While wallpapering my daughter’s bedroom years ago, I unscrewed the wall plate protecting the light switch and noticed a small square of folded paper wedged amid the electrical wires. I unfolded the paper and discovered it was a note written by the son of the former owners of our home. I remembered the Lewis boy. He had walked with a slight limp and had other limitations that set him apart. His note explained that he was 12 years old and that this bedroom had once been his room.
The incident gave me pause and, as you see, I’ve never forgotten it. I could feel the anguish that prompted that note. That room had probably been his private space for as long he could remember, a place where he’d spent hours playing and sleeping. Now other children would inhabit it, seemingly erasing all that it had meant to him. In writing that note he was expressing an emotion we all feel when we carve our initials in a tree trunk, press our handprints in wet cement…or write a personal history: I was here. I lived. My life matters.
We all have a deep human need to be remembered. I feel it in my bones, and it’s one of the reasons I’m a personal historian. We who help others memorialize their lives know that we are helping people on the most elemental level, bringing them the peace of mind that comes from feeling they’ve been heard and understood, that their lives have meant something, that future generations will know they lived.
When I tell people I’m a personal historian, I generally follow with, “I love what I do.” I do. I teach students how to write their life stories, and it’s hard to describe the satisfaction I feel when I help them discover that their lives have been interesting and meaningful and will not be forgotten.
Besides helping students commit their stories to paper, I also teach them writing skills to make their narratives more compelling, so their stories are as interesting as the lives they’ve led. I love watching my students, armed with new writing tools, transform what was once an ordinary story into something memorable.
My husband and I collaborated on a book that explores these techniques, Breathe Life into Your Life Story , published in 2007 by Signature Books. I’m delighted to be able to teach these concepts at a pre-conference seminar at this year’s APH conference in St. Louis, titled “Boot Camp for Personal History Writers: Kick Your Writing to the Next Level.”
It’s not often I have the opportunity to work with a group of people for six hours! What a luxury. We’ll have the time to explore a variety of writing skills that can help you improve the quality of the stories you prepare for your clients, and maybe your own stories as well. Sometimes the narratives that come from the mouths of our interview subjects can be deadly dull. I will show you how to draw more out of your clients and will explore in depth with you how techniques such as dialogue, detail, tension, and pacing can bring your stories to life.
This is the kind of seminar I love, because I know I’ll send you away brimming with ideas that will help you become better writers and the confidence to put your ideas into practice. You can get a head start on my seminar by visiting my website and blog, where you’ll find snippets of the kind of thing you’ll learn in more detail in St. Louis.
Everyone wants to be remembered, and every life matters. We all need to tell our stories, so why not learn to tell them well?
About today’s contributor: Dawn Thurston, whose company is Memoir Mentor, has taught life story writing at universities in California and Utah for the last sixteen years and is a frequent speaker at national conferences, including previous APH conferences. She belongs to the Genealogy Speakers Guild, the International Association of Family History Writers & Editors, and serves on the APH Board. Dawn has a BA in English and an MA in communications from UCLA.
Photos provided by Dawn Thurston.