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Is it still a great time to become a personal historian?

by Pat McNees (updated 10-29-2020)


"Most men would rather have you hear their story than grant their wish." ~Old saying


Since 1990 I've been helping people and organizations tell their life stories. If you're nosy (curious), love to do interviews, like shaping them into a compelling narrative, and either know how to produce and independently publish a book or are willing to learn and/or subcontract some stages of the process, this kind of gig is a great variation on being a conventional writer, editor, or publisher. People enter this new field from many different previous careers (some unexpected -- for example, funeral celebrant). Some personal historians have been (and still are) book designers, some oral historians, some therapists, some editors from book publishing (who now get credit for all the work they do), some are journalists (who have seen the writing on that particular wall), some are video documentarians. The list of previous careers is a long one.

The point is, personal historians take advantage of the trend toward private publishing and public sharing.

Personal histories come in print, audio, and video formats, among others. Video biographies are great fun, especially to show at family gatherings, and sometimes a family just wants you to capture an elder's stories in his or her own voice -- so all you need to produce is edited audio interviews with transcripts.

Some of us are also memoir coaches. My favorite activity is teaching life story writing (at the Writer's Center in Bethesda and in Montgomery County libraries). In a course I call "My Life, One Story at a Time," I share tips and writing prompts with some really interesting adults, who write a story from their life each week and come in and read it aloud. It's fascinating and they get the writing done, because they have a deadline, an interested audience, and a little targeted encouragement from me. (Reading your story aloud is a wonderful way to "find your voice." Reading aloud with others is a great way to get your creative juices flowing and to hear what works and what doesn't. Your storytelling improves almost by osmosis.)

If you want to make a living helping others tell their life (or family) stories, start by picking up a copy of a useful book called Start & Run a Personal History Business: Get Paid to Research Family Ancestry and Write Memoirs by Jennifer Campbell. Jennifer was active in the Association of Personal Historians (of which, let me say up front, I am a former president). Alas, the group disbanded formally in May 2017, owing to severe financial difficulties. (One problem is that new people kept joining the organization but after a while the experienced members dropped out. Many people love the idea of doing personal histories but don't know how to find clients.)

APH produced a few special toolkits for personal historians (on getting your business up and running; doing the interview; developing products and services that suit your skills and the market you want to reach; and marketing (ideas that have worked for various members of APH). In this business, talking shop covers a LOT of ground. You learn not only about memoirs but about specialized products, such as ethical wills (or legacy letters).

When APH was holding its annual conferences, there was much cross-pollinating, so to speak. If you were a designer, you could still learn how to do an interview from an oral historian. If you were a journalist, you could learn from a book packager how to go about finding the right designer and printer. The workshops were helpful, but even more so, in the corridors between workshops you could look at each other's products and get ideas that would work in the niche you settled on (mine was and is books -- including several histories of organizations -- and I co-produced one video). This is more of a sharing culture than most: personal historians love what they do and want others to love it too.

I was co-editor, with Paula Stallings Yost, of My Words Are Gonna Linger: The Art of Personal History, with a foreword by Rick Bragg. I am biased, but this is a great gift for someone whose life stories should be captured, preserved, and shared but who keeps saying, "Who cares what happened in my life?" I hope that it will remain in print, available from Amazon, but chances are it will disappear because of bankruptcy, so order fast. It contains backstories about the process of getting the stories into print, which are helpful if you want to help others tell their life stories.
"At last, a collection that shows the 'why, what, and how' behind memoir as legacy." ~ Susan Wittig Albert, author of Writing from Life and founder of Story Circle Network.

For more information and helpful links in this field, check out
---21 frequently asked questions about personal histories and personal historians
---A short history of the Association of Personal Historians
---The Business of Personal History (a blog post on my Writers site).
---Memoirs, personal histories, and life stry writing
---More About Personal and Family Histories and Legacy Memoirs (stories, explanations, and examples--print and multimedia)
---Why I love teaching Guided Autobiography (guest post by Lisa Smith-Youngs) I love it too, though my version is called "My Life, One Story at a Time"
---Writing an ethical will or legacy letter (on my comfortdying.com site)
---The art and craft of interviewing
---Video biographies, tributes, and documentaries
---Doing oral histories and video interviews
---Telling Your Story, a semi-encyclopedic page of resources on my Pat McNees (personal) site.
---Books to help you get started writing your own or someone else's life story

 

 

Sadly, you can no longer join APH (the national organization). Maybe another organization will rise to take its place. Meanwhile, local chapters are forming and if you are lucky and one forms near where you live, you can still share information about new technologies, new techniques, new markets, and new approaches to that old idea that used to be the province mostly of the rich and famous: leaving a legacy (memoir as book, video, or audiotapes) for the next generation. So far you can find local personal historian groups here:
---Life Story Professionals of the Greater Washington Area (DC, Maryland, and Virginia).
---Personal Historians (a Facebook group)
---Personal Historians Northeast Network (in the Boston area)
---Personal Historians NW (in the Pacific Northwest)
---Life Stories Australia (personal historians, biographers, editors, etc.)
---NYC Personal Historians (a Meetup group).
-- Pat McNees

Originally published 3-22-2011 as "It's a great time to become a personal historian." Updated when APH filed for bankruptcy (after 20 fruitful years) and the Association of Personal Historians closed its virtual doors. It never did have a physical home. Plenty of personal historians are still doing business -- indeed, some have been busier than ever during the pandemic, although sometimes working via Zoom or Skype, etc.

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