Writing your life story doesn’t have to be dull drudgery – something you have to force yourself to do. I think many people are intimidated by the sheer volume of what they want to write about and are also harboring inner doubts about their qualifications and abilities to write their legacy.Read More
First, let me define personal history. Whereas the term “family history” is almost universally synonymous with genealogy, personal history (also known as life story) is, well, more personal. In a nutshell, it documents your own life experiences and beliefs rather than those of your ancestors. This can be accomplished through a variety of ways: books, letters, journals, scrapbooks, video, blogs, audio recordings, or any combination of these methods.
I’m a bibliophile, so I focus on the written forms of personal history. So much can be learned from others, and written materials enable that wisdom to be preserved and provide readers with a glimpse of the authors’ personalities. When people write correspondence, you can almost hear their voice dictating what you’re reading. In journals, people often write about what’s most important to them at that point in time. If they’re farmers, the weather might be cited often because it’s vital to their crops or if they’re parents, entries might consist of children’s antics. Decades later, these reflections might seem insignificant to a casual observer, but to a descendent, it’s a literal piece of his or her past.
Consider how powerful it would be to read a book that was written by your grandfather; one in which he reflected on all of his most impressive memories – both celebrations and heartaches – and discussed what he learned from them and how they helped shape his beliefs. What a family treasure that would be!
That is exactly what you can provide to your descendents through your own personal history.
Of course, it’s not just descendents who can benefit from your life story; it can become a valuable research document for your local area as well. You don’t live your life in a bubble; you interact with others and live in a community. Your reflections can therefore serve as an important representation of what life was like in your area during a particular time period. Future historians will be grateful for your insightful commentary.
Writing a life story isn’t difficult, but it does require time, organization, and techniques to ensure accuracy, readability, and overall quality. You can write it yourself or you can hire a professional, but the key is to begin now. Although stories live forever, the opportunity to document them is limited.
Have you already started your life story? Leave a comment and let me know how it’s going!
Unlike Christmas – when people generally focus on others – New Year’s tends to cause people to focus on themselves, particularly how they can improve their lives. Almost everyone, at some point, has attempted to accomplish at least one resolution: Lose weight. Stop smoking. Spend more time with family. The list is endless.
The finality of a year ending also tends to make people introspective. Year in and year out we reflect on our successes and accomplishments as well as our losses and failures, yet often we do not take cumulative stock of those experiences. This is the crux of personal history – the ability to dig below the surface of events in order to provide treasured insight. It’s an incredibly poignant way to ensure that your life lessons, belief systems, and values are passed on to future generations. All too frequently people say to me, “My life hasn’t been very interesting; there’s nothing to tell” or “I’m too young to write about my life” or “I’m not famous; no one would be interested in reading my story.” Nothing could be farther from the truth! “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.” Mark Twain Regardless of how old you are, how mundane your life may seem, or whether or not you feel worthy of such an endeavor, future generations will treasure your life story. Think back to your own ancestors. Wouldn’t you love to know what great-great-grandpa was thinking during his ocean voyage to Ellis Island? The secrets to your grandparents’ fifty-year marriage? The emotional, social and financial struggles your mom overcame as a single parent? What compelled your dad to adhere to his work ethic? The same types of questions will be asked about you by your future descendants unless you become proactive and document your experiences for them. So how do you start a personal history?
- Determine the method that suits you best. Do you prefer to write in journals? Type your thoughts in a word-processing software program? Record yourself speaking?
- Select a topic. Even if your goal is to create an all-encompassing life story, you have to narrow your focus in order to start. Is there a life-changing experience you can share? A historically significant event in which you participated? Values you wish to impart?
- Designate time. Carve out a block of time (whether it’s fifteen minutes, a half hour or two hours) and a frequency (once a day, twice a week, etc.). Actually add it to your calendar and try to stick to the schedule.
- Choose a location. Do you think better in a noisy, crowded place like a coffee shop? Or do you prefer to work in quiet isolation at home?
- Write or record. Take a deep breath and begin. Don’t worry about spelling and run-on sentences at this point; the important thing is to simply start writing (or typing or recording) about the topic you selected.
Want to learn more? Sign up to follow my blog for additional personal history tips, resources, and discussions of life experiences. I welcome your comments, and if there’s a particular aspect of personal history that you would like me to address, let me know!
Let’s face it: Life is chaotic and seems to move at warp speed. Every day we’re faced with myriad decisions, countless things to check off our to-do lists, work and family responsibilities … the list goes on. We fill our days to overflowing in a perpetual cycle. Rarely do we take the time to document our discoveries, joys, and challenges.
Although there are some who manage to carve out time to maintain a daily journal, and some who write about their travels, few sift through their volumes of notebooks to pinpoint strategic moments that helped to shape their lives and write about the lessons that they have learned. Yet this is what enables us to not only build our own character, but to also mentor and encourage those closest to us – even after we’re gone.
As a personal historian, I am privileged to gain access to the precious memories of my clients. One client in particular recognized the importance of documenting his story. He contacted me during the end stages of his battle with cancer. As with all of my clients, I met with him in the comfort of his home. As we sat in his office – he reclining in his La-Z-Boy and I seated in his leather armchair – he recounted his childhood in vivid detail. All I had to do was attentively listen and ask an occasional question for clarification. Remembering certain events and speaking of beloved people brought occasional tears to his eyes, and many times he would stop and say, “You know? I’ve never told my children about that.”
In fact, he had never told his children much at all about his life before their births. His adult life had revolved around providing for his family, and although he had been a very active father figure – coaching the children’s soccer teams and taking family vacations – he had never shared the lessons from his past. When he contacted me, he realized the importance of documenting his childhood and young adult life for his children and grandchildren. Unfortunately, he passed away before he was able to share all that he had intended to document. But his children are very grateful to now possess a book that contains a part of their father that they never knew before.
Don’t let the same tragedy happen to your personal history. Beginning your life story is as simple as selecting one major life event and writing about it. No matter how small or large the end result, your loved ones will cherish it.
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Dalene Bickel is an author, book coach and speaker who helps aspiring authors successfully write, develop and self-publish their books.