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Writing About Hardship

July 28, 2014

I've been reflecting this past week about hardship, difficulties and troubles. The life challenges we face, big and small, can often make up the bulk of a memoir or life story. Everything from large issues like abuse, death of loved ones, wars, poverty and diseases to the smaller and more mundane issues like broken appliances, lost car keys or petty arguments can be fertile ground for exploring how we live and, more importantly, how we deal with life on life terms.

What has prompted such musing? It's a subject we all consider and deal with, the stuff of hard times. Writing about hardship can provide insight and perspective. We need this reflection. Such musing could yield something grand. For Charles Dickens it became the sweeping tapestry forming the backbone of the classic and aptly named novel, Hard Times. But it also can be the subject of a personal essay, journal entry or memoir. Jessica Handler, personal historian, recently posted about her own experience with family in Three Tips for Writing the Tough Stuff in a Memoir. She bravely wrote about the loss of two sisters in her first memoir and has written more on the subject. It's a good article for encouraging those of us who become timid about delving into life's difficulties for our own stories.

There is a lot of hardship and hard times going on in the world right now. Conflicts and tension in the Middle East, Central America and between Russia and the United States can make any of us who follow the news uneasy. But these things happen and whether our hardships are part of a global story or of a more personal nature I know that exploring our feelings and writing our truth about hard times makes us stronger, wiser and provides a better story to share with others.

Nostalgia Can Make You Feel Older and Younger

July 21, 2014

Nostalgia is defined as a sentimental longing for something in the past that we associate with happy memories. It can be triggered in various ways, by seeing an old friend, remembering a special date, historic event, seeing an old advertisement, hearing a favorite old song or watching an old TV show or movie.

It was easy for me to feel nostalgic yesterday. July 20 is a an important date in world history and also in my personal history. Forty-five years ago men walked on the moon for the first time. Even though I was just a teenager in 1969 I remember our family gathered around the black and white television set watching at Neil Armstrong made his memorable first step onto the moon.

Sixteen years later, in 1985, I married my wife, Annette. We've stayed together and I can say I am still "over the moon" about her 29 years later. Reminiscing about these two events reminds me of my youth. So even though I am a number of years older, I feel younger as I recall the summers of 1969 and 1985. Isn't it interesting how nostalgia can make you feel both older and younger?

For those of you who grew up in the 1950's you might enjoy this interesting short video from A Diamond Films titled Lost in the Fifties - Another Time, Another Place. I spotted many things I remember, from Elvis Presley to the fear of communism, food products, television shows and fads and fashion. You can watch this video here. Maybe it will make you feel both older and younger.

Memoir Editing is Not Quick and Easy

July 17, 2014

I do a fair amount of editing of other people's writing. It is not quick and easy. Nevertheless, I always appreciate it when people hire me to edit their writing. This is because we all need to have help with our writing. Nobody does it perfect. All good writers (you know, the ones you read and quote) have their writing edited.

While it is true that you, the writer, can come up with clever wording and heartfelt insight in your writing, there is often a need to restructure, or reconsider what you've written. Another pair of eyes is invaluable. An editor will help catch grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes. But they will also be helpful in how your writing flows and whether it is vivid enough or descriptive.

Today I was reading a post on the Memoir Network written by Denis Ledoux, How Memoir Editing Works. I've worked with Denis before and he is good at what he does. He is a gifted writer, speaker, coach and editor. I thought his insight on how he approaches memoir editing had good points. He also runs into the challenge of editing properly, realizing it takes time and several reviews. His approach is a three part process. You can read his article here, along with others as part of the free basic membership at the Memoir Network. And you might consider signing up for his some of his services, including the premier membership option, the Memoir Authority.

Animating Past Interviews of Cultural Icons - Blank on Blank and Storytelling

July 14, 2014

Over the years there have been many interviews of famous people by journalists. Some of these we've heard, but many are tucked away and could be easily lost if not preserved and presented by someone. Someone, for instance, like Blank on Blank, a multimedia nonprofit with the simple mission of taking unheard oral history interviews and bringing them to life on radio, YouTube and other platforms. This is an interesting way to present storytelling.

These raw journalist interviews are edited and produced with music and animation. The list of interview subjects is varied and fascinating: JFK, Carol Burnett, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Bono and Merryl Streep are a sampling. They are not long (averaging about 5 minutes), but quite revealing. A very worthy project supported by PBS Digital Studios and PRX, among others.

I first learned about this project from a FaceBook sharing of a link to one of these interviews, this one of Princess Grace Kelly. In it she recalled her first meeting with the future president. She visited John F. Kennedy in his hospital room in the mid-1950's following his back surgery. JFK's wife, Jackie, came up with the idea and Ms. Kelly introduced herself as the new night nurse. JFK knew, of course, who she really was, a famous movie star. The interview goes on to describe what she thought of Kennedy as a dynamic and youthful president, something unusual in America. And she reflects on his death and legacy.

Meaningful Home Objects

July 10, 2014

I came across a cowbird ( story yesterday that fit right in with the idea of using common and/or treasured items as prompts for stories. Our lives are full of experiences and some objects help us recall them.

The recent popularity of "Show and Tell" events hosted by APH Personal Historians has demonstrated this and I love the idea of people getting together and talking about why a particular object or keepsake is meaningful to them.

The cowbird story, Spoons by June W., tells of discovering a spoon she saw in a  dream. It was an odd Twilite Zone-like occurrence, and since then spoons have become especially significant to her.

As I look around my home there are many things I see that are important and prompt special feelings and memories. Photographs, artwork, my vast CD collection, the vase gifted to me from my late aunt, and even the coffee maker in the kitchen. It gets lots of use and is one of my first destinations each morning.
meaningful home object - coffee maker
What are some of the meaningful objects in your home? Take some time to reflect on one or two and perhaps do some writing about it. Then share your reflection with someone. The objects that matter in your home can spark opportunities for worthwhile conversations with the people in your life that matter most to you.

Personal History Is Often a Later in Life Career

July 7, 2014

Not long ago I was interviewed by writer Lynne Strang about the field of personal history. Lynne is the author of Late-Blooming Entrepreneurs and she has a keen interest in work done by people 40 and older. Since I began working as a personal historian at the age of 47 I was a good candidate for an article she was writing.

That article, Telling Life's Stories: Four Late-Blooming Personal Historians, is now finished and online as a guest post for Debra Eve's Later Bloomer (Creativity Never Gets Old) site. In her well written piece she explores the interest, drive and satisfaction of four personal historians (myself included) who entered the field later in life. Each of us had careers prior to life story work in such varied areas as advertising, radio broadcasting, non-profit organization management and hospice/geriatric patient care.

Lynne Strang did an excellent job showing how important working in personal history can be and gives insight into the needed skills, aptitude and how to get started, including (of course), the importance of networking with other personal historians. It's no coincidence that each of the four PH'ers profiled (Sarah White, Bruce Summers, Lin Joyce and Tom Gilbert) are members of the Association of Personal Historians (APH). That organization continues to be a rich source of encouragement and information about the genre of Personal History.

Diamond Anniversary of Lou Gehrig's Farewell Speech

July 4, 2014

This July 4th marks the 75th anniversary of the inspirational and heartfelt farewell speech given by Lou Gehrig, a giant of baseball who was forced into early retirement when he was afflicted by the disease that would come to be known by his name.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) took Gehrig's strength and muscle control and eventually took his life all too early, just days shy of his 39th birthday. It was ironic for a player who was known for his endurance. He once played in 2,130 consecutive games earning him the nickname, The Iron Horse. He was also a tremendous slugger. In his career for the New York Yankees the first baseman batted .340, hit nearly 500 home runs and knocked in nearly 2,000 runs. Those totals undoubtable would have been greater if he'd been able to play longer, but he was still an easy choice for Cooperstown and was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame in 1939.  Gehrig was part of the dynasty in the 1920's and 30's that won six World Series titles. He and Babe Ruth might have formed the most fearsome batting duo in the history of baseball.

His farewell speech in front of adoring fans on this day in 1939 still resonates with humility and gratitude. In it he mentioned he "had a lot to live for" and was "the luckiest man on the face of the earth". It was a short speech, just 275 words. But often the shortest speeches have the greatest quality. Marty Noble has posted a wonderful about Gehrig and the speech on this diamond anniversary and you can read it and view Gehrig's iconic speech at this link on

Obituaries as a Form of Personal History Writing

June 29, 2014

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned how receiving news of the deaths of certain well known people can impact us. In June alone radio legend Kasey Casem, Padres baseball great Tony Gwynn, Steelers football coach Chuck Noll, and just a few days ago the terrific actor Eli Wallach. And it was at the end of May that the wonderful Maya Angelou passed on.

This cluster of celebrity deaths reminds me once again of how important it is to preserve our life stories. One way to do that is a well written obituary. Good ones are an artform and the obituary is truly a form of personal history writing.

Pat McNees, a personal historian and author of Dying: A Book of Comfort has an incredible amount of helpful information and links about the art and craft of obituaries on her web site. She notes how the obit is a fine form of tribute.

An interesting writing assignment for all of us is to write our own obituary. The Association of Personal Historians (APH) members Sue Hessel and Sarah White have even conducted classes in doing just that.

Eulogies and video or slide show tributes are another way of paying our respects to the deceased while also passing along elements of that person's life story.

Wedded Free Spirits

June 24, 2014

Over the weekend I traveled to Kansas City for the wedding of my nephew. Shea is my sister's firstborn. I am honored to also be his godfather. He's quite a creative and artistic man. He makes a living as a tattoo artist, and he has an amazing number of tats himself. So, too, do the many friends of both Shea and his new bride, Shannon.

Shea and Shannon on their wedding day
The wedding was outdoors in Tonganoxie, Kansas. Shannon's folks live there, out in the country, a very green and rural area. The cornfields were already over waist high. The trees are in full foliage. The outdoor setting for the wedding was in a big field, by a pond, hot and humid, but gratefully, under a large tent. Despite the heat and humidity it was something special. Shea and Shannon are free spirits. I admire their desire to do their own thing. The groom and groomsmen rode in on their Harleys. The bride was driven down to the site in a beautifully restored old car, vintage 40's, by her grandfather.

The father of the bride hit it off with the groom a few years back. Both Mark and Shea like to restore old cars and have done some of that together. It's apparently a family tradition on Shannon's side. Her grandparents enjoy riding in classic Model A's. They were even part of a Model A caravan in the 1980's, driving all the way to the Arctic Circle!

Shea and his friends also enjoy music, everything from bluegrass and traditional folk to hard-edged rock and metal. They love to jam and share good times.

I like that they are living life with gusto. We've all got stories about our lives. My fervent hope in the work of personal history is that we both examine and reflect on our lives and we continue to live it fully. If you haven't crossed off items on your "bucket list", well, get to it!

Congratulations to my nephew and his new bride. Be free, live free, love life and stay true to yourselves.

 Everybody has a story to tell!
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