Thanks for joining me for this early episode of my new Life Story Coach podcast. As a working personal historian, I get the question all the time: "What is personal history?" My overall aim with the show is to create a space for conversation about the field of personal history and life story writing (and making videos and audio), both for people already working as personal historians, and for those of you who may be new to the field. Or maybe you’re just curious, and thinking about shifting into a new career as a full-time writer.
What is personal history anyhow?
Honestly, most people have never heard of it. Even now, after working for years in the field, I still get a blank look from people when they ask me what I do for a living and I tell them, “personal history.” It’s no wonder, because the term is so ambiguous.
Here’s my definition: Personal history is the craft and business of helping people record their life stories and family histories.
These legacy projects can take the form of a book, an audio recording, a video, even a website, but the type of life stories I create are books, printed and bound long-form narratives with some images. I write in first person, that is, in the storyteller’s voice. My goal is to capture not only their stories, but also their voice, to create a narrative that they would have written themselves, had they been a writer.
So, who are these storytellers, and why do they want to do a book or other legacy project about their life? And who are they doing it for?
I’ve been asked to speak to many groups and on the topic of what is personal history, and I’ve never yet addressed one where at least someone—usually more than one—had dabbled with writing their life stories. Let me be clear. These aren’t writers groups. These are groups of financial advisors and estate lawyers and businesspeople—people who don’t consider themselves writers, and don’t necessarily have the urge to write. What they do have the urge to do is preserve their memories, to pass along the stories of their lives to their kids and grandkids.
The desire to reminisce and reflect back on our life is a natural part of life, especially as we get older. If you who studied psychology or education, you’ll remember Erik Erikson’s developmental stages—the steps we each pass through in life, stages defined by specific needs relating to our sense of identity, like the baby’s need for nurturing from its parents or the middle-aged, empty-nester’s need for a sense of deeper meaning in life. In later years, the need revolves around reflection, looking back at our lives to find that sense of meaning, to make sense of this long ride of life. The yen for telling stories, of course, isn’t new; after all, we tell stories about ourselves and our experiences all throughout our life. But in the golden years this need sharpens and intensifies.
And it’s not just about making sense of our lives for ourselves. It's also about the desire to pass that accumulated wisdom on to the next generations. It’s a way to connect to younger generations, to say, “I get it, the world of my youth was different, let me tell you about ME, not as your parent or grandparent, but about me as a person.” Because all the great stuff an elder has experienced and learned, all the fun times and sadness and challenges and joys? Those are treasures, valuables in the truest sense to pass down to their heirs. Because those people they love today, and the generations who will follow, they will have fun times and sad times and challenging times too, and wouldn’t it be great if they knew how someone upstream in the stream of generations dealt with all that?
People don’t need the research to tell them what a gift it is to leave this is for their kids and grandkids, but it’s there anyhow, study after study that have identified traits like greater resiliency and stronger sense of self-identity among those who know their family history, those who know their roots. These people, the odd Joe or Mary who’s struggling to get stories down on paper, or who are just thinking about it and wishing for it, they know by instinct that it matters. It matters that their stories get recorded. What gets recorded gets remembered.
And that, my friends, is how we can help.
Because even the folks who think they might possibly some day maybe want to write a book, even most of them come to realize, no way! Writing is hard!! And takes serious, concentrated effort. And a set of skills way beyond what they were taught back in high school composition class. Not that someone has to be a professional writer to successfully wrangle their own story down onto the page, but most people either know they have no desire to write a book, or they find out pretty quickly that they don’ t want to do it. And yet, the desire to have their story recorded persists.
It’s a little like the days of old when a scribe would set up at the local market or maybe the train station, and for a fee, they would write the words someone wanted to send to someone in a letter. The words—the stories, the thoughts and reflections and memories—we all have those, but many, many people need help in getting them down. In recording them. And that’s why we have the field of personal history. To help people record their stories.
And the ones who really get it, the ones who understand the value their stories have, and the value of recording those stories, those are the ones who will invest their time and their money in creating a legacy project. And probably most of them right now don’t even know you and I are out there, ready to help them. And when they find out, just like I’ve seen over and over again in the past seven years that I’ve been doing this, they will heave a huge sigh of relief, because they know their stories will not be lost, that they don’t have to do it by themselves, that it will get done. The best part is that they have no idea how powerful the process will be for them to sit down with us and tell us their stories. But that’s a topic for a later episode.
Share your thoughts.
I hope this has answered your questions if you've wondered, what is personal history?, and, how does it benefit people? If you’re just beginning your personal history career, or if you’ve been at it for a while and have thoughts or inspiration to share, leave a comment in the show notes. And please take a moment to leave a review on iTunes or whichever platform you’re listening on. It’ll help others find us and keep the conversation going.
Thanks for listening, and until next time, happy writing.