost? How do you address that?
Janet: 14:58 Well, that's the $64,000 question I think. And the variables that you mentioned are important to line out. When I sit down with someone I like to find out what, what they have in mind a because it might be just a snippet of their lives, it might be the entire chronology. So anywhere along the way, you know there's a budget that they may or may not have in mind. So a lot of people that I work with have no clue what am I cost. And so I, I usually give them a range. It can be anywhere from 500 to $5,000 on up. It just depends on the scope of the project and what all. What I would do for them is to line up every single thing that total includes so that they feel comfortable moving forward.
Amy: 15:50 And then do you do that when you're sitting talking to them or do you have it on paper that you give to them? So when you're saying that you're lining it out, how, what does that look like?
Janet: 16:01 Um, usually that's just a verbal agreement. A lot of people work with contracts. I have not done that. Um, I don't know. The jury's still out for me on that. I had been burned a couple of times, but that's kind of the nature of the beast when you're working with the public, in my opinion.
Amy: 16:19 And I'm not sure that having a contract would have helped in that sentence anyhow.
Janet: 16:24 Yes, exactly. Exactly. Because once you get into someone's personal life, it's very, very a personal. It goes without saying, but they're telling you some things that they may not have shared with anyone else. And so there's a cathartic aspect of it for a lot of people. And I have found in the long run the cost is not the major factor. What they want to do is to accomplish a, either leaving a legacy or setting the record straight on something or telling their own version of events. So, um, that being said, you know, I just tell them, you know, okay, we will arrive at a budget together. Let's say that it's several thousand dollars and I will tell you if we're bumping up into that, that figure and then you can decide how you want to proceed past there. And do you find that most people want to continue? Oh yes. After they've, um, I think after the first session when they get an idea that is just basically a conversation, uh, I don't really come in with a list of pointed questions and you're talking about when you do the. So once they've experienced that first interview, I can't think of anyone that hasn't wanted to proceed after that.
Amy: 17:57 That's an interesting point because, you know, I think there's two schools of thought. Either you're very upfront about, um, uh, uh, a project price, you know, so you work out or it, you know, more often a range. And, you know, I think some people say you should err on the higher side just to weed out people who think that, oh yeah, I'm going to get a book for, you know, a few hundred bucks. Right. Which we all know is not possible. You can do some other projects for that, but not, you can't get a full book for that. But what you're saying is that, you know, maybe we don't need to approach it that way. Maybe the sticker shock would turn them on, turn them off before they even get to the point of realizing what a profound process this is to sit down and talk to somebody about your life.
Janet: 18:50 Yes, I think so. I mean it's just such a sensitive dynamic when you're asking them these questions. And like I said, they may be talking about some things they've never talked about before. And so once you have that level of trust, there needs to be that level of trust on both sides obviously. Uh, and then once you've established that, I think it's easy to go forward. I have found that.
Amy: 19:11 Well, let's switch gears a little bit. You have done some memoir writing classes, some community memoir writing classes. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Janet: 19:19 Yes. That's been a very for me. I trained with a woman named Anita Reyes and she studied with James Birren, who's the father of the guided autobiography movements. He has since passed away. So I studied with Anita and uh, that was a very eyeopening class because, uh, the questions that, that had been gathered center around different themes. And so, uh, the, in fact in my next a memoir book, I'm going to use that as a springboard and instead of the way that I usually worked in the past. But anyway, I have taught these classes several times and it's just incredible. The feedback that you received.
Amy: 20:11 So you, you took it guided autobiography class from Anita Reyes and now you're, you're implementing that in the classes that you're teaching. So she taught you how to teach these classes, right?
Janet: 20:26 I'm teaching the classes and it's based on all the James Birren principles and, and, uh, work that we did in her class. And how is that different from say, just a typical memoir, memoir writing class? It's much more a, it's much deeper and what happens is that you write two pages a on a theme each week and then you share that with the group and the sharing aspect of it is what people enjoy the most because a, it's kind of like, you know what we do, like you mentioned you spent 85 percent of your time in front of a PC. Well this is very different than that because of the dynamics, the interaction of people. They will hear something that you've written that you've read and it's like they say, oh, I never thought of it that way. Or Oh, that's an interesting take and so forth.
Janet: 21:21 And the people in the group tend to be very supportive of others because they know firsthand how difficult it is to address some of those pointed questions. So that's, that's just way cool. I love it. Yeah. How long did the classes run and what is the end goal or is there an end goal like for them to have a certain number of pages or, or get them a good running start on doing their whole memoir themselves? Yeah, well each, um, there are five sessions typically and they write two pages or 1500 words or whatever on each topic and some people want to continue and work on their own. Uh, I have found though that people, once people get started, unless they have a class format, it's just like everything else, you know, we mean to do it. Yeah, we were going to do it. We are definitely going to put that on our list of things to do and it just doesn't happen.
Janet: 22:20 And so some people have um, taken off and written on their own, continue to. But by and large it just stops there. And so what I, what I have done is I had introduced a guided drawing biography, a level two. And so we continue with that same core group and start another series of five. And do any of these people ever turn into clients for you where they ask you to write their life story? They haven't yet. And I have learned that that's kind of the way that goes. What do you mean that, that, that they don't turn into paying clients in that, in that respect? Um, at first I was very hopeful and I thought, well, if I just do this, I'll get a big project, whatever. But I learned to kind of backup and enjoy the process and just relax into whatever format it takes.
Janet: 23:13 And so with a two groups that I have, we still get together this two years ago. We still get together once a month and we have a topic that we write on and this is after a couple of years. Yes. Well Huh. And so these, uh, these women will say, you know, I've never shared the things that I have with this group and is just, it's an incredible. This, the, the gift that people give us. Oh, exactly, exactly. It's, it's a real privilege to hear their stories and um, there's a lot of trust involved. And just the satisfaction is just through the roof. Well, and I imagine even if these, you know, like you said, you went into it thinking this might be a way of, of, you know, building up your roster of clients, even though that hasn't happened, I'm guessing that there are skills that you're learning which avenues to follow that are, can be very meaningful for people when they're talking about their life.
Amy: 24:12 So I'm guessing that you're learning things that you can then apply to your paid projects.
Janet: Sure, sure. Um, but what I mostly learn is facilitating. That's I love south painting. It's one of my passions I've discovered and I think that I'm good at it. I'm good at drawing people out, getting people to interact with one another. And so that's just tons of fun.
Amy: It's probably partly your voice. You have such a good voice.
Janet: Oh, well thank you.
Amy: It's, it's such a gentle voice, let's say safe haven voice. So, um, these classes they are, do you earn any money teaching them or are they fried? Yeah. And how did you, uh, did you go to a [inaudible] you teach them? I think at a community center, is that correct?
Janet: Uh, yeah. I've taught in several different places.
Amy: And then how do, how does that work just logistically, do you go to the community center and say, Hey, I have an idea for a class I want to teach, can you host it?
Janet: 25:14 And sometimes it can be difficult because the location might charge you like half of the enrollment fee for per person or whatever. And so, you know, there's that to consider. So if you can find a venue that's free that you don't have to pay for a library would be an excellent place. Um, then that would be the way to go.
Amy: And then does that hosting organization publicize it or do you have ways of publicizing it yourself? They do. Typically they have newsletters, our website and all that. So that's part of sort of done for you to a degree.
Amy: And do you do any on your end?
Janet: I haven't much but you haven't needed to.
Amy: It sounds like, you know, the people come, right?
Janet: They do.
Amy: And how do you decide how much to?
Janet: Well, I just set a fee based on partly on what Anita talks about in her series and I just came up with a figure that I thought made sense and it hasn't been any issue at all.
Amy: 26:22 And do you know if Anita is still teaching these classes?
Janet: She is.
Amy: Okay. Well then I'll put the link in the show notes too.
Janet: She's, she's excellent. I, I really have a lot of respect for her as an online class that you should have. Let's back up and talk about legacy. I trained with Barry Baines years ago in legacy writing and, and he's the one that specializes in things like ethical wills. Yes. Yes. Uh Huh. I don't call them ethical worlds because people don't, are not comfortable with that. I call them legacy letters typically. And so I've taught several classes in that venue, youtube and that's been very, very satisfying. Um, people who talk about, you know, what they intended to do with their life, regrets that they might have along the way, lessons learned in life, you know, some deep, deep subjects.
Janet: 27:19 And so, uh, that's been, that's been really, really cool too. So that's another venue that people could explore for teaching or for actually doing it for the people, uh, both. It's a workshop, like three parts. The first part where you're doing an educational model, talk about things like who did you learn the most from in your life, who had the most influence, that kind of thing, and are exercises in and along the way. And then, uh, so it's very, uh, it's not a lecture format, it's a participatory kind of thing. And then at the end they are to write their own legacy letters and share those with the group. And so the class typically meets over three different.
Janet: 28:14 There are exercises along the way. One is if you could ask an ancestor a, some questions that you always wanted to never have, what would they be? You know, you think there's always that person that he had some, maybe some unfinished business with a or whatever. So that's really, really neat. So that's one. If it's a small group, you know, you can have everyone involved. If it's a larger group, you can break it into small groups where they can share and then you can have somebody kind of be the spokesmodel for that particular group and share with the rest one.
Amy: 29:29 I know a lot of wealth managers, so you know, lawyers who do estate planning and people who deal with the high net worth families. That is one of the buzzwords now is, you know, the whole, the ethical wills and legacy projects because they're trying to find a way to connect, um, you know, not just have their relationships be transactional, but actually relational with the families that they're serving. And also as, as part of that, like a, um, an added bonus is that instead of just delivering the paperwork, um, you know, for how they're going to pass on their money, that they're delivering something above and beyond that because there's this whole phenomenon of shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves. So within three generations, the family wealth, you know, that was started by the matriarch and the patriarch, you know, who, who created this family business usually by the grandchildren's generation that has been, that has completely dissipates in 70 percent of the cases. So now in the wealth management industry, they're trying to bring in things that are more than just let us help you with the taxes and let us help you with the estate planning.
Janet: Exactly, we talk about, um, tangibles versus intangibles. And that's a, I think there will be more. It's more of a need for that as people go forward, especially as the financial marketplace gets more crowded. Uh, it's a way for financial planners to differentiate themselves and bring somebody in a separately to address those issues.