What Personal History Means to Me

by Memoir Mentor on September 5, 2012

My fall term began this week, and I couldn’t be more delighted. It’s such a pleasure to greet old friends again, some who have attended my classes for nearly 10 years now! Amazing isn’t it?But, they love the work of personal history as much as I do, and they so enjoy being around like-minded friends who have shared their lives with them through their compelling, humorous, or sometimes heart-rending stories.I explain more about all this in a guest blog post I wrote for the Association of Personal Historians, the premier international organization for people who help people record their life stories. Check out their blog here and take a moment to look over their inspiring website. APH is gearing up for its annual conference, which will be held in St. Louis in early October. I will have the pleasure–and honor–to present a six-hour pre-conference seminar titled, Boot Camp for Personal History Writers: Kick Your Writing to the Next Level.

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I’ve been on a roll this summer–a writing roll. I’ve spent many days in the library (my most productive writing place), working like a demon to finish the first draft of the five-generation family history I’ve been writing for years. Yes, years.

It has been grueling–this summer, and the years that preceded it. I’ve ignored the advice I continually preach to my students: Don’t pick a project so large you become overwhelmed by its magnitude. In other words, don’t bite off more than you can chew.  I did just that and I’ve been chewing and chewing and chewing. Recreating the lives of five generations of ancestors who lived over a 200-year period is a foolhardy endeavor if you’re also trying to recreate the times and places in which they lived. The research alone nearly crippled me, generating three large storage boxes of material and nearly the equivalent volume in computer files.

The grueling part has been trying to pull it all together–combining the relevant history (national, local, religious, military, social, etc., etc.) with the genealogy data I collected. Because my ancestors tend to fly under the radar and never took a pencil to paper, I’ve had very basic genealogy records to reconstruct their lives.

As I said, it hasn’t been pretty. I feel comfortable enough now to confess that there were many times I’ve smelled the gut-wrenching whiff of failure. I saw myself walking away from all of it because there was no way I was going to finish.

But, in the end, I couldn’t. What would happen to all my research? I had stood in front of large audiences telling others how to write their family histories, inserting examples along the way about my own project. People left my lectures telling me that I’d convinced them they would write a family history. How could I ever face these people if I threw in the towel? Well, I couldn’t.

But, I feel confident enough now to come clean about my struggles and self-doubt because for the first time…I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. My hunkering down in the library this summer has paid dividends. I have nearly a 200-page draft of the whole enchilada.

Sure, I’ve got some tweaking to do–major stuff in some areas–but this seems like a cakewalk after all the excruciating thinking and re-writing and self-flagellation that went into the first draft. [click to continue…]


Remain Open to “Happy Surprises”

by Memoir Mentor on July 31, 2012

Sometimes you make a mistake that throws you off your original, well-conceived plan and leads you to something so unexpected and lovely, it becomes what my friend called “a happy surprise.” We were in Basel, Switzerland, our last day in that beautiful city before we were to board our ship to sail down the Rhine River to Amsterdam. It had been one of those perfect days, the weather absolutely splendid, and we had filled the time with as many activities as possible, including a long, heart-pounding hike up a narrow winding staircase to the top of the Münster, Basel’s landmark cathedral. Our guidebook had told us we’d find the best view of the city there…and we did. What’s more, the little staircase adventure afforded us a back-patting opportunity. The old folks still have it!

Now it was nearing late afternoon, and we still wanted to squeeze every ounce out of our time in Basel. One of our friends suggested we take the tram to the Kuntzmuseum, where there was a traveling Renoir exhibition. Our guidebook instructed us to take the #2 tram to the museum, so we set out, not entirely sure where to get off, but calm in the belief that we had plenty of time to get there by five, when the museum offers free admission for the last hour before closing.

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