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Writers and Editors (RSS feed)

The Business of Personal History

by Pat McNees


Memoirs are no longer the province of the rich and celebrated. Noncelebrities are getting into the act, they often need help, and writing or editing their personal histories can be a deeply satisfying new source of potential income for journalists.


      I stumbled across life story writing in 1990, when Kitty Kelley recommended that Jim Dicke II, president of a lift truck firm in Ohio (Crown Equipment), use ASJA's Dial-a-Writer service to find someone to help tell his 90-year-old grandfather's story. At the time I supported my journalism habit by editing reports and writing summaries for the World Bank. Soon after a friend from Texas said I had "too much steak and not enough sizzle," Dorothy Beach, who ran DAW, sent several of us to Ohio for an interview. I landed the gig, interviewed Warren Webster, wrote his life story, and upped my sizzle factor.


      Projects like these are often part therapy, so I took a few years to write An American Biography: An Industrialist Remembers the Twentieth Century, the life and times of Warren Webster, an unknown industrialist. With a guaranteed sale of 5,000 copies, a DC publisher issued the biography in 2004, printing 10,000 copies altogether. Many copies were given away, but the book was also picked up by a couple of book clubs. Social and business history wrapped around a Horatio Alger story (and with a foreword by Rob Kanigel), the book paid me well enough to take out a mortgage on a three-bedroom condo, which I paid off with what I made writing personal and corporate histories:


     More important, and I can't overstate this, I had a sample. This got me many more projects, including the memoirs of a pediatrician (a friend's father) and a nuclear engineer (a friend's husband), and several histories of organizations (similar genre, but more complex). 


      Once I started doing personal and organizational histories, my income soared and became steadier.


A wide-open field


There are many ways to do personal histories. There's the plain old oral history, edited for narrative flow, often with photos. This involves interviews, transcribing (which I farm out), editing, and packaging (sometimes simple, and sometimes fancy -- for example, a fancy cloth binding with a photo insert on the cover to make it special, or with the family tree in endcovers). It's the least time-consuming of the print products.


     Then there's the as-told-to-memoir, in Uncle Vern's own voice, ghostwritten by you, based on interviews, journals, letters, the memoirist's own drafts—whatever it takes. There's the biography or history, written in third person, by the hired writer about the person, couple, family, or organization. I tend to interview everyone in the family or, for an organizational history, a range of participants, from the janitor to the CEO.


     Technologies have changed, making it easier to "self-publish" a printed book or mount a story on a website. On one end of the personal history spectrum are scrapbooking and quilting; on the other, many organizations and communities are commissioning personal and group oral histories (both recorded and in edited transcripts) or professionally written histories (my specialty), often with a shorter history via video.


     I love the video tribute or history—a Ken-Burns-like narration illustrated with photos and sounds, including recordings of people telling stories, sometimes captured in video, often as a montage of stills with narration and reminiscence in one or more voices.  Music is tricky because of copyright issues, but there are sources for commissioned, inexpensive, or royalty-free music. And music makes a difference.


Finding the market


Creating a personal history may be easier than finding clients willing to spend the amount you want to be paid. Many beginners spin their wheels marketing to senior citizens and old people's homes. I suspect residents of most senior homes are pinching pennies and don't think their stories are worth telling—not in a form that costs money. Market instead to their children, grandchildren, spouses, or well-to-do fans who have heard the stories so many times that they don't necessarily want to sit through them again, but want them preserved—or want the subject engaged in a project. (The "client" is often not the narrator, or storyteller, in other words.)


      Even a modest personal or family story can seem a huge, undoable task to most people, yet fairly easy to a writer-editor. What pleases my clients is that I come in from outside, establish rapport, and get a different (fuller, often franker) story than the family might get, though I get the story they know, too. What I do—what you can probably do, too—is help people find the patterns in their lives, the obstacles overcome, the lessons learned. This plus storytelling can make writing a personal history a transformative experience, helping people see that their life meant something.


How to get started


For a sample, do the life story of someone in your family, and package it handsomely enough that simply seeing it shows potential clients the possibilities for their own family or company. Start with something as simple as a photo tribute (with well-written captions) to a person, a place, an animal, a period in your life, or a period in someone else's or an organization's history.


      My brother and I, for example, began doing a photohistory of our family's migration from Kansas to hot Western deserts in Arizona and California during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Aunts, uncles, and cousins have turned out their photo collections and this is one story even my non-reading cousins are going to love.


     And that's the point. To the people for whom these personal histories are created, the story is fascinating, because it memorializes their roots. And for a major occasion—a 70th birthday, a 50th anniversary, retirement, or any hint that a person you love or admire is not going to live forever—some people will part with a fair sum if they think you can collect and organize all the information, stories, and photos they don't have time to deal with and create a product important as family legacy. If nothing else, this is a good way to share and thereby preserve those important family photos that might otherwise be lost to house fire or other disasters.


     Showing the right package to a receptive person—just showing what a personal history might look like—can land a client, sometimes instantly, sometimes months or years later.


      For the more lucrative and difficult task of landing an organizational history, again—a sample is your best calling card. I watched a businesswoman decide to commission a project based totally on looking through a photo history a personal historian casually handed her.


How do I become a personal historian?


In a sense a "personal historian" is anyone who helps others record the stories of their lives, families, or organizations. Few of the personal historians I've met were freelance writers making a living as writers. Those who belonged to the Association of Personal Historians (APH, of which I was president for two years, and which dissolved after a productive 20 years, in 2017) typically had earlier careers as teachers, counselors, hospice workers, social workers, journalists, oral historians, historians, news broadcasters, gerontologists, businessmen or women, videographers, photographers, transcribers, archivists, nurses.


      Journalists and book authors have a leg up in terms of skills, knowledge of publishing, and natural nosiness, but one of my favorite firms (My Special Book) was launched during a building slump by two architects in Buenos Aires, Eduardo Zemborain and Vicky Randle, who see PH work as a design and management process. Check out their website (www.myspecialbook.com) and those of other personal history firms.


     APH (in the twenty years it existed) embraced print, audio- and videobiographers at varying levels of skill and experience. Many members were 50 and older. (It helped to have been around a while – or to have read widely enough to know what questions to ask when a woman says her family migrated from Lithuania in 1945.) I joined APH out of curiosity and to get my name listed on their website, but valued their annual conference, where I could see the kinds of work I don't do myself. I have helped with two video tributes for print clients—and it helps to know what's involved and who's good at putting them together. It's also interesting to learn what people charge: from a few hundred dollars (many projects are $10,000 and under) to $30,000, generally, and much more for longer stories or more complex projects, including organizational histories, which go to six figures. (That doesn't include production costs.)


       The most popular event at the APH conference (before it folded) and my favorite was the Media Share, where people showed their audio-visual products and gave a little of the backstory. One of my favorites was the Breakstones' video tribute to a dog, with narration clipped from interviews with the dog's elderly owner. Video captured the affection, joy, and nostalgia on the man's face and in his voice, which, combined with shots of the man and his dog over the years made for a three-hankie experience.  It was a priceless form of personal history. If your friends are as nuts about their animals as my friends are, I think you could make a living just doing animal tributes.


This piece was originally published in December 2008, in ASJA Confidential, the Members Only section of the American Society of Journalists & Authors monthly publication.   Copyright (c) 2008 by Pat McNees.


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).



P.S. Teaching Life Story Writing


I teach a class I call “My Life, One Story at a Time”at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD. It’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. My pitch is that participants are writing not for publication but for their friends and heirs; the students tell me “not writing for publication” both draws and liberates them. You’d think with that title I would get only senior citizens but I have had students in their 20s and 30s, as well as 60 and above, including several lively, loveable 80-year-olds. Every week I give students a thematically oriented writing prompt/page from James Birren's Guided Autobiograpny, and students write something that takes 5 minutes or so to read aloud. Listening to each other, they learn what good storytelling is and are inspired to keep writing. I provide little instruction except to praise a good story or vivid scene, make occasional minor suggestions, and help them find their voice, but in the process they do often become better writers. We don’t worry about grammar and spelling. “Get the story,” I say. “Go deep. Get it down. You can go back later and rewrite and edit.”

     “It’s really a therapy group,” I heard one student tell another. I don’t present it that way, but it’s clearly therapeutic, for all of us. And it has me writing, too.

      And during the pandemic the workshop made an easy transition to Zoom.


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