Or, How do I write a life story if I don’t know what a life story is?
Here’s a standard piece of advice every writer or writer-hopeful hears: “Read the kind of books you want to write.” Want to write romance? Read romance novels. Memoirs? Go stock up on Mary Karr, Cheryl Strayed, Frank McCourt.
But what about those of us who want to write life story books for clients? What books do we read?
Ahh, there’s the rub. Personal history isn’t personal just because it’s the history of an individual, it’s personal because it’s written and (most often) produced for a private audience of family, friends, and descendants. Produced, as in printed and bound, as opposed to published, which is, roughly speaking, a trumpet blast to the world announcing a book’s appearance. It’s a little like the difference between a matchmaker and a debutante ball. Published books are intended for a wide audience of strangers. Personal histories are not. (For a more thorough explanation of printing vs publishing, read Pat McNees’ wonderfully informative article here.)
So where do you go if you’re trying to figure out the medium, if you want to write the best life stories you can, but you don’t know exactly what that looks like?
Searching for examples of life story books
When I first started The Story Scribe, I was starving for information and advice, and especially examples of what these books looked like. Luckily, I met some wonderful colleagues who gave me some guidance. I still remember seeing a few of their finished books, and the itchy feeling I got in my hands, wanting to devour the books, to see what these personal historians had done and how they had done it. At an Association of Personal Historians conference, we were given the opportunity to pass around our books during one of the talks. I still remember how one fellow writer came to retrieve her gorgeous book that I’d been poring over for the past ten minutes. “They’re not meant to be read,” she whispered, “just glanced at.” Starved, I’d turned into a glutton. It was unseemly.
In a happy twist of irony, early in my career I did what I’ve always done when I can’t figure something out: I headed to the bookstore. And that’s when I discovered that every once in a while, personal history books will make their way into the inventory of a used bookstore. You can’t always know if they’re written by the storyteller, or if the narrator had the help of a personal historian, but either way, they fit the genre (and yes, I believe personal history books—and audio and video projects—constitute their own genre).
When I found my first one, I was thrilled.
Since then, I’ve found many. Some good, some less so. But even the not-so-good ones help, because knowing how not to do something will help you improve your own work.
A few have become my favorites, and I go back to them repeatedly to study how they’re put together, the language they use, their areas of focus, and so much more. Story structure and sentence formation are two of my favorite topics (sounds weird unless you’re like me, in which case you get it). When the questions rattling in my brain get the best of me, I walk over to my Half-Price Books and go hunting for more.
Other than doing LOTS of life story writing, parsing these books has been the best way for me to learn how to write personal history. In the next post, I’ll drill down into the details of how I use these sample books to build my skills.