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The "Your Life is Your Story" Blog

© Tom  Gilbert

Read about quality family history and life story news, views, methods, products, links, services

                     ...and whatever else catches our fancy

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Keeping Memories of Passed Ones Alive

April 28, 2016

So much death of prominent people this year has me reflecting more on how we preseerv our stories and our legacies. For one thing, we all need to consider passing on our values and life lessons regardless of our celebrity status. Every life is important and everyone has a story.

Beyond that, there is the opportunity and responsibility of the surviving family members and friends to keep the memory alive for those who have died. Allison Gilbert (no relation) has published a book that gives tips for this. Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive is what she calls "a roadmap for discovering fun, creative, and inspiring ways to remember the family and friends we never want to forget."

One idea was to create some games that memorialize the passed loved one, such as personalizing a deck of cards with photographs of various family members. Or be more creative and create a board game about the person who died and include highlights of their life. This kind of project is often done as a variation of a book report in school and I can see how it would work for a personal history project.

You can also take old clothing and make table runners, throwrugs or pillows. My mother-in-law made pillows out of shirts of her recently deceased husband and I know my wife treasures that keepsake of her dad.

You might also want to create a shadowbox to frame significant items. Or put up an online memorial. After reading the APH Blog post by Allison Gilbert I got an idea of creating a "thought for the day" book that could include sayings, events, or other reminiscences, one for each day of the year. I personally enjoy reading daily inspirational books and this could be a nice variation on that theme.

Personal History is Powerful

April 21 2016

Being able to know the stories of your family members, especially elders and ancestors, is powerful. It is personal to you and that almost always makes it more important to you. Yes, world events that impact us in meaningful ways happen. But the stories of how our relatives and close family members lived, where, when and what mattered to them, is priceless.

The Association of Personal Historians (APH) is an organization that furthers the efforts of collecting the life stories of people (The Life Story People). Many members from around the world can work to make your story come to life and be preserved as a legacy for your children and future generations.

A couple of powerful ways to show this are through video and audio. A short video piece that tells you more about the process and benefits of having your family/personal history preserved is available online here.
Association of Personal Historians episode 1 podcast
You can also listen to a podcast produced by the APH that has Steve Pender (Family Legacy Video, Inc.) discussing what personal history is with some prominent members of APH: Linda Coffin (APH Executive Director), Sarah White (outgoing APH President) and Bill Horne (incoming APH President). They have a wealth of experience and knowledge to share and I think you'd enjoy hearing it. The podcast link is here.

Remembering Jackie Robinson Through Rachel Robinson

April 15, 2016

Today is Jackie Robinson Day. Every year Major League Baseball honors this great player who was much, much more. His number, 42, is the only number retired across all teams and on this day all players wear the number. Jackie Robinson is remembered as the player who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. It was long overdue, but the struggles for civil rights have always been overdue and ongoing.

Celebrated documentarian Ken Burns features Jackie Robinson's spouse, Rachel, in a documentary that debuted on PBS this month (Jackie Robinson - A Film by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns & David McMahon). She is still alive and at 93 "looks 70 and has all of her marbles and some of mine!", according to Burns. The point made in the documentary is that Jackie Robinson is one of the handful of key players in the United States history and that Rachel was very much a part of the story. Both endured a lot of prejudice and persecution and their courage and stamina cannot be underestimated. 

Resonating with a Life Story

April 11, 2016

What causes a person to resonate with someone's life story? That's an important question for anyone writing a memoir who desires wide readership. In order for people to care about your story there needs to be a compelling story. Yes, it also needs to be well written, but if you don't have a story that people care about it won't matter how beautiful or dynamic your prose is.

So, what causes a reader to care about your story? Take a look at what really matters to you in the story (and stories) you are writing. What makes the subject matter so important to you?

People relate to stories that have a big theme, perhaps a universal one, such as finding lasting love, overcoming a major health challenge and making a difference in the lives of others.

One of the popular trends these days is the issue driven memoir. An example can be a story dealing with addiction, such as struggling in the throes of alcoholism. If the writer faces the truth of their struggle and then has a story of how they dealt with the hardship it can very easily resonate with others. It can be tricky, because your story needs to have honesty without boasting. Show how you came through to the "other side". That is a triumph, but often one that leaves scars. I love the idea of the sacred wound. That is, the toughest challenges we deal with can cut deep, but they can also lead us to some kind of redemption.

I've often contemplated the idea expressed in this post. It was brought to the forefront today after listening in to a webinar hosted by Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Meyers of NAMW (National Association of Memoir Writers) about "addiction memoirs". They presented the free webinar to help people understand the power of these type of memoirs and to create interest for a class they are teaching. The class will include an exploration of two bestselling memoirs: Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story, and Koren Zailckas's Smashed. You can get more information at

Merle Haggard was a Real Country Outlaw
Merle Haggard, country songwriter and music legend
Aprl 7, 2016

Country singers often sing of hard times, hard living and heartbreak. But usually they are using their imagination. Perhaps they've had some lost loves and maybe an occasional run-in with the law, but few actually have a life as colorful as their songs.

Not so with Merle Haggard. When he sang, "I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole" it wasn't that far off the truth. As a young man he was convicted for petty crimes and did prison time, so "Mama Tried" certainly had an autobiographical tone. Reportedly after seeing Johnny Cash perform a prison show at San Quentin where Haggard was serving a five year sentence for burglary, he decided that writing and performing country music would be his path. He had already taken up guitar and singing, influenced by country singer Lefty Frizzel. Haggard, ended up  doing it better than just about anyone. Along with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, you can consider Merle Haggard a real country outlaw.

Merle Haggard passed away yesterday, April 6, at the age of 79. It was his birthday - what a day to die on! To me that always is a sign of something special, at least after a long life.

Haggard transcended country music and became something of a music icon in America. Sure, he had "Okie from Muskogee" that made fun of hippies and smoking marijuana. I was attending the University of Oklahoma about the time that song was popular and bristled at the lyrics. But years later I came to appreciate and admire Merle Haggard's songwriting and lengthy repetoire. He was valued and admired by rock bands (The Grateful Dead), modern country artists (Toby Keith and Brad Paisley among them) and even toured with  Bob Dylan.

It is only April, but already this year a significant number of artists have died. You can certainly include Merle Haggard among them. There are many well-written obituaries and tributes online, but I found the one by Terence McArdle for the Washington Post to be really good - Merle Haggard, revered country singer of common man anthems, dies at 79.

CBS Sunday Morning on Boomer Grandparents, Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper

April 5, 2016

I continue to be a fan of CBS Sunday Morning as they continually provide quality stories. Case in point (really, two cases) was this past Sunday when they aired a couple of good stories that resonate with personal history and legacy.

The first was about the growing trend of grandparents caring for their grandchildren. Boomer grandparents play mom and dad part-time shared stories from both the youngsters and their elder grandparents about spending time together. Many parents these days must work fulltime and child care is very expensive. On top of that, the quality of love and care that you get may be good, but it isn't the same as having the love and sharing of values from a grandparent. Plus, it is very meaningful for the grandparents. "Granny Nannies" can be really special, even though it takes a lot of energy to keep up with young ones. My wife watches our two young grandchildren during the week and can attest to that.

The other story was about Gloria Vanderbilt, daughter of Reginald Vanderbilt and the legendary wealthy family. She has had quite a life, but her son is also in the spotlight. Anderson Cooper is a well known television broadcaster (CNN and CBS 60 Minutes). Together they are sharing their stories about their lives with each other, even things that might normally be kept secret. The result is a book, The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love and Loss (Harper Collins), along with an HBO documentary, Nothing Left Unsaid. How interesting that Gloria, at the age of 91, decided to collaborate with her 48-year old son on this wonderful bit of family history. See that story online here.

Building Bridges to Connect Lives and Stories

March 29, 2016

Hildegard Center for the Arts - Art BridgesIn a world where people are too often building walls it is important to recognize that life stories can build bridges that connect us. A family history or life story can connect younger generations with their elders. It can connect people who share similar values. Our stories can bridge the gap between cultures and help people recognize that despite our differences we have many things in common.

Building bridges for the better good is better than building walls out of fear of the other.

One of the wonderful ways to build bridges so that people can connect is through the use of art. There are many artistic activities that allow for sharing lessons, values and stories. An organization based in America’s heartland of Lincoln, Nebraska is using the arts to help facilitate the creation and sharing of life stories and spiritual growth. The Hildegard Center For the Arts
have recently developed: Art Bridges – Lesson Plans for Enrichment, Growth and Healing.

| read more |

A Typical Response for Information to Help with Your Story

March 22, 2016

I get a lot of emails from people wondering about what kind of help they can get to write their story. They also want an idea of what it costs. These are good questions for those investigating how to get their story done. I answer these requests and I thought it might be a good idea to share a typical response. 

This is what I wrote to someone who is interested in knowing more about creating their life story. They are doing their own writing:

Thank you for your email and your interest in knowing more about creating a life story. I am a sole proprietor and do this part time as I am a full time school teacher at this point in my career. My specialty is to coach someone who is doing it themselves and/or co-write or ghost write. I don't get involved in the book layout or publishing, although I know others who do it and can help point people in the right direction. Basically, I like teaching how to write, editing or doing the writing.

Everyone has their own rates. I work on a $50/hour rate which is more than fair for this type of work. It is an investment of a lifetime (pun intended) to preserve your life story and leave a legacy - your words, values, experiences - for others, especially family members. Think about what you would pay to have a memoir from a beloved relative (parent, grandparent, great-grandparent, etc).

The amount of work that gets done in an hour depends on what it is. Heavy editing of difficult to understand and poorly written text is slow going versus someone who writes well, but needs some feedback and additional eyes.

When I interview someone each hour translates to about 15 hours of work - the questions, interview, transcription and then writing/shaping the narrative.

Others to investigate: The Memoir Network, The Association of Personal Historians.

I hope this information is helpful.


Tom Gilbert
Teacher/Writer/Personal Historian
"Everybody has a story to tell"

Hopefully this gives you an insight into the process. I recognize it is just the beginning. If you work with a personal historian you want to begin a dialogue, ask questions, see samples of work and feel comfortable with ability as well as a good working relationship. Keep in mind that goes both ways. Personal Historians want a good interaction with clients because life story work is intensive and can take a long time. I've got more information about life story resources here.


 Everybody has a story to tell!
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