Mining for Memories: A Guide to Writing Your Life Story

By Diane Nelson December 15, 2011 01:33

Don’t you wish you had a dollar for every time you remembered a story from your past and said, “I should write that down”?

Me, too. If we did, we’d have lots of money to leave our children. But if we never took time to capture our stories, money or no money, our children would still be left the poorer.

Lou Allie Heath, 101, spent decades chronicling her 'ordinary country girl's life.'

“Those stories are so precious,” says Kelly Williams, who recently helped his mother, Bertha Walsh of Angels Camp, complete her memoir. In “Fruit Tramps,” Walsh, 93, details her family’s journey into and across California in the 1930s.

“When I read the stories Mom wrote, I can hear her talking and it always makes me smile,” Williams says from his home in Tennessee, where he is public relations manager for country music singer Mark Chesnutt. “Mom’s still around, and the grandkids can go to Granny’s and get a cookie and hear her stories. But that won’t always be the case. Now, by reading her memoir, kids for generations to come will have the chance to know my mother, to know us all.”

Family and individual histories also help future generations better know themselves, says Deanna Dechaine-Maurer of Sonora, personal historian and executive director of the Central Sierra Arts Council.

“Children who know stories about relatives who came before them show higher levels of emotional well-being,” says Dechaine-Maurer, citing research from Emory University.

It works likes this: When you’re 13 or so, you believe no one understands you – especially your parents. These are the same people whose stories you will treasure 40 years down the road, but for now, you feel you must have been switched at birth.

Then you hear the stories. Maybe you learn your great-grandfather played saxophone for a military band during World War II, and wonder if that’s where you got your love of music. Your great-grandmother was fascinated with trains. Could that be where you got your wanderlust?

“Family stories provide a sense of identity and help children understand who they are in the world,” Dechaine-Maurer says.

What’s more, storytelling is good for the storyteller.

“It exercises the memory and provides time to reflect on questions your subject might not have thought about before,” says Dechaine-Maurer.

Even when we can’t remember what we did yesterday, our brains can produce amazing details from our long-ago past, informing and inspiring others. Indeed, the rewards of writing or recording our personal or family history are many. So why don’t more of us take these projects on?

“For a lot of people, it’s hard to know where to start,” says Dechaine-Maurer. “It can seem like such a daunting task, to sit down and write the story of your life.”

That’s true, so let’s break it down into manageable bits. By capturing your story step by step, it can be quite easy, like dropping coins in a jar.

Where to begin?

Start with what you already have: Boxes of old family photos. Pages of genealogical research. A mind full of memories.

To build a family or personal history, you need this raw material – photos, memories, stories. You’ll also need a few good sources, another reason not to delay: If you wait too long to get started, many of those sources may have already died.

I had been saying for decades that I would write our family history, ever since I spent four weeks living with my then-92-year-old grandfather in San Leandro right after I graduated from college. Grampa had all his faculties intact, but he needed someone to help cook and keep an eye on him for a month while my aunt and uncle were away.

Stewing prunes and watching Lawrence Welk with Gramps was not high on my list of post-college plans, but as it turned out, I learned more history in those four weeks than in four years at college. I heard firsthand accounts of World War I (Grampa fought with the Canadian forces) and I realized what it was like to witness the miracle of flight (Grampa was a young man when the first plane flew.) As he talked, I took notes on paper place mats from the Hickory Pit, where we often ate because Grampa liked the coffee.

When my stint was over, I had a wad of place mats and a new perspective on history and the world. I swore I would go back and tape-record Grampa telling his stories, but I never did. He died four years later.

Fast-forward 30 years. My children were grown and my father had passed away. I had helped a half-dozen people write their own personal histories, yet never found time to sit down and write my own. It’s now or never, I said, and I dug around in my closet to find what would become the seed of my own family history: Those Hickory Pit place mats.

Basic equipment

A pen and a notebook are a fine place to start, or even finish. But you can also buy a cassette or digital voice recorder for less than $40 and tell your stories to it. Blending the two mediums – written and audio – is often a good idea. Example: Some 10 years ago, Bertha Walsh began chronicling her memories in a notebook.

“Sometimes I’d remember a story just as I was drifting off to sleep, and I’d get up and jot it down,” she says. “I wanted to be sure I captured those stories before they left me.”

Last year, as son Kelly Williams gathered those stories, he wanted a few more details. He asked follow-up questions, both in letters and on the phone, and suggested that his mom record her answers.

“She did it all herself,” Williams says. “She would put in the cassette, press record and off she would go.”

Williams and Walsh learned a few things – like don’t hold the microphone too close when you talk or the words get garbled. But for the most part, it worked like a dream.

Pen and paper worked fine for retired sales executive Ron Cole, 80, of Twain Harte. He wrote his personal history longhand in six months in 2002 while he and his wife, Ethel, sailed around Washington’s San Juan Islands, Victoria, B.C. and beyond. And as Ron wrote his memories – four or five pages a day – Ethel transcribed them on her laptop computer and printed them for Ron to proofread.

“It wasn’t always easy to decipher what he had written; maybe he should have been a doctor,” she says with a laugh.

Other handy tools

A computer and printer can be useful in compiling a history. Internet access is invaluable for researching genealogy and other details, but if you don’t own a computer, don’t let that dissuade you.

Also useful: a scanner, to create digital images of photos and documents. You can buy one for under $100, or buy a printer with a built-in scanner. After my dad died 21 years ago, I inherited many family photos. When I tackled my family history, the first thing I did (after unearthing those place mats) was scan in the photos and documents.

It took weeks, but was worthwhile for two reasons: It protected them from further wear and tear, and now everyone in the family can have their own copies. Scanning precious photos and documents also can ensure they are preserved, even if the originals are lost.

Once photos and documents are scanned into digital images, you can use a computer program like Picasa and Photoshop to improve the quality of the images (no, I didn’t remove wrinkles nor make teeth whiter) and you can

Lou Allie, 1930, on Mississippi River

use the photos for other projects. I made a slideshow for my mother’s 80th birthday celebration, for example, and designed photo calendars for gifts.

‘Write like you talk’

So there you are with your interview notes, your photos, or even just your own memories. How do you start writing?

My advice: “Write like you talk.” You don’t have to assume a different voice just because you’re sitting at a keyboard. You’re telling a story, probably a story you’ve told (or heard) many times before. So relax and enjoy the telling.

Structure will help. Most people write their tales in chronological order. Williams, for example, found that approach helpful when he compiled his mother’s stories, many first told in random order.

“She would start most of them with ‘Mama was pregnant with …’ or ‘So-and-so was two…’ and since my mother had so many siblings, born every two years, it was easy to go back and add a date,” Williams says. “So that’s how we structured it – each chapter was its own year.”

Adding photos

Photos help. As you relate a story, try to include a photo of the person or event being described. A picture is worth a thousand words, as the adage goes, and photos keep your story moving and break up blocks of text.

Speaking of text: Don’t get bogged down by including every detail. Excess minutiae can weigh a story down. Some details, of course, can make it come alive: The name of the family dog, or that your childhood home was painted bright blue. Details like those can pull readers into the scene, but once you have them there they want to know, “What happened next?” Go ahead and tell them.

When interviewing a family member, you may wonder whether to paraphrase or write down the speaker’s comments verbatim. Either way is fine. Oral historians transcribe interviews word for word. I prefer to paraphrase in places and also include direct quotes, because it keeps the narrative arc more interesting. It allows me to focus on the most telling details and, by including quotes, readers can still hear the rhythm and voice of the speaker.

Is there danger of slipping into opinion when you paraphrase? Certainly, but I (like you) try to be a trustworthy narrator. Having your sources proofread their stories before printing allows them to catch any elements that don’t ring true.

Which secrets to air?

Every family has its secrets. Which do you include?

I recommend handling this on a case-by-case basis, using this question as a guiding light: Is it your secret to share? If it is your secret, and you wish to include it, please do. It’s your story, and no one knows it better than you. Is it your father’s secret or your grandmother’s secret, one that greatly influenced the trajectory of your own life? That gets a little trickier, especially if some of the people involved are still alive.

Whatever you choose to do, the process of deciding can be cathartic in itself, as you talk to siblings or others who might have different memories or opinions. “An unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said, and writing your own story or a full family history certainly gives you the opportunity for examination.

Remember, as you start, you’re not writing in indelible ink. I am a big fan of first drafts (and second drafts, and third drafts). Go ahead and include anything that comes to mind, knowing you can always go back and add, subtract and alter. My first draft of my family history was more than 300 pages. In the end, it was 160, and a much better read.

First person or third?

Should you write in first person or third person? Again, do what feels right. Kelly Williams wrote his mother’s book in first person, compiling it all in her voice. He added a few details of his own – updates on where folks are living now, etc. ­– but he kept it all in first-person from his mother’s perspective. Cole also wrote his book in first person.

I took an unconventional approach. I wrote most of my family history in third person, tracing my grandparents’ journeys from England, Canada, Denmark and Nebraska to Oakland, where my parents met, and then telling of my parents’ lives which, of course, included me.

In other words, I occasionally wrote about myself in the third person. But when I reached the part in the story where my father died and I had to say good-bye, my memories of that awful moment are so visceral that I switched to first person. It felt right.

Editing is your friend

Editing is important. Have someone proofread your story for typos and accuracy.

The Internet can also help as you edit, because it allows you to confirm various details such as where people worked. When telling me about her jobs during the 1940s, my mom used company names that weren’t familiar to me, but rather than get stuck on it during our interview, I later researched it online and found the right names, which she then verified for me.

Online research also helps add context to your narrative, providing historical details your sources don’t always have at their fingertips.

Putting it all together

You now have taken the raw material – stories, photos, a family tree, perhaps, and other documents – and shaped them into a draft history. What next?

You can keep it easy and inexpensive by designing it yourself with a simple word-processing program, then putting it all in a loose-leaf binder. One advantage of this non-bound approach is that you and others can continue to add pages with ease.

Another easy, albeit more expensive, approach is to hire a company to produce your book. Many firms regionally and nationally can design, edit and print it. Cost depends on many factors, including length, type of paper and binding, number of copies, whether you go with laser or offset printing, color photos, etc. Be prepared to spend a few thousand dollars.

I produced our family history using a third option: An online printing company such as or Some are better suited for photos than text, but I found met my needs. It has a variety of templates that allow you to blend photos with text into nice-looking bound volumes. I paid about $1,000 for a dozen 160-page premium books.

It’s nice to leave empty pages in back where people can write new stories, or make additions, subtractions and alterations. Also, I glued a large envelope in the back of each book where people can add photos and other fodder for the next historian.

Long-term rewards

Writing your memoir or compiling your family history isn’t easy. It will take time, effort and a little money. But the truth is, it’s not nearly as hard or expensive as you might have thought. And the investment will pay dividends long after you’re gone.

Cole is happy he took the time to write his life story, which spans his 1930s Tennessee childhood, family joys and crises, love, career, civic involvement and Twain Harte retirement.

Journalist Diane Nelson (at right) with her mom Dee, and their book of family history.

“I did it for my kids,” Cole says. “I think it’s good to share your stories, to let them know you had your hard times as well as your successes. Maybe it can provide inspiration – or guidance, even – somewhere down the line.”

Ask these questions and more

Whether your family history will be in book form or preserved in audio or video recordings, prepare a few questions in advance. Sample questions can be useful even as you sit down to write your own story ­– to interview yourself, if you will. They can help you collect your thoughts.

If the person you’re interviewing has hearing loss or other disability, or lives far away, send questions in advance. You can even conduct interviews by letter or email. Be sure to leave plenty of time and room for stories to unfold. When interviewing, let curiosity be your guide.

Some sample questions:

  • What is your full name? Why were you named that? Do you have a nickname? If so, when did you get it and how?
  • When and where were you born? Why was your family living there? What did your parents do for a living? Did your siblings or other relatives live in the area?
  • What do you remember most about your childhood? Did you have a pet? What type of games did you play? What was your favorite food? Did you have special family traditions?
  • Where did you go to school? Was there a subject you especially liked or disliked?
  • Why did you choose your profession? If you could have chosen another one, what would it have been?
  • How did you meet your spouse? When and where did you get married? What are standout memories from your wedding day? What is the key to a successful marriage?
  • When were your children born? What are their full names? What do they do? Where do they live?
  • What accomplishments are you most proud of? What do you most want people to remember about you? At this time in your life, what do you value most?

During the actual interview, save energy for tangents. Sometimes, the most poignant stories need time to develop.

© 2011 Friends and Neighbors Magazine






By Diane Nelson December 15, 2011 01:33